Jan 6, 2012 – 10:36 PM ET | Last Updated: Jan 7, 2012 10:24 AM ET
Arlen Redekop / Postmedia News files
Nazanin Afshin-Jam is president and co-founder of an organization dedicated to stopping child executions around the world.
That baby, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, would go on to make headlines across Canada this week — when her surprise wedding to Peter MacKay, the Minister of Defence, was revealed — but at the time of the 1979 revolution, her future was in doubt.
Afshin Afshin-Jam was running the luxury Intercontinental hotel in Tehran when the 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the monarchy in Iran. Change was immediate at the hotel: Gun-toting revolutionaries burst in demanding portraits of the Shah be torn down.
The next day they demanded alcohol be banned. Then they came for the music, demanding it be silenced.
It was too much for Mr. Afshin-Jam, who stood on the hotel’s front desk and shouted across the opulent lobby for the ragtag fighters to get out. Instead, they knocked him down with the butt of a rifle and dragged him to jail.
It was a desperate time for the Afshin-Jam family.
Living well under the old order, Mr. Afshin-Jam had a wife and young family at home, including a baby daughter.
In prison, Mr. Afshin-Jam was lashed and abused, according to the family’s account, and despite the chaos of change, the revolutionaries found time for a hearing. Mr. Afshin-Jam’s insolence deserved a death sentence.
Fate intervened: The judge, a hardliner nicknamed the hanging judge for his quick issuing of execution orders, was in a car accident on his way to the hearing. Pouncing on the unexpected delay, Mr. Afshin-Jam’s wife, Jaleh, managed to secure her husband’s temporary release and the family fled.
They spent a year in Spain searching for a new country.
“I don’t know if they threw darts at a map or flipped a coin or whether it was that Canada was the first to offer a visa, but they came here,” said Peter Karroll, who is married to Ms. Afshin-Jam’s older sister and later managed Ms. Afshin-Jam’s music career.
Ted Davis for National Post files
First impressions were not great. After a life in arid Iran they landed in wintry Montreal; it was so cold that the family didn’t leave the airport, instead booking a flight to Vancouver.
Once settled, the family thrived, but the experience never left them.
The memory of the lash marks on their father’s back and the feeling of helplessness against a despotic system stayed with the girls as they matured with one foot in their Persian culture and the other in their new Western home.
Nazanin Afshin-Jam began modelling in her teens, with her dark hair framing a pretty face and topping a 5-foot-8 frame.
“You always get butterflies, but generally it’s fun,” Ms. Afshin-Jam told the Vancouver Province, which described her as a “well-spoken beauty.”
At the age of 20 and as a political science student at the University of B.C., with plans to continue her studies in Paris the following year, she was one of the oldest entrants.
“I would never sacrifice my academic career [for modelling],” she said, “but I might delay it for a year.”
Ms. Afshin-Jam wasn’t the It Girl that year but she did have some tremendous achievements in store. In 2003 at the age of 23, she was crowned Miss World Canada and travelled to China to compete for the Miss World title.
Her interest in human rights, which would one day lead to her introduction to Peter MacKay, made an early appearance: While she won the swimsuit award at the pageant, she declared her ambition to write and produce documentaries on Third World development issues.
Her pageant biography said “she has special training in voice, drama, public speaking, dance — and bush survival skill!”
Her résumé also boasted a military interest: She was Squadron Commander and Warrant Officer First Class in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets.
At the Miss World contest, the international press picked her out for special attention as the first participant from Iran, even though she was representing Canada.
“There had been beauty contests before the arrival of Islamic fundamentalists to power in Iran, but there has never been a candidate for the Miss World pageant. I’m the first,” she was quoted as saying. “Canada is a very multicultural country, so if I won the title, it’s like I’d represent everyone around the world.”
On Dec. 6, 2003, before a worldwide audience estimated at two billion and wearing a dress she helped make herself, Mr. Afshin-Jam came in second, edged out by Miss Ireland.
