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Uplift: A Conversation with Mehra Marzbani

Joe Shaffner |

December 4th, 2022  |  Uplift, a series: Conversations to raise awareness, lift voices, inspire

Mehra Marzbani is an actress, writer, and advocate. From dance to piano to musical theater, the California-based high school student has immersed herself in performance from a very young age, recently starring as Yasmina in Brat TV’s teen drama Chicken Girls. Beyond acting, she has also devoted herself to civic engagement and racial equity. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of MENAarts Newsletter, an e-newsletter that pays tribute to the multifaceted Middle East and North Africa (MENA) experience through art, and has drafted legislation establishing a National MENA Heritage Month. Her goal is to shift people’s perspectives of the world and create art and policy that promotes acceptance.

Recently, we caught up with Mehra for an interview.


Mehra, thank you for joining us today. And thank you for your work to raise the visibility of MENA artists and counter stereotypes of those from the region. Could you tell us a little more about MENAarts and what led you to establish it?

MEHRA: Last year, I had the privilege of acting in Brat TV’s Chicken Girls, where I played the first recurring hijabi character in the series. I was so proud to play her not only because she’s intelligent and confident, but because of the comments from viewers. Girls from around the world, particularly in the MENA region, were finally feeling seen in a positive way. That was when I realized the importance of authentic representation in countering harmful stereotypes. I decided I wanted to do more to bring awareness to and increase representation of the MENA community in the creative arts.  With those goals, I established MENAarts Newsletter. In each issue, we feature original literary and visual works from members of the MENA community and interviews with MENA artists who use their work to advance human rights. In this sense, MENAarts is more than just a push for creativity and connectedness within the MENA community, it’s a push for more MENA voices in civic and cultural conversations. 

I was given the opportunity to act, which was my dream; now I want to show girls all over the world what it means to feel seen so they, too, know it’s possible to fulfill their dreams.

Why do you think, Mehra, it’s still so challenging for MENA artists and MENA voices to be seen and heard? 

A great deal has happened since the fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban. Women have been protesting more openly in Afghanistan and more recently in Iran. It appears that their calls for greater respect, freedom of movement and choices, access to education, and bodily autonomy are growing and being heard more than they have been in the past. Do you think we are at a tipping point? Or, will history repeat itself? 

Credit Marie Lafranque Photography

MEHRA: The constant struggle between liberty and order is embedded into our own nation’s history; this especially rings true in MENA. I don’t see immediate change happening, because there’s always going to be pushback, and change is a long, cruel process, but because of successful social movements that are going on globally and the media spreading awareness, it is possible. Just recently, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to support the people of Iran–that’s certainly a good sign!

You know, Mehra, there are volumes being spoken and written about the strength, resilience, and fortitude of the women of Afghanistan, Iran, and women and girls across the world. We do not, however, speak as much about what men and boys can and should be doing to stop the violence, to shift mindsets, to support women and girls. What roles do you think men and boys can play in all of this?

MEHRA:  I think it’s always lovely to see men involved in a feminist movement, because the freedoms women are fighting for are human rights issues at the end of the day. I’d say–and this applies to anyone really who wants to get involved–become a researcher. Educate yourself about what’s going on in the Middle East and the world and see how you can best help support women and girls. The Internet is your oyster!

You know, Mehra, the MENAarts Newsletter covers a range of issues – from the arts to identity to intersectionality. Why not focus on just one of those? Why is it important to you to cover it all?

MEHRA: Well, I think that’s the beauty of art. Art is inherently a creative expression of one’s identity and community values. With MENAarts, I wanted to build camaraderie in the MENA community. But I also wanted to better the narratives being told about us. Art, because it presents such a rich space for intercultural dialogue, is why MENAarts can cover so many issues.

Thank you, Mehra, for uplifting MENA voices and the arts. Can you tell us what’s next for you on these and other projects over the coming months?

MEHRA: I’ve been working with a Congresswoman’s office to draft legislation establishing a National Middle Eastern North African American Heritage Month, and am crossing my fingers that it will be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives next year! Apart from that, I hope to continue producing more MENAarts content and hope to share many more stories when I begin college in the fall.

Mehra, what is one piece of advice you would give to younger artists and changemakers as they continue to face challenges to their rights, choices, opportunities, and wellbeing?

What is something few people know about you, Mehra?

MEHRA: I’m fascinated by dystopian fiction. Most people are surprised by this because I’m generally a cheerful person, so they wouldn’t think I’m interested in reading about a bleak, twisted world. What I really love about books like The Handmaid’s Tale are the characters, because they tend to be the most vulnerable and complex and I often turn to them for acting inspiration!

Mehra, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

MEHRA: Thank you for having me. This was a timely discussion to have, and I’m grateful to be able to contribute.


Credit Danielle Vernengo

For more on Mehra and MENAarts, be sure to follow her on Instagram and visit the website here.

And learn more about ICRW’s related work here: Gender-based violence, adolescents, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and men and masculinities

Cover photo credit: Danielle Vernengo.

 
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Joe Shaffner

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