Passionate about the plight of women, Nahal Soltani is a courageous young woman who has stepped out into dangerous unknown territories--risking her life--to speak out against injustice for women worldwide. The 32-year-old Toronto based model has an incredible 1.3 million Instagram fan base, but unlike many of her peers, she uses the platform to speak on social justice issues and topics related to gender inequality in her birth country of Iran. Many of Nahal’s followers are young Iranian women, and she strives to empower and motivate them in bringing about change in a society where change is not always welcomed and where advocates of social reform are routinely arrested and imprisoned for their activism.
The UN General Assembly has designated November 25 as the “International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.” The aim is to raise awareness about the challenges faced by women globally, specifically conditions and attitudes that normalize/legalize acts of violence against women. Following the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, race and gender inequality are once again hot topics and back in the media spotlight. Hundreds of women’s rights groups have also been busy organizing marches and trying to attract a bit of that spotlight on their specific cause and struggle. Here in Canada, more people are waking up and recognizing instances of inequality in our seemingly perfect society and questioning what needs to be done to pave the road towards a more just and equitable society.
Nahal grew up in Iran experiencing first-hand prejudice in a society that overtly and systematically discriminates against its female citizens and where many courageous women have either been killed or are currently in prison for pushing and fighting for reform. Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the takeover of power by western-backed Islamic radicals, the authorities have imposed a mandatory dress code that enforces all women to wear loose-fitting clothing and the hijab (headscarf) in public. Other laws prohibit women from attending sporting events in stadiums or leaving the country without their male guardians' permission.
As a teenager, Nahal was deeply troubled by such discrimination and was constantly in trouble with the authorities for disobeying their laws. She finds the memories of that period both terrifying and amusing. She recalls a story about cutting her hair really short and dressing up as a boy so that she could attend soccer matches with her guy friends. She was also sent home from school regularly for disregarding the dress code or for speaking up. “I was extremely fortunate to have the support of my mother and two older sisters. My father comes from a religious family, but he generally kept quiet on such matters. It was that support from my family that enabled me to stand up, without it, I probably would’ve been discouraged early on.”
At the young age of twenty-two, the emboldened Nahal decided to make a statement against the unjust Iranian laws by removing her hijab in public--a defiant act that has landed many women in prison. Soon after, her popularity started to grow, and thousands of young Iranian girls began following her on Instagram. Nahal gives credit to women activists before her for paving the road for her generation.
This new popularity proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she started receiving countless invitations to attend public events or act in music videos. “The offers typically came from other young artists who were tired of the status quo; they wanted to change and to cause change. They saw it as an opportunity to partner up or feature a defiant young girl in their art form. It was also helpful for me to attract new audiences and gain popularity. I am very grateful to those that helped me early on.” On the other hand, this newfound attention would eventually get the notice of authorities higher up and cause trouble for Nahal. She knew full-well of the risks of her actions and the heavy-handed punishment that she faced. Like so many other young Iranians, Nahal was forced to flee and start a new life in the West, where she continues to advocate for women’s rights as a public figure.
She has become an inspiration to many Iranian women of her generation and wants to fully empower those currently living in fear of expressing and embodying their innate female qualities. These days, trending posts on her social media accounts portray a successful and beautiful hijab-less Iranian woman enjoying her new life in Canada. She credits that move as the turning point of her life and career. Since relocating to Toronto, Nahal has been busy keeping up with requests from national and international brands looking to collaborate with her. She is regularly travelling to LA, London, and Amsterdam to sign with fashion and cosmetic companies wishing to showcase and introduce their products to her growing fanbase. She describes Toronto as a major fashion hub and a contender in the industry: “I understand why international brands are showing interest in this city; Toronto finally has the growth and the wealth to be noticed. The multicultural nature of the city also makes it an attractive destination for designers and other artists.”
Nahal finds Toronto to be a great place for any young female artist to live and work. She points out that Torontonians are very mindful of the value that art and artists add to their great city and do a wonderful job of protecting artists and public art space. “This city has been very good to me. I come from a place where young women are usually not taken seriously; by giving a spotlight to women like myself, publications like Chaarmz are changing that misconception.”
Nahal continues to blog about her current lifestyle, unapologetically embracing her multi-faceted talents as a model and pop singer; she released her first music album, “Who’s Like Me,” in 2012. She poses as an influential figure for not only women in Iran but for all women across the spectrum who continue to face adversity because of their genetic makeup. She encapsulates the beauty of a confident woman in pursuit of happiness, freedom, and equality.
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