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Davos 2023: Actress Nazanin Boniadi on women's rights in Iran

Actress Nazanin Boniadi spoke out about women's rights in Iran.

Actress Nazanin Boniadi spoke out about women's rights in Iran. Image: World Economic Forum/Manuel Lope

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Actress and activist Nazanin Boniadi has spoken out against the oppression of women in Iran at the World Economic Forum's 2023 Annual Meeting.
  • Boniadi joined a session at Davos on Women's Rights in Iran - What Next? and spoke to Radio Davos.
  • Here's an edited text of what she said.

"I always say my first protest was in the womb," Nazanin Boniadi tells the World Economic Forum.

The Iranian-British actress and activist is in Davos for her first time to speak out about the oppression of women in Iran and the protests that have been taking place since September, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

Amini was arrested for not properly wearing her compulsory hijab and died in custody.

Boniadi dedicated her role as single mother Bronwyn in Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power to Iranian women just weeks before the protests erupted.

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More than 300 protesters have been killed, including 44 children, according to Amnesty International. Thousands more have been jailed.

Boniadi joined a panel session Women's Rights in Iran - What Next?, and spoke to Radio Davos about her Iranian roots and hopes for the country's future.

Here's an edited text of what she said.

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On her passion for human rights

"I was born in May '79, and my mother was 19 when she had me. And while she was still pregnant with me, she was one of the anti-revolution protesters. So she and my father were very much opposed to any kind of Islamic republic or theocratic rule or Khomeini coming into power. They saw the backsliding of rights and they realized that they couldn't have a child in a social, legal, political climate that was growing increasingly oppressive, particularly towards women and girls.

"So I always say my first protest was in the womb. I was in my mother's womb when she was 19, and she is what they call a 'shirzan' or a lioness. And that word is being used a lot more these days because we are seeing women on the front lines.

"Women have been on the front line since '79, standing up against the compulsory hijab. It's just this moment that we're seeing that's getting more media coverage and that they're coming out in force, really. My passion for human rights and particularly women's rights in Iran came from my parents and being in my mother's womb when she was fighting against the oppression."

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Nazanin Boniadi on the female-led revolution

"Since the Arab Spring to Sudan in 2019, the spark of those revolutions were men being killed. The spark for this was a young woman being killed. And the engine of it was women, because women first took to the streets, took off their head scarfs in peaceful protest, set them ablaze, cut their hair, despite the risk.

"That courage was contagious, and what is unique about this and why many of us have been calling it a female-led revolution, is because Iranian women have managed to galvanize Iranian society at large to understand the intersectionality of gender equality and any other basic human right."

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"Mahsa being a Kurdish Iranian woman, there is an ethnic component there. Now we have a broad-based, large middle-class component and Iranian men and women, and all Iranians banding together, standing together, for democracy. Understanding that LGBTQ rights, gender equality, ethnic minority rights, religious rights, all of them are interconnected, and it has become a pro-democracy movement.

Since the Arab Spring to Sudan in 2019, the spark of those revolutions were men being killed. The spark for this was a young woman being killed.

Nazanin Boniadi, Actress and activist

"The hijab has become an outward symbol of the oppression of Iranian women, who have basically lost agency in the past four decades, over almost every aspect of their lives. And yet, in the fields that they can study, they are more educated than the men, both a testament to their tenacity and a driving force for this precise moment.

"If you look at history, Argentina to Chile, to the Philippines, when women are at the centre of a movement, the likelihood of it succeeding and democracy prevailing increases. Because we have access to levers of power in society that men frankly don't have access to."

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On giving women a voice

"I want to applaud the World Economic Forum for giving this platform to us, which is quite unprecedented, but these things matter. Because our voices inside Iran would be targeted persecuted and shut down. So please, the world has to amplify and give voice to the voices inside Iran, and the only way that is going to happen is we are in touch with them. We are in touch on the ground. So allow us to convey what they are saying."

On hopes for the future

"We have to be unequivocal, are we supporting the people of Iran or are we still appeasing the Islamic Republic? My hope is that it's the former, and I think we just have to be very clear in our policies."

The Women's Rights in Iran - What Next? session also featured Tirana Hassan, Acting Executive Director, Human Rights Watch; Masih Alinejad, Journalist and Activist, US Agency for Global Media and was moderated by Rima Maktabi, UK Bureau Chief, Al Arabiya.

Watch the session in full here.

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