Nazanin Afshin-Jam arrives for a late lunch at an Ottawa café this week wearing a cheeky dress with a pattern of red-lipstick kisses, shiny red shoes, her long dark hair pulled artfully off her face, and her makeup picture-ready. She definitely looks the part, but don’t call her a beauty queen. It’s not inaccurate – she was, after all, the first runner-up in the Miss World Pageant in 2003 – it’s just, well, diminishing, especially when used in headlines to announce her recent marriage to Canada’s Defence Minister, Peter MacKay.
“It kills me every time I read that,” she says. “That was a long time ago. There are different aspects of my life I hope that they would point to.”
Here’s a sampling: She’s a trilingual, well-educated, second-generation Canadian success story, raised by parents who fled the revolution in Iran, and landed on their feet in Vancouver. She gave up a singing and modelling career to become an human-rights activist. And in an emergency, she could start a fire from scratch in the woods, or simply fly herself to safety. Don’t express too much admiration on this latter point: “If I was a 33-year-old man with a pilot’s licence, nobody would be surprised,” she says, a little peevishly. “Isn’t it funny that we are still not at the point where it would be just normal?”
There’s no doubt that Nazanin Afshin-Jam is a valuable asset to her politically beleaguered husband, who has been dogged for months for his decision to enlist a military helicopter while on vacation to reach a political event on time. In a nation with too few women in politics, one might imagine their roles reversed: Ms. Afshin-Jam was courted by both the Conservatives and the Liberals. She turned them down. At the time, she was busy trying to free another young Iranian named Nazanin, who had been sentenced to death for stabbing and killing a man who was trying to rape her.
“I wanted to remain apolitical,” Ms. Afshin-Jam says. Her successful campaign to overturn the death sentence is now the subject of The Tale of Two Nazanins, a book she wrote with Toronto journalist Susan McClelland, to be published next week, while completing an online master’s degree in diplomacy at Norwich University in Vermont. (On graduation day, her father asked, “Okay, so when’s the PhD?”)
Her husband is mentioned only on the last page, but the book could be considered the backstory of how they met. It shifts between Ms. Afshin-Jam’s privileged life in Canada and that of Nazanin Fatehi, the imprisoned 17-year-old, whose plight, thanks to her namesake, gained global attention and led to her release.
There is an underlying theme in the book that, but for her family’s escape from Iran, Ms. Afshin-Jam might have found herself in a similar place, certainly forced to obey the rules of a society that, she says, treats “a woman’s life as equal to half a man’s.” But their circumstances were quite different: Ms. Fatehi comes from a poor Kurdish family with a rigid, traditional patriarch, while Ms. Afshin-Jam’s family was educated and liberal-minded. Her grandfather, a judge and former general, who later found himself on the other side of rising conservative forces in the country, had encouraged his daughter, Jalel, to choose her own religion after she stumbled on a Bible in his library; she converted from Islam, so Ms. Afshin-Jam and her sister grew up Catholics.
In the book, Ms. Afshin-Jam recounts the day she first saw the scars on her father’s back, where he had been whipped before fleeing Iran. In 1979, while working as a hotel manager, he was beaten and taken into custody by the Revolutionary Guards, who accused him of playing prohibited music and allowing men and women to mingle at the hotel. Tortured in prison, he eventually secured a temporary release and escaped with his family to Spain just before Iran and Iraq declared war. A year later, the family settled in Vancouver and began to build a very different life.
Which may be why the beauty-queen label rankles so much; it belittles both her parents’ expectations and her own ambitions. As a teenager, she joined the air cadets, rising to the highest rank, and earning, at 16, her pilot’s licence. “You are seeing me right now – I am wearing lipstick and I’m very girly – but I have this other side to me. In the cadets, I was doing survival exercises with dirt on my face, living out in the bush for days on my own.”
As for the singing career she dropped, she responds with a sheepish grin when asked about a seductive video produced with her first pop single, I Dance for You. ”I wanted another platform to speak on my issues,” she says of the video. “But you can’t be creative, when your mind is focused on something else.”