Actor Nazanin Boniadi asks world to back Iran women protests

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Actor Nazanin Boniadi on Wednesday urged the world to back the protests in her native Iran calling for women's rights and political change, saying despots fear nothing "more than a free and politically active woman.”

Speaking on the sidelines of the Forbes 30/50 Summit in Abu Dhabi, Boniadi told The Associated Press that she hopes people will sign a petition she's supporting accusing Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and Iran of committing “gender apartheid” with their policies targeting women.

“These systems of oppressing women, of dehumanizing women, are based on strengthening and keeping these entrenched systems of power in place," she said. "So we have to legally recognize this as gender apartheid in order to be able to overcome it.”

Boniadi, who as a young child left Tehran with her family for England following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has used her fame as an actor in the series “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” on Amazon Prime and in roles in feature films to highlight what's happening back in Iran.

Since September, Iran has faced mass protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being detained by the country's morality police. In the time since, activists say over 500 people have been killed and more than 19,000 others detained in a security force crackdown.

“The thing that is unprecedented is we’re seeing 12-year-old girls, schoolgirls, come out into the streets saying, 'We don’t want an Islamic Republic," Boniadi said. "The courage that takes is astounding. And that courage has been contagious.”

However, recent months have seen suspected poisonings at girls' schools in the country. While details remain difficult to ascertain, the group Human Rights Activists in Iran says at least 290 suspected school poisonings have happened over recent months, with at least 7,060 students claiming to be affected.

It remains unclear what chemical might have been used, if any. No one has claimed the attacks and authorities have not identified any suspects. Unlike neighboring Afghanistan, Iran has no recent history of religious extremists targeting girls’ education. However, some activists worry extremists might be poisoning girls to keep them out of school.

“The thing that ties us together is that (with) dictators and despots, there’s nothing that they fear more than a free and politically active woman. And so that’s why the crackdowns exist today in Iran ... as you’re seeing with the chemical attacks on schoolgirls."

She added: "We have to come together. We have to unite. We have to find a way forward and end these atrocities against women.”

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Follow Malak Harb on Twitter at www.twitter.com/malakharb.

Malak Harb, The Associated Press