Interview: Golriz Ghahraman

Golriz Ghahraman

interview with Philip McKibbin

Golriz Ghahraman is an Iranian-born New Zealand politician and human rights lawyer. She was a child asylum seeker, and became Aotearoa’s first refugee Member of Parliament as a member of the Green Party. She previously worked at the United Nations.

Golriz Ghahraman

In your maiden speech to parliament in 2017, you addressed the resistance you had received as an Iranian refugee and Green Party candidate. You said, ‘I love this country. But a love of this country – patriotism – means expecting the very best for her. It means fighting for the country we know is possible.’ Then, alluding to Cornel West, you said, ‘So I criticise leaders who fall short, I protest, I fight for equality and justice, because that is what love looks like in public.’ Could you say more about what political love means to you?

Yeah. I guess the idea that I was expressing there was that I felt like my valid participation in democracy – which is a form of equality – in public life, in our broader community, was seen as a threat. I’m being very kind in describing it as a ‘threat’! (laughs) People were opposed to someone like me having that level of equality, as to be able to stand as a candidate in a general election and participate fully in democracy. They hated that, and what I got was hate. And one of the things that was weaponised against me was this idea of patriotism as an unconditional love for not only New Zealand, but that it should manifest in support of whatever our leadership was doing, and that criticism, even in the context of a democratic election by an opposition political party candidate, was seen as hateful. I was seen as being hateful, and that wasn’t a criticism that was directed toward the policies that I was supporting or representing; it wasn’t about anything in particular that I’d said. It was about who I am as a person being the one to say those things.

So it was a really deep, deep, sort of an attack, I think, to anyone who was receiving it, cos it was about whether or not you are grateful and love the country that has saved your life as a refugee, and it was about you as a human person and your origin, your birth nation and the fact that you’ve had to flee, being what defines what you’re allowed to say and do in public life. And so, I think the one thing I knew when I knew what a maiden speech even was and that I was going to do it was that I had to say something about this. There was absolutely no reason for me to even be in politics, or in parliament doing a maiden speech, if I wasn’t gonna address this idea of equality and democracy meaning that we can criticise, that we