The pageant platform had accelerated her musical career, giving Mr. Karroll, a Vancouver rocker and owner of Her Royal Majesty’s Records, an independent label owner, confidence to release her debut album.
Conservative MP Peter MacKay (R) and Nazanin Afshin-Jam arrive for a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa May 18, 2011
Mr. Karroll already knew Ms. Afshin-Jam; he had married her sister. Her pop inclinations were stylistically different from his high-energy rock but the record deal, he said, was “based on business.”
“She was getting so well known and with the largest television audience in history at that time, we thought it was commercially viable to do this with a new artist.
“Musically and lyrically, you know where her heart lies — with the family and what was going on in Iran and her concern for human rights.”
While she was working on her singing debut, however, she found a cause more meaningful.
Ms. Afshin-Jam stopped to check her email on a computer at Mr. Karroll’s house in 2006.
Her inbox contained news of a tragic story from her homeland: Nazanin Mahabad Fatehi, 17, and her even younger niece had been attacked by three men who tried to rape them. Ms. Fatehi stabbed one and the wound proved fatal. She was arrested and sentenced to death by hanging.
The story struck Ms. Afshin-Jam, particularly because the two women shared a melodic first name and her own father’s brush with an execution order.
“Look at this, there’s a girl in Iran with my name facing execution,” she said mournfully, recalled Mr. Karroll.
“I said to her, ‘Forget this stuff, what can one person do? You can’t save a girl in Iran on death row. Just get on with the record.’”
Ms. Afshin-Jam thought otherwise.
She joined the international voices of protest and used the platform of her pageantry success, her presence, voice and looks to bring attention to the case around the world.
Ms. Afshin-Jam came to Ottawa to lobby the government to agitate for Ms. Fatehi’s life and in the process ended up changing her own.
At the time, Mr. MacKay was Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
“I was impressed by her intelligence and commitment to help others,” Mr. MacKay told his local newspaper, The New Glasgow News, on Thursday, a day after announcing their marriage. “She is a very caring and compassionate person. I came to admire her kind heart and the fact that she loves children and animals.”
Her successful campaign for Ms. Fatehi’s freedom inspired her to start a human rights organization called Stop Child Executions with another Iranian ex-pat in 2007.
“It was impossible but she got through the impossible,” said Mr. Karroll. “When she found out that it could be done, that she could do it, she realized there were a lot of other kids out there.”
Meanwhile her professional relationship with Mr. MacKay became personal. The pair began dating in 2010.
Mr. MacKay said he proposed to his new wife in Valentia, a little island on the southern tip of Ireland that is his great-grandfather’s ancestral home.
But first he phoned her father for his blessing, Mr. Karroll said. The Afshin-Jam clan are all remarkably close and major decisions are often based on wide consultation.
“Peter was vetted, I was vetted. He had his moments, I’m sure,” said Mr. Karroll, laughing over the phone from Mexico, where he travelled for the couple’s wedding. “Her parents would want to make sure he was right for his daughter. They only really knew what they read about him.”
He passed the test and the couple were married in Mexico by a Nova Scotia reverend with the couple’s family in attendance. They are currently on their honeymoon.
“We both wanted a very personal and family-oriented ceremony in a location that was easily accessible to both of our families,” Mr. MacKay said of the couple’s decision to wed in Mexico. “We were married by local reverend, Glen Matheson of New Glasgow, in a beautiful, quaint, traditional hillside chapel overlooking the ocean. Our families and loved ones took part in the service.”
In announcing the marriage on his website, Mr. MacKay said his bride feels at home in Nova Scotia and they look forward to calling Pictou County home.
“I am very happy for them. I know she wanted to start a family and move in that direction,” said David W. Duke, secretary-treasurer for Stop Child Executions. “It’s the most unlikely union, on the surface. Nazanin is quite the pacifist. She opposes military intervention in Iran.”
SCE has a logo that dramatically waves a flag for its tragic cause. It features a stick figure, akin to the picture of a man on public washroom doors, only this one is hanging despondently from a noose with a crooked neck and clutching a teddy bear.
It gets attention. And so does Ms. Afshin-Jam.