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As a girl visiting her birth country of Iran, British actress Nazanin Boniadi got a taste of the severely restricted rights women there live with on a daily basis. That experience inspired her to get educated about women’s and human rights issues in the country, and to one day work to improve them.

Later as an adult, while spending sleepless nights and days on the sets of different TV shows and films, Boniadi served as a spokesperson for Amnesty International from 2009-15, where she campaigned for the rights of disenfranchised populations across the world. Boniadi went on to land major roles in hit productions including Showtime’s “Homeland,” and the historical thriller “Hotel Mumbai” but never lost touch with her activist roots or her love for Iran, which led to her joining the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) as a board member in 2015. “Certainly, it would be much more comfortable to avoid the inevitable criticism, skepticism and backlash that comes with any Iran-related advocacy,” she told CHRI on April 15, 2019. “But for many of us expats whose loved ones suffered persecution, and who’ve been to Iran, silence is not an option.” Excerpts of the interview follow.

CHRI: You’re a working actress and an outspoken activist. When did you start your advocacy work and what prompted you to get involved?

Boniadi: I vividly recall being five-years-old and crying while watching images of the Iran-Iraq War on TV in London. My parents didn’t know what to make of their little girl who only lived in Iran for the first 20 days of my life. I can’t explain why I feel such a connection to my homeland. I just do. And that feeling only intensified when I spent two months traveling across Iran when I was young. I specifically remember an incident where I was walking down the street in Tehran with my uncle, my mother’s brother, next to me and my mother was a few steps behind us. I was 12 or 13 I think and a plainclothes militiaman came up to us and asked my uncle and me to produce a marriage certificate. My head was already covered, I wasn’t used to being forced to wear a hijab and I was very confused by it, I didn’t understand why a 12-year-old would have to wear a hijab or why this man was asking us to provide a marriage certificate when that man was my uncle and much, much older than me.

It was a shock to my system, but it put me in a much better place of understanding of what girls and women go through in Iran and it was a horrifying experience, he was intimidating us, threatening us, and when my mother intervened and said this is my brother and this is my daughter, he basically told her to shut up. That intimidation motivated me and inspired me to do more for the people of Iran once I could and had the chance to. And when I went home to London, I remember thinking that was exactly what I wanted to do, be a voice for the voiceless. And once I gained a platform as an actress, it was a no-brainer that I would use it to give a voice to the voiceless inside Iran.

As an actress, many people have advised me to refrain from advocacy work, not only because it requires time away from my career, but also because it could deter people from employing me. Certainly, it would be much more comfortable to avoid the inevitable criticism, skepticism and backlash that comes with any Iran-related advocacy, especially amidst the current political climate so fraught with a polarized diaspora. But for many of us expats whose loved ones suffered persecution, and who’ve been to Iran, silence is not an option. This is why I chose to educate myself and use my platform to amplify their cries for freedom and justice to the best of my ability.

I also feel like my advocacy work is really an extension of my overall calling. And maybe my urge to use my freedom of expression to protect that of others comes from how heavily we as actors rely on that very freedom in our craft. I always say that as an actor I get to portray the human condition, but as an activist, I get to change the human condition. For me, these are just two sides of the same coin with the same overarching purpose: to raise awareness, offer hope and hopefully bring about change.

CHRI: How do you balance the demanding, time-consuming roles of acting and advocacy?

Boniadi: To be honest, I think it’s quite simple and not as selfless as some might think it is. My advocacy work energizes, drives and inspires me. I really can’t imagine my life without it. As cliché as it sounds, I sleep better at night just knowing that I’ve impacted even one person’s life in a positive way or that I’ve helped bring about some kind of positive change.

As actors, we are bombarded with attention. Whether it’s in front of a moving or still camera, promoting our work or our brand, we have this constant incessant barrage of attention coming our way. So in my downtime, there is nothing I’d prefer more than to divert that attention away from myself and onto others who truly need it. And every time I feel helpless I remember the old proverb, “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

So I prioritize my advocacy work and I always find time for it. And in many ways, I think the empathy needed in activism has really enriched me as an actor. To be able to understand the human psyche and put yourself in another person’s shoes, that’s something you need as an actor. So it does help me in my craft. And I really can’t imagine doing one without the other.

CHRI: You were born in Iran but have made a life outside your country of birth like millions of other Iranians born after the 1979 revolution. Could you tell us why your family left and how you stay connected to your roots?

Boniadi: My parents were political refugees who fled to London when I was just 20 days old. They were opposed to the theocracy and didn’t want to raise their daughter in a social, political and legal climate that was growing increasingly oppressive towards women and girls.

