Lily Pourzand’s childhood memories of Iran before the revolution are of vibrant colours and beautiful aromas. Her mother, Mehrangiz Kar, an award-winning human rights lawyer, writer, speaker and activist, was always dressed beautifully and smelled wonderful. Lily remembers her father, Siamak Pourzand, a journalist and film critic critical of Iranian leadership, as loving colourful ties and being especially particular about wearing perfectly polished shoes. “My childhood memories switched from full colour to black and white after the revolution, when even smelling good was a crime,” says Lily.
She always knew she wanted to work in a field for and about women. Although Lily had been proud to watch her mother fight for women’s rights as a lawyer and activist, she couldn’t picture herself practising law within a system that defined women as second-class citizens. But education is very important in the Iranian culture and, although she wanted to work at anything other than law, she applied for and was accepted to the Faculty of Law at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran. Following in her parents’ footsteps, she started to write – and found herself called to the Morality Court of the university after publication of her first article, which questioned why black was the only acceptable colour for the hijab. She was temporarily suspended from studying and was, along with her parents, in danger of becoming a victim of the chain murders of Iran – disappearances and murders of Iranian dissident intellectuals who had been critical of the Islamic Republic. After graduating with her law degree in 1999, Lily made her way to Canada and applied for refugee status upon arrival, leaving behind her family and many dreams. “I decided to create a home in my new country, Canada. Like many refugee/immigrant women, my journey has neither been smooth nor straightforward.”
Lily’s experiences have led to a deep understanding of systematic discrimination and her role as a fierce advocate for a more equitable and accessible world for girls and women. She graduated from York University with a Bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies in 2007 and continued her education with a Master’s degree in law from Osgoode Hall in 2010. In 2011, she began work as a women’s support counsellor at the Women’s Centre of York Region. Providing support to women encouraged Lily to focus again on writing and public speaking in order to tell the stories of the real challenges faced by women. She established a blog on the Huffington Post Canada website and used that platform to talk about gender equality.
Lily’s passion for change and growth motivated her to enter politics in 2013, when she announced her candidacy for the federal Liberal nomination for the riding of Willowdale, one of Toronto’s most diverse areas. Her main goal was to run a grassroots campaign to engage more immigrant women in political discussions and debates.
Lily joined Sandgate Women’s Shelter of York Region in 2015, where she is currently Director of Programs, responsible for overseeing the 24 hours emergency shelters for women and children fleeing abuse. She is also responsible for planning and delivering public education events and is renowned for her innovative initiatives for partnerships and collaborations.
The Woman Life Freedom uprising, the ongoing series of protests and civil unrest against the government of Iran that began in Tehran in September, 2022, resulted in the death at the hands of the Morality Police of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman arrested for not properly wearing the hijab. Amini’s death sparked anger and marches around the world to express solidarity with Iranian women and prompted Lily to publish an article in the Toronto Star to express the need for people to be the voice for the women of Iran. She is frequently invited to speak to politicians, influential think tank leaders, academics and the media on the remarkable courage exhibited by Iranian women over the past 44 years, living under the oppressive Gender Apartheid Regime and defying it, and the exceptional leadership demonstrated by Iranian women before and after the Woman Life Freedom uprising.
Lily and her family have paid dearly for their activism and opposition to the Iranian government regime. She returned to Iran in 2001, at great personal risk, to see her family and was able to help her mother, who had been arrested in 2000 for speaking out in favor of constitutional reform and secularism, travel to the United States for medical treatment. Mehrangiz Kar was convicted in absentia by an Iranian court and has remained in exile in the US where she has been active as a writer, researcher and lecturer at universities including Harvard, the University of Virginia and Columbia University. Following her mother’s arrival in the US, Lily’s father was kidnapped in Iran. Months later, Siamak Pourzand appeared in a forced confession TV show and was charged with spying for the United States, working for the Shah’s regime and channelling American money to the reformist press. He was put on trial in 2002 and sentenced to eleven years in prison, where received a regulated medical leave and was taken back and forth between prison and home. He died while under house arrest as a political prisoner at the age of 80 in 2011.
Lily says about her mission to support women and tell their collective and individual stories: “I survived a revolution, a war, political violence in public and private and a very difficult migration. I lived an extraordinary life, just like thousands and millions of other children who lived and grew up amidst revolution, war or political conflicts around the world. Many of them do not have the ability to tell us about their lives and survival.” Lily Pourzand’s experiences and passion for her mission make her an outstanding voice and advocate for girls and women, both in Canada and around the world.
You can see more of Lily’s impact in the visualizations below.
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