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‘Rings of Power’ Star Nazanin Boniadi Calls on Hollywood to ‘Spotlight the Injustice’ in Iran With Powerful Speech

Variety logo Variety 11/17/2022 Marc Malkin
© Michael Buckner for WWD

Nazanin Boniadi is calling on Hollywood to do more to bring attention to the political upheaval over women’s rights in Iran.

The “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” star delivered an impassioned speech on Wednesday afternoon at the Academy Women’s Luncheon presented by Chanel, held at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles.

“Iranian women have caused a paradigm shift by openly defying a system of patriarchal misogyny that has subjugated them for four decades, and they’ve gained allies across different sectors of Iranian society while doing it. Surely, we have a lot to learn from them,” she said before the crowd, which included Claire Foy, Tessa Thompson, Janicza Bravo, Kerry Condon, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Diane Warren, Marlee Matlin, Chloe Zhao, Ruth Carter, Rita Wilson and Academy president Janet Yang.

“How do we, the creative community, turn our outrage into meaningful action and prevent the Iranian authorities from crushing another uprising?” Boniadi said. “One way is to use our profile and platform to spotlight the injustice.”

In September, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested by Iran’s “morality police” for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly. She later died in custody after eyewitnesses say they saw her being beaten in a police van.

“There’s a lesson to be learned from Alfre Woodard, Danny Glover, Blair Underwood and several other longtime anti-apartheid activists in the creative community, who in 1989 founded Artists for a Free South Africa and were pivotal in helping turn the tide,” she continued. “They successfully used their platforms to amplify and elevate the movement and that’s exactly what we need to do for Iran right now.”

Read Boniadi’s full speech below.

Good afternoon. Thanks to the Academy and to Chanel for organizing this fabulous luncheon. 

It’s a privilege to be here with you today. The word privilege is used often in these contexts but let me explain why it holds a deeper meaning for me.  

You see, as I contemplated what to talk about in these few minutes — what to say to a group of accomplished women and industry leaders — there were a lot of issues that came to mind: Pay parity; bodily autonomy; representation; an industry in which we still too often diminish or turn a blind eye to women reporting workplace misconduct and in which there’s still a tacit agreement that speaking up makes us unemployable. 

But while there’s still a lot of work to do to change the conditions we as women find ourselves in here at home, the resounding voice in my head kept echoing the words “Woman Life Freedom.” 

Because for two months now, that has been the battle cry for women in Iran, in what has become the first female-led revolution of our time.  

Advocating for the women of Iran has been my passion for 14 years, but let me take a step back. For me, the struggle for women’s rights started when I attended my very first protest in Tehran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, while still in my mother’s womb. She was 19 and bravely joined the tens of thousands of protesters who opposed the newly forming theocracy. My parents realized the dangers of raising a daughter in a social, political and legal climate that was growing increasingly oppressive, particularly toward women and girls. Although they were granted political asylum in London when I was just three weeks old, the challenges facing women in Iran became ingrained in my psyche. And after traveling across Iran when I was 12, and a traumatizing encounter with the so called “morality police” — tasked with enforcing the country’s Islamic dress code and behavior — I knew I had to use my voice to promote theirs. 

While Iran has become accustomed to uprisings nearly once every decade, no past protests compare in fervor or magnitude to the current protests, in which for the first time since the inception of the theocracy, people are actively fighting back to defend themselves against the security forces. 

But the most unprecedented part of these protests is that they’ve been female-led. The murder in custody of the 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Zhina Amini — arrested for inappropriate hijab — was the powder keg moment that ignited the most recent uprising. Women have taken to the streets and are not only removing and waving their headscarves, but setting them ablaze and cutting their hair in protest. Despite the threat of being beaten, raped, imprisoned or even killed, schoolgirls are removing their mandatory head coverings and chanting “we don’t want an Islamic Republic. The movement’s slogan “Woman. Life. Freedom” strikes at the heart of a system that has built itself on being anti-woman, pro-martyrdom and repressive. 

To be clear, this uprising is not just about draconian dress codes. But the compulsory hijab has become the symbol of the Iranian women’s struggle since it was imposed 43 years ago. Women in Iran have no laws to protect them from gender-based violence. The reversal of many hard-won rights for women at the inception of the Islamic Revolution, saw the legal age of marriage lowered from 18 to 9. This was later raised to 13, but younger girls still get married with the permission of their father or a judge. In today’s Iran, women cannot travel without the permission of their husband or next male kin. 

It’s hard to believe that women in Iran won the right to vote nine years before the women of Switzerland. Or that the country once had a revered national ballet and regionally renowned female pop artists. 

Because for four decades now, women in Iran have not only been fighting against compulsory hijab, but also for their right to choose what they can study and what jobs they can hold. Their testimony and inheritance is worth half that of a man. Women are forbidden from becoming judges, serving on the Guardian Council, becoming President or Supreme Leader. Despite this women are more educated than men in Iran: both a testament to their tenacity and a driving force in their fight for freedom. 

