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Azita  Ghanizada

Azita Ghanizada

Afghan American Actress, Political Refugee & Activist

Biography

Azita Ghanizada began her journey to the U.S. as a political refugee when her family fled Afghanistan to Washington D.C., where they gained asylum thanks to her father's work with the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Growing up, Azita’s days were spent picking up family members coming out of various refugee camps, touring various Civil War battlefields with classmates, hearing about the war at home from the international news, and learning English by watching TV alongside her mother. It was the world of television that captured her imagination and set her on a strictly tabooed and forbidden path for a girl from Afghanistan. Read More >

With her mother’s suitcase from Kabul, Azita arrived in Los Angeles shortly after the horrific 9/11 attacks. Here, she faced a new challenge; the choice to erase her history and leave her identity behind or to stand up and give a face to a misrepresented and nearly invisible nation of people. With perseverance and blossoming talent, she managed to break onto TV, being the first woman from Afghanistan to have a starring regular role on a US TV series. She has shared the screen alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest heavyweights, including Academy Award winners Mahershali Ali, Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, and Academy Award nominees Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon, among others in Alphas, Complete Unknown, and Entrouage

The most gratifying role for Ghanizada since arriving on US soil, however, has been to challenge people’s often narrow viewpoint on people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. In 2014, as diversity became increasingly important to the entertainment industry, Azita saw an increase in the number of opportunities for roles portraying simple stereotypes. Her unwillingness to be folded into negative narratives uncovered a loophole that Middle Eastern performers were counted as Caucasian and without a lobby advocating for their inclusion, they had become invisible in the push for diversity. In 2015, she launched the first-ever advocacy group for Middle Eastern North African (MENA) performers, MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition, MAAC. In 2017, her efforts proved successful as the actors union, SAG-AFTRA agreed to include Middle Eastern North African (MENA) as its own diverse category in the producer's theatrical contracts. This marked a landmark decision to create a new diversity category into the SAG-AFTRA - AMPTP contract for the first time in 37 years. The following year, she presented the first-ever study of Middle Eastern North African Performers on TV, Terrorists and Tyrants, alongside a number of esteemed professors. Slowly and steadily Azita's work off-camera is blazing a new path for the next generation of MENA performers.  

This political asylum-seeker turned actress now finds herself speaking on panels about representation and inclusion issues in the media, fiercely advocating for women’s voices. Azita had previously served as a Global Ambassador for Womenforwomen.org, to create attention on Women's issues in the world's most war-torn regions and in 2018, she became an Ambassador to One Million Conversations, an organization working to eradicate fears and bias surrounding MENA and Muslim people. Read Less ^

Speaker Videos

Overcoming Stereotypes

Diversity in Casting

Speech Topics

From Refugee to the Red Carpet: An Evening with Azita Ghanizada

As a young girl, Azita Ghanizada did not see other women from Afghanistan on TV, unless it was a news story about war. In this personal keynote, Azita will share personal stories on overcoming the many obstacles put in her way to follow her dreams. From refusing to accept the limited thinking that girls in the arts were shameful, to not shying away from her identity in a post 9/11 Hollywood. Azita will take the audience on a journey of grit, courage, resiliency, and share how she somehow changed the business for the generations that will follow her.

The Middle Eastern Woman You Don't Get to See: Shining a Spotlight on Diversity

She has had one of the most impactful roles in Hollywood, taking on the tired trope of the oppressed Muslim woman. In this talk, Azita examines how the images that we see over and over again on TV has shaped the Islamophobic culture we now live in. A society filled with fear and divisiveness, driven by negative media imagery of a people unknown. Azita shares her personal stories about navigating stereotypes and how she is fighting to create a culture of positive MENA representation in Hollywood and beyond.

The Grace of a Nation

In this poignant and timely talk, Azita reflects on the American way, a nation with free thinking and the power of choice. Although her own life would challenge her families cultural status quo, her experiences paled in comparison to the women left behind in Afghanistan. A critical and cultural look at her own life compared to the true story of another Azita and the other women who did not flee Afghanistan, the juxtaposition of their vastly different fates, and how the grace of a nation allowing her family to seek asylum within its borders dramatically changed the course of her life.