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Iranian Women You Should Know: Zinat Pirzadeh

August 19, 2020
8 min read
Zinat Pirzadeh is a popular and well-known Swedish comedian. In 2010 she was selected as the country’s most popular comedian
Zinat Pirzadeh is a popular and well-known Swedish comedian. In 2010 she was selected as the country’s most popular comedian
Zinat Pirzadeh originally wanted to learn about making hats, but she ended up taking a course in public speaking, where she met a stand-up comic
Zinat Pirzadeh originally wanted to learn about making hats, but she ended up taking a course in public speaking, where she met a stand-up comic
Pirzadeh was married when still only a child. Today, she campaigns against underage marriage in Sweden
Pirzadeh was married when still only a child. Today, she campaigns against underage marriage in Sweden

Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the last 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.

In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema... And so the list goes on.

This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. These articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.

IranWire readers are invited to send in suggestions for how we might expand the series. Contact IranWire via email ([email protected]), on Facebook, or by tweeting us.



Almost 30 years ago, Zinat Pirzadeh packed her suitcase and left Iran for Sweden with her three-year-old son. She was 23.

With the support of her older brother and her grandmother, Pirzadeh left to pursue a life away from the stifling oppression she faced as a young woman in Iran. Forced to marry while still a minor, she knew she couldn’t remain in a country that had allowed this to happen.

Today she is a stand-up comedian, a strong part of Sweden’s vibrant immigrant community who has always believed that laughter is the path to happiness. 

The journey to Sweden was difficult, and Pirzadeh remembers her early days there as being full of loneliness and poverty. "In that period of my life I lost so much weight due to hunger,” she remembers, before joking, “I could fit into smaller sizes —so I became a model.”

They lived in a cold, dark basement, but she knew how important it was to remain positive. "The more you are depressed, the more irony and laughter become a key to open all the doors. My grandfather always said there is a sign of God’s light in everybody’s heart that never gets dark. I always think about this and know no matter how depressed I am, I can see that life is not an absolute dead end and there are always ways to reach light and happiness for everybody. For me laughter and laughing is the path to happiness."

Pirzadeh is originally from Sari in northern Iran, and moving to northern Sweden amused her.  “Now everybody thinks I have a northern Swedish accent, but they do not know that when I speak in Persian, I have a northern Iran Persian accent,” she says.

But it was difficult for her to learn the language at first, and this contributed to her isolation. “The best way to progress is to learn the language of the host country,” Pirzadeh says. “People of northern Sweden are not very talkative. For that reason I realized the best place to talk is church. The language spoken by the pastor of the church I used to go to was a language with high literary richness. Under his influence I learned Swedish.”


The Path to Comedy

While Zinat Pirzadeh was waiting for the Swedish Migration Agency to come to a decision regarding her residency, she began to study.  After pursuing several disciplines, she finally settled on psychology and counseling, and eventually went on to study for a PhD. After graduating she taught at schools, and also worked as a job counselor in the Swedish government.

She also had a passion for the art of millinery, which she traced back to a childhood memory. "When I was a child I saw Queen Farah Pahlavi during her trip to Sari. On that day she was wearing a beautiful hat and, in my childhood dreams I saw her as a fairy, and I fell in love with hats. I still love hats. One day an advertisement about hat-making classes was sent to our house. I thought I could fulfill one of my wishes and make a hat similar to the hat the queen wore on that day.”

But not enough people signed up for the class, and it was canceled. Pirzadeh was given the option of getting her money back or joining another class:  the art of public speaking. "I still did not know Swedish well and I thought this could help me to improve,” she says.

The teacher for the class turned out to be one of the most famous stand-up comedians in Sweden. He noticed Pirzadeh was articulate and was struck by her talent for expressing herself in a unique way. "He told me, ‘what you say is funny without you knowing it. You are a born comedian."

Later, famous Swedish stand-up comedian Anna-Lena Bergelin contacted Pirzadeh and asked her to work with her on a short program before she took it to the stage. "At that time I knew nothing about comedy and I had no intention to follow this path,” Pirzadeh says. 

