Beauty queen gives "voice to voiceless"

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Move over, Bono.

File photo shows Miss Canada Nazanin Afshin-Jam visiting the Forbidden City in Beijng November 20, 2003. Now a budding Canadian pop singer, she is leading an international campaign to free an Iranian teenage girl from a date with the hangman. REUTERS/China Photo

A budding Canadian pop singer inspired in part by the U2 rock star is setting out to save the world, and has scored an early success by leading an international campaign to free an Iranian teeage girl from a date with the hangman.

Nazanin Fatehi killed a would-be rapist in 2005 and was sentenced to death for premeditated murder. She would have joined about two-dozen other youngsters executed in the Islamic republic since 1990, according to Amnesty International, were it not for Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a Canadian singer born in Iran.

Afshin-Jam, a 28-year-old former Miss Canada, stirred up publicity by collecting 350,000 signatures in a petition addressed to the Iranian government and the United Nations. Her namesake was granted a new trial, where the original sentence was overturned. She was freed in January after two years behind bars, during which she attempted suicide. Blood money of $43,000 was paid, most of it raised by Afshin-Jam. She says the whole campaign left her broke.

The Vancouver resident has launched an effort to halt teen executions in Iran (, and is helping to send the uneducated Fatehi to school.

Like Bono & Co., Afshin-Jam has no qualms about using her celebrity to get the message out. She won Miss Canada in 2003 and was named first runner-up at Miss World. She has just released her first album, “Someday,” which gives her another avenue to promote social justice.


No cause is too obscure for the exotic activist. Afshin-Jam is speaking out against land purchases by Iranian mullahs in Canada. She has traveled to Ethiopia to inspect efforts to treat fistulas that cause incontinence in new mothers. Along with her sister, she is also campaigning against bear farming in China (

“I try to be a voice to the voiceless, no matter if they’re animals or people,” Afshin-Jam said in a recent interview. “Whoever’s suffering, I’m going to try to help!”

She speaks four languages, boasts a degree in international relations and political science, and earned her pilot’s license in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. Her campaign for Fatehi brought her into contact with politicians and activists. She has resisted overtures to enter politics, though nothing is off the table.

But human rights activists are not superhuman, and Afshin-Jam fully realizes her limitations. She gets emails every day from people seeking help: girls raped by their brothers and facing ostracism, political prisoners who want Canada to intervene, and so on.

“All this heavy load. And I feel responsible,” she says. “That’s the part I feel guilty about. I’m not able to help each and every one of them.”

She tries to refer them to relevant organizations, but feels bad that she cannot follow up with everyone everyday.

“If I didn’t have my music, I’d just be comatose right now on the bed,” she says. “Music, at least, is the one fun and upbeat and sassy thing that I’m able to resort to as my sanctuary.”

“Someday,” released through independent label Bodog Music, reflects Afshin-Jam’s passion for fusing different musical genres, as exemplified by French-based world music group Alabina and Colombian pop singer Shakira. The title track, dedicated to Fatehi, wistfully seeks regime change in her native land.

Afshin-Jam was one when her family fled Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She says her father, the general manager of the Sheraton hotel, was tortured by the new regime after he continued to serve alcohol and play music, and was lucky to escape execution.

Needless to say, a homecoming is not on the cards -- especially since her parents abandoned Islam -- and therefore no face-to-face meeting with the girl she saved from the gallows.