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Elahe Amani with Lys Anzia – WNN Interviews

Hero of the graphic illustrated book "Zahra's Paradise" speaks out about the need for women presidential candidates inside Iran.

Zahra the heroic character of the graphic comic series called “Zarah’s Paradise – Vote4Zahra” talks of the need for “free and fair elections” in Iran. This includes the rights for women to have the freedom to run as candidates for the presidency inside Iran. Image: Untied4Iran

(WNN) San Francisco, California, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: The presidential election is coming soon in the Islamic Republic of Iran on Friday June 14, 2013, but one of the most important election candidates is not included as one of the 5 male candidates who are running as they try to find a stronger political base. This candidate is a different kind of candidate, a woman named Zahra, who instead of following the current political protocol is now standing out in front of the world. But Zahra is not a ‘real’ woman.

She is the invention of 3 talented men – one an Iranian writer and human rights activist; another an Arab multi-media artist and cartoonist; and another an award-winning Jewish American book editor.

Known to those who watch innovation in global publishing, author Amir Soltani, along with graphic book artist and illustrator Khalil, worked closely together in 2009 to create a new platform that would enable the voices of everyday people in Iran to jump out into the world. On the way book editor Mark Siegel worked closely on the project to help it become a New York Times best-seller chronicling the life of Zahra.

The book called Zahra’s Paradise was officially brought to the public as an online graphic web book series in 2010. It was also offered through in-print publication, to the delight and excitement of a waiting public.

From the beginning the telling of Zahra’s story was personal. It came in part from witnessing friends and loved ones in the ongoing conditions for human rights activists in Iran. With the coordination and efforts of the men who created the book,  joined by Iranian-American campaign manager and publicist Firuzeh Mahmoudi, co-founder and executive director of United4Iran, the story of Zahra began to enter the hearts of activists and non-activists worldwide.

Through insight and focus Mahmoudi’s work as a human rights activist herself has been pivotal to the development of the illustrated book series.

“Like Mause and Persepolis …Zahra’s Paradise puts a human face on a time of grief and unrest. Unlike those books the time in question is now…,” said NPR – National Public Radio (U.S.) when the comic series first premiered in 2010. Named by its creators after the largest cemetery in Tehran, also named Zahra’s Paradise, the title of the book has a double meaning. Zahra is also the name, in the Islamic Holy Book of the Quran, as Fatimah Zahra, one of Prophet Mohammed’s daughters.

Outlining the story of a beautiful, proud, and virtual Iranian mother, Zahra has lost her young nineteen-year-old activist son Mehdi after he left home to protest for democracy on the streets of Tehran in 2009. This was during the tumultuous days following the 2009 Iranian presidential election.

The story unfolds as Zahra looks everywhere for her missing son, but she cannot find him. As one of the Mourning Mothers, known also as the Mothers of Laleh Park, Zahra faces corruption, police diversions, intimidation and physical danger. As she searches for her missing child without wavering, she continues in her journey to find her “special Mehdi” as she begins to realize that deep corruption inside her “beloved Iran” has reached epidemic proportions.

Covering issues of injustice and legal transparency, government corruption, freedom, human rights and democracy, as well as women’s rights inside Iran, the new 2013 series sequel called Zahra for President 2013 is now working to show the true heart of Iranian society.

This story may be fiction-ous, but the topics are not fiction and the characters are more than memorable, they are loveable and horrible.

As a graphic book character Zahra is only one of the many intelligent women inside Iran today. She is outspoken, strong and loyal in her fight for social justice. Of course if given the chance she would want to run for the office of Iran’s presidency. As one of the Mourning Mothers she is steadfast in her efforts to ‘seek and know the truth’. No matter how hard it gets, Zahra continues to push forward. For her there is no turning back. She must continue and jump into her presidential campaign to stand up for the rights of her missing son and all the silent ones who have been left inside Iran with little to no recognition or human rights.

Today as the real election in Iran nears, as Iran’s religious fundamentalist Council of Guardians has blocked all women candidates in Iran from running for the office of the presidency, Zahra’s virtual campaign is not something the ruling religious leaders of Iran bargained for. It is without measure. As a graphic book series online, Zahra’s campaign to become the first woman president of Iran is now reaching the widest global corners of the cybersphere.

We all no know, if Zahra were standing in person before us this moment she would shout, “Let freedom ring!”