The performance was a huge success, so much so that she decided to leave her day job as a counselor and pursue stand-up as a career. Travel would be part of the job, and she wanted to take her act from city to city.

Zinat Pirzadeh says at the beginning of her career, she faced harsh attacks and criticism, and even racism. "One of the first jokes was about Namaz [one of the five daily obligatory prayers expected of devout Muslims, also known as Salah outside Persian communities] being an aerobic sport and that it was mandatory to prevent obesity. After that I was bombarded with insults. Racist groups threatened me. For a while, I decided to give it up and did not work. Then I thought, if I do not pursue the profession I want to here in Sweden, what is the difference between this place and a prison? So I introduced some changes in my work and returned to the world of comedy."


Change Through Comedy

Pirzadeh says that in Iran, stand-up comedy is still very much focused on people using discriminatory or sexist remarks to get a laugh."That is why the culture of laughter in a country like Sweden is different from that in Iran,” she says. "This culture might not be funny for Iranians, and even absurd. Nevertheless, it is righteous and human."

She speaks freely about racism, women’s freedom, and Islamic fundamentalism on stage. "After working as a stand-up comedian for a period of time, I feel I am in a situation where I can change certain things with my act. From the first time I performed, I saw that as my responsibility, because I felt that without such goals what I do is just a waste of time."

Pirzadeh’s education in psychology and social education counseling not only opened the way for her, it has been very helpful in the career she has embraced. She believes that no matter how nervous, prejudiced, or racist people are, laughter has the power to temper hatred and anxiety. "In one place I performed, a racist person shouted: ‘Go back home!’ In response I said, ‘I am already on my way back home!’ Another time when they made the same comment, I asked: ‘To which home? To your home or will you come with me to my home?’ In most cases the result was that they smiled with me and were less furious."

In 2010,  Zinat Pirzadeh was awarded popular comedian of the year, and she remains well known on the Swedish comedy scene.


Activist and Novelist

Pirzadeh is also a novelist and her book Butterfly in Chain has been translated into several languages and featured on Sweden’s bestseller list, though it is no longer available in Persian. The novel is part of a three-part series, and the second volume, Butterfly in Winter, is due to be published in June 2021.

Pirzadeh originally sought asylum with her son in Sweden to escape her marriage, which was arranged for her when she was still a child. She is an active campaigner against underage marriage, which continues to take place in some immigrant communities in her host country. "When I was still teaching, I worked in a neighborhood with many immigrant residents. I had only two Swedish pupils. I noticed that some of my girl students did not return to school after the summer holidays. On following up I realized that many of them had yielded to compulsory marriages. I contacted various institutions and informed the police."

But officials told Pirzadeh they couldn’t help."They said on the basis of respect to other religions and cultures, we cannot do anything. It was then that I began to campaign and had numerous meetings with senior police officers, members of parliament and Swedish ministers. They all stressed that there should be a law to prevent it. Following lengthy cooperation with several NGOs, UNICEF, and MPs, the law was approved on July 1, 2014.”

Following the efforts of Pirzadeh and other activists, the law is due to be further amended in July 2021. Prior to these efforts, there had been no ban on foreign nationals living in the country having multiple wives or marrying underage children if the marriages had taken place outside Sweden. The ban had applied only when one person in the couple was a Swedish citizen. But following Pirzadeh’s work, the ban on child marriages now applies to all Swedish citizens and residents, even if the marriage was registered outside Sweden.

Pirzadeh’s extensive human rights activities have been praised by the United Nations in Sweden, and she was honored with Sweden’s Human Rights Defender of the Year Award.

Read other articles in this series:

Marzieh Boroumand, Children's Wartime Puppeteer

Fatemeh Sayah, the First Iranian Woman on a Diplomatic Mission

Tuba Azmoudeh, Founder of Iran's First Girls' High School

Moniro Ravanipour, Outspoken Writer in Exile

Arfa Atraei, Master of Music

Goli Ameri, Tehran-born Face of US Diplomacy

Shahindokht Sanati: Lady of the Roses

Taj ol-Saltaneh, an Early Iranian Feminist




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