But the bitter reality is that the Islamic Republic is an apartheid state for women, who are segregated from men in the workplace, in classrooms and at beaches; are banned from attending sports arenas, riding bicycles, and singing solo in public; and have to sit at the back of the bus. 

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, Iran ranks 143rd of 146 countries. 

To negate these as cultural differences” dismisses the countless Iranian women who are risking everything for their basic rights. Cultural norms don’t need to be enforced by threat of death. 

There’s a reason why Iranian women have been dubbed ‘Shirzan’ or ‘lioness’ because of their resilience in the face of oppression. They know that in a closed society, fighting oppressive laws sometimes means breaking them. And, tragically, making lives better sometimes means sacrificing your own. 

These women are the Rosa Parks of Iran and their courage has been contagious. 

Which is why the protests have quickly evolved into a broad-based, pro-democracy uprising. 

Now, Iranian men and women stand shoulder to shoulder against the Islamic Republic’s gender apartheid regime that has maintained its power not only through the segregation and oppression of women in Iran, but by denying all Iranians their most fundamental rights and stifling all dissent. 

Today, university students, worker’s unions, ethnic and other minority groups have all joined the protests, calling for an end to the regime, because the broader Iranian society is seeing the intersectionality of gender equality and other basic human rights.  

And as I watch their unbreakable spirits with awe, I can’t help but wonder how my life would have turned out if my parents hadn’t managed to escape persecution. 

So when I say I’m privileged to be able to speak to you today it’s because I stand before you with my rights in tact, while human rights lawyers like Nasrin Sotoudeh and Soheila Hijab languish in prison in Iran. I stand here giving a keynote speech while activists like Narges Mohammadi, Fatemeh Sepehri and Saba Kordafshari are silenced and jailed in Iran. I stand here with the ability to protest against injustices, while more than 15,000 protesters have been arrested and hundreds killed — including women and children — for peacefully protesting in my homeland in the past 2 months.  

I don’t risk losing my career or my freedom for publicly showing solidarity with Mahsa Amini, but actresses in Iran like Taraneh Alidoosti and Katayoun Riahi do. I don’t have to face batons to the head or bullets to heart. Nor do I have to worry about being held incommunicado and tortured like rap artist Toomaj Salehi and dissidents Majid Tavakoli and Hossein Ronaghi. Or being sentenced to death for expressing my views. I never had to beg for abortion pills after being raped by security forces.  

As they risk everything for freedom, I can’t help but feel the urgency of joining in sisterhood with the women of Iran, because we are undoubtedly stronger in accomplishing our goals when we’re united on a global level. 

In short, our battles cannot be won without attention to theirs.  

Iranian women have caused a paradigm shift by boldly defying a system of patriarchal misogyny that has subjugated them for four decades. And they’ve gained allies across different sectors of Iranian society while doing it. Surely, we have a lot to learn from them. 

Mahsa Amini’s murder has forced us to reckon with our complacency in protecting the rights of women globally.  

Perhaps it’s the understanding of the fragility of our freedoms that has galvanized the world around Mahsa and the plight of women in Iran. Not since the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa have we seen this level of global attention to the fight to end any kind of segregation anywhere. 

But how do we — the creative community — turn our outrage into meaningful action and prevent the Iranian authorities from crushing yet another uprising? One way is to use our profile and platforms to spotlight the injustice. 

There is a lesson to be learned from Alfre Woodard, Danny Glover, Blair Underwood and several other longtime anti-apartheid activists in the creative community, who in 1989 founded Artists for a Free South Africa and were pivotal in helping turn the tide. They successfully used their platforms to amplify and elevate the movement. And that’s exactly what we need for Iran right now.  

We need the world to send a strong message to the Iranian authorities that their crimes will not remain uninvestigated and unpunished. We have to demand that our representatives stand unequivocally with the Iranian people and hold the Islamic Republic regime to account for their crimes under international law.  

Please continue to amplify the voices of the Iranian people on social media by following and sharing information from credible activists and organizations. Please use the correct hashtags in these posts: #MahsaAmini and #IranRevolution. 

Show up to protests and network with Iranian activists for strategic actions, like making informative videos. 

Donate to credible, Iran-focused human rights organizations — such as Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA), Abdorrahman Boroumand Center and Amnesty International Iran — that document and report abuses.  

As creatives, we rely heavily on the freedom of expression in our work, so we must do everything we can to protect it wherever it’s violated. Artists have a unique ability to reach the masses and impact change, which is perhaps why the silencing of artists has become a hallmark of oppressive states like the Islamic Republic. We owe it to our counterparts in Iran to stand with them as they fight for their most basic rights. 

So, now I’m asking you — our greater artistic community — will you join us in our fight for a free Iran? 

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