Poster for the virtual presidential campaign Vote4Zahra says “Zahra for President 2013.” Image: United4Iran

As a virtual candidate Zahra can speak her truth openly as the first woman given the chance to run for president in Iran. She speaks candidly from her virtual podium without censor.

This groundbreaking candidacy is now being elevated throughout the media through the efforts of United4Iran.

“For you and the Council of Guardians to deny the Iranian people the right to choose women as their president is violence,” outlines Zahra in the newest part of the graphic series called Zahra for President 2013. “It is not only about disqualifying women, it is a way of denying millions of Iranians the right to vote for the most qualified, compassionate and capable of presidential candidates, regardless of gender. Whether as president, or virtual candidate, I have only one choice and that is to defend the dignity, accomplishments, and aspirations of all Iranian women,” Zahra adds in her candidacy for presidency. “It is in their name that my campaign rejects discriminatory fatwas and rulings that promote prejudice, ignorance and violence against Iranian women.”

Today as the Mothers of Laleh Park continue to morn for their children who have gone missing or presumed dead or suffering from enforced arrest without cause, they are also working for the revocation of the death sentence for Iran’s ‘prisoners of conscience’. Many of these prisoners are incarcerated today inside Iran’s prison system on nebulous and vague sentences. These prisoners include humanitarian educators, human rights defenders, rights attorneys, religious minorities, legal advisors, students and activists.

In a recent one-on-one interview with special reporter from Iran for WNN – Women News Networkreporter Elahe Amani talks with Firuzeh Mahmoudi up-close about the work it has taken to boost the online campaign for virtual character known as Zahra, and the effect this woman, and her presidential campaign, has had on her creators and the public.


Elahe Amani for WNN – Women News Network: Thank you Firuzeh for accepting our request for this interview. Can you tell us who is Zahra? Tell us more about her.

Firuzeh Mahmoudi: Zahra is the main character from the New York Times best selling novel Zahra’s Paradise. She is a mourning mother, just like the mothers of Neda, Sohrab and Sattar [activists who died during the democracy uprising in Iran]. In the book she searches Evin prison, morgues, hospitals, and more for her son, Mehdi, only to find him murdered for his part in the 2009 uprising. Zahra buries her oldest son in Zahra’s Paradise, Iran’s largest cemetery. Four years later, in the name of Mehdi and his peers, to secure a better future, one where sons disappear and mothers are left with nothing but to mourn their loss, Zahra is running for president. She is the only female candidate running and the only candidate with a human rights and democracy platform.

WNN: What is Zahra’s political platform in the series?

FM: Zahra is committed to advancing the movement for democracy, dignity, and equality in Iran. Her human rights and democracy platform is based on international human right standards and demands fair and free elections. Zahra is calling for an end to executions, the release of all political prisoners, freedom of access to information, and an end to ethnic, gender, and religious discrimination.

Zahra speaks out when other candidates do not. She is calling for the expulsion of Mr. Yazdi, who has banned 50% of Iranians from running for president, simply because they are women. Mr. Yazdi does not represent the people of Iran, just like those who hold tightly to power through violence and repression do not represent the people of Iran.

WNN: What do you expect this campaign highlighting Zahra’s presidential bid to accomplish?

FM: Which other candidate can speak of fair and free elections? Which other candidate can say that with the vetting by the unelected Guardian Council we will never have democracy? Which other candidate is asking why we had the military in the streets the day that the vetting took place? Which other candidate is speaking out against Mr. Yazdi, declaring that he does not represent the people of Iran and that he has no place to ban our women from running for office?

Postcard for the Vote4Zahra campaign by United4Iran

As a ‘virtual’ presidential candidate Zahra from the graphic illustrated book series “Zahra’s Paradise” speaks to the human rights issues inside the Iran region. Image: United4Iran

No one else is asking these questions, but Zahra is. She is here to demand fair and free elections, to demand life without fear and violence and to demand respect for our basic human rights. Zahra exists for those of us who have no where else to turn, to give us a vote for what we believe in.

WNN: What are the long-term outcomes of the Zahra Campaign?

FM: There are many preconditions for change in Iran. One of them is consistent, collective, and clear articulation of our demands. If we do not say what we want, we will never achieve it. If we cannot say what we really want, we are not free. Our goal with this campaign is to move these rights from dream to reality. We need to get off defensive and to liberate our imagination so we can fight for the Iran that we need. By creating our reality, even if not currently political viable, we will change the political landscape of today and tomorrow.

