Shaparak Shajarizadeh is looking for work, maybe something in retail, she says. Her résumé will stand out wherever she applies. Her latest achievement is a human-rights award for her defence of women’s rights in Iran.
“Advocating for human rights doesn’t support you financially,” said the 45-year-old, who fled Iran, and arrived in Canada via Turkey in the summer of 2018.
Ms. Shajarizadeh is the recipient of the Morris Abram Award from UN Watch, a Swiss organization that monitors the United Nations and promotes human rights. She was jailed, beaten and placed in solitary confinement for refusing to wear a head covering in Iran, which has compulsory veiling laws for women who appear in public.
“Shaparak Shajarizadeh was chosen for her fearless defence of the rights of women,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, said in a statement. “Her mission to defend the human dignity and equal rights of women in Iran has never been more vital.”
Ms. Shajarizadeh was inspired by the White Wednesday protests in 2017, which encouraged women to protest by removing their headscarves.
“I always believed in civil disobedience,” she said. “I was impressed, because for years I was waiting for some movement where I could be involved.”
In February of 2018, after a clip of her waving a headscarf on a stick circulated around the internet, she was not allowed to contact her family or her lawyer.
She recalls being interrogated by six women who, she says, beat her before she was carried “like an animal” and thrown into a cell. She was placed in solitary confinement.
“Knowing about cruelty, knowing about brutality, knowing about the violation of human rights is something, but experiencing it is different,” she said.
Months later, she was released on bail. However, she said Iranian authorities continued to harass her and her family. She decided to flee to Turkey with her husband and son, and landed in Canada.
“I’m very grateful,” Ms. Shajarizadeh said. “This is the best country I could end up in.”
She has continued her human-rights work in Canada, testifying before Parliament and serving as a senior fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre of Human Rights. Irwin Cotler, the chair of the centre, says all Canadians can take a lesson from Ms. Shajarizadeh’s activism.
“There are people who put not simply their livelihoods, but their lives, in fact, on the line for the cause of human rights. Shaparak is one of those people,” Dr. Cotler said. “Every time I find myself in her presence … I come away inspired.”
Ms. Shajarizadeh wants to further her human-rights education at York University in Toronto. She is studying for an English proficiency exam, which she needs to pass before applying to the school.
She lives close to the university in Richmond Hill, home to a significant Iranian population. The environment offers some familiarity, but Ms. Shajarizadeh says there’s a difference between immigrants and those living in exile, like her.
“The majority of Iranians who live in Canada, they try to forget about Iran,” she said. "They want a peaceful life, sometimes they don’t even want to talk about politics or Iran. They’re not like us.
“Because some of them go to Iran to visit their family members, they’re afraid to be involved with people like me, they don’t want to get in any trouble. They keep their distance from people like me. They don’t want to jeopardize their safety or their families.”
Ms. Shajarizadeh misses her family in Iran, and longs to go back, even though she isn’t always optimistic about seeing social progress there.
“It’s so complicated. Some days, I’m hopeful. Some days not. But it doesn’t stop me from advocating for others.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.