At bedtime, my father read me Hafez and Ferdowsi [Perisan poets] for the first several years of my life. I didn’t understand much of it, but it was so comforting to me. It felt like home. I have no way of explaining it other than that. And it instilled that sense of culture in me. And even though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I’m so grateful that my mother sent me to Persian classes every weekend for several years. I wouldn’t be fluent in the language otherwise. And that fluency has served me well in connecting not only with my relatives but also with people inside Iran. So I really owe a big debt of gratitude to my parents for keeping me connected to my roots. 

CHRI: In a recent interview, you spoke of how you try not to be confined to a single, stereotypical role in Hollywood such as the Middle Eastern villain. And your ethnicity wasn’t a factor in your recent role as “Claire,” a deep-cover agent in the Counterpart TV series. In Iran, many different things confine actresses, including rules that may hamper their ability to act. Could you talk a little about the challenges actresses face in both the Iranian and American film industries?

Boniadi: I think the biggest challenge for me so far has been to avoid tropes and stereotypes. While there have been huge strides in inclusivity in Hollywood lately with the success of films like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther, as an actor of Iranian descent I’ve found that the biggest challenge I still face is that Middle-Eastern, North African, and South Asian actors, we don’t have our own box, and we don’t fit into the existing categories, which are Caucasian, African-American, Native-American, Asian-American and Latino. We just don’t fit into any of those and so we often get sidelined from the diversity narrative unless we are exoticized in some way.

For example, Farah Shirazi on Homeland [TV series], who spoke with an Iranian accent and wore a hijab, was celebrated for inclusion and diversity. But just three years later, when I played Claire on Counterpart who spoke with a British accent without any reference to her ethnicity, suddenly my inclusion as a series regular was no longer referenced as part of the diversity narrative. But I think we are headed in the right direction and I think Middle Eastern and North African actors are being considered for non-ethnic specific roles more often and hopefully we’ll see a day when we are just as much a part of the diversity narrative, even without the presence of obvious cultural identifiers.

Of course, I’m fully aware that these are trivial matters compared to the heavy-handed censorship and lack of artistic freedom that actors and filmmakers face in Iran, where for four decades authorities have prohibited any artistic expression they consider a violation of Islamic ethics. I mean the fact that licenses are required from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in order to make motion pictures and TV programs that fit their stringent standards. It’s just mind-blowing to me that pro-government films get financial and logistical support while independent filmmakers whose stories are considered critical of the system have been punished or even jailed, the most notable of these cases of course being the persecution of renowned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who was banned from filmmaking and leaving Iran. I can’t even imagine that happening here in America. Then there is the case of actress Marzieh Vafamehr, who was imprisoned for 118 days and banned from any cultural or artistic activities or from leaving Iran thereafter simply for appearing in a film deemed critical of the regime with a shaved head and without her mandatory hijab. And of course in 2018, the funeral of legendary Iranian actor Naser Malek-Motoiee, who has been banned from acting since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979, turned into a protest against government oppression. Again, these are things that we don’t even have to think about here in America.

But despite the heavy-handed censorship, it’s awe-inspiring to see the level of artistry that’s come out of Iran in the past decades. I’m blown away by it. Actors have mastered the ability to evoke feelings of love without being able to even so much as embrace the opposite sex on screen. Again, these are constraints that we don’t even have to think about in the West or in free societies. Iranian films, in my opinion, are a master class in overcoming crippling obstacles for the love of one’s artistry, and I’m really inspired by the artists and filmmakers in Iran.

CHRI: If another celebrity or person wielding a great amount of social influence wanted to get involved in advocacy, what advice would you give them?

Boniadi: The first thing I would say is follow your passion. Activism isn’t for the faint of heart. It is filled with disappointment and loss. Our victories may be few and far between, but those are the moments that keep us going. So you really have to be invested in the cause you take on. It has to come from an authentic and genuine place because that passion is what inspires and energizes others to pay attention, to take action and to impact change. It’s not enough to just be the face of something. I think it’s very important to be the heart of it.

The second thing I would suggest is to get informed. Anyone who wields social influence has the responsibility to get their facts straight because we have the power to sway public opinion and shape social consciousness. And I think that’s a responsibility that we definitely should not take lightly.

And in the right hands, we’ve seen time and time again, the power of celebrity to impact change is undeniable. We just have to look at people like Harry Belafonte and his Civil Rights leadership, Audrey Hepburn’s ambassadorial work for UNICEF, or Bono’s One Campaign. It’s little wonder why the silencing of artists has become a hallmark of oppressive states.

Published by Center for Human Rights in Iran