WNN: Who is your target audience for this campaign?

FM: We are working for the Iranian people inside Iran. For the Iranians that do not have a place to cast a vote for human rights and for democracy, Zahra is creating a space. For Iranians who believe that women should be able to run the country, Zahra is providing that space.

WNN: Why is Zahra wearing the Islamic Hijab (head scarf) in the series?

FM: The audience of this campaign are the Iranian people living inside Iran. In Iran women are forced to cover. As an Iranian citizen, Zahra is also forced to cover, just like the mothers of Sohrab and Neda [activists who died during the protests in Iran] are forced to cover. That is all of their realities. Zahra believes every woman has the right to make any and all decisions regarding her body including how she chooses to cover it.

WNN: There are segments of the Iranian population that will not participate in this election. What message do you hope will be received by those who continue to distrust the elections in Iran?

FM: We are for Zahra and for all that she represents. Regardless of whether you desire to vote for a candidate or boycott the election, you can ‘vote’ for Zahra and endorse the vision that she stands for. Voting for Zahra is the opportunity to articulate the Iran we all hope for: one where women are equal, ethnic and religious minorities are equal, where there are no political prisoners, no executions, and fair and free elections.

We understand Iranians that are choosing not to vote and distrust these elections. In order to even run, one must meet the requirements set forth by the Guardian Council, an unelected body that vets all presidential candidates. Women are unapologeticly barred from running. The Guardian Council has banned all but 8 of the 686 candidates, including all women, from running. We also understand those that choose to vote even if it is for the lesser of two evils.

These are choices that every citizen should have and we are working to ensure that all Iranians have these basic rights: the right to vote; the right not to vote; the right to fair and free elections; the right to self-determination, and more.

We as a community must work hard for free and fair elections. We need to institute independent monitors, change the laws to allow all to be allowed to run, and [to make sure] the outcome of elections must be taken out of the hands of the Guardian Council and placed squarely in the palm of the people. Zahra’s campaign demands change.

WNN: Do you have any message for the 30 women who attempted to becomes the chosen candidates to run for presidency along with Zahra?

FM: Thank you for running and for keeping the light. The same way we fought for and won universal suffrage and the right to education, we will be able to enjoy our political rights including the right to serve our people as the president. If we make our demands clearly, consistently and collectively, we will win. It is matter of time.

WNN: What can we do to support Zahra right now?

FM: Join the campaign and vote for Zahra and her platform for human rights and democracy at http://www.vote4zahra.org/. You can also show your support by hosting an event; taking your photo with Zahra and sending it in to the campaign; sending postcards to government officials to demand fair and free elections; and spreading the word through social media. Check the “Volunteer” page of the website for more information. Lastly, you can follow her story at Vote4zahra.org.


Set in the aftermath of Iran’s fraudulent elections of 2009, “Zahra’s Paradise” is the fictional story of the search for Mehdi, a young protestor who has disappeared in the Islamic Republic’s gulags. Mehdi has vanished in an extrajudicial twilight zone where habeas corpus is suspended. What stops his memory from being obliterated is not the law. It is the grit and guts of a mother who refuses to surrender her son to fate and the tenacity of a brother—a blogger—who fuses culture and technology to explore and explode absence: the void in which Mehdi has vanished. Author of “Zahra’s Paradise” (and the series sequel “Vote4Zahra”) Amir Soltani talks with Drewery Dyke, Amnesty International Iran researcher, about the important themes and messages inside the book and how these messages were made. This 9:19 min March 2012 video has been produced by Amnesty International.


For more information on this story:


Peace activist and WNN – Women News Network special reporter on Iran, Elahe Amani, works with immigrant women who are part of the South Asian, Iranian and the Middle Eastern ethnic communities in Southern California to help women from these communities build peace at home and in society. Amani is also chair of Global Circles at Women’s Intercultural Network, a global women’s organization with grassroot circles in Uganda, Japan and Afghanistan. Amani has also lectured through the Women’s Studies Department and is also on the advisory board of The Women Center at CSU – California State University in Long Beach, California.

Lys Anzia is a human rights journalist who is also the founder and editorial media advisor for WNN – Women News Network. In addition to WNN some of her work can be seen on The Guardian News, Thomson Reuters Foundation – Trustlaw, CURRENT TV, Truthout, Women’s Media Center, Huffington Post World, as well as many other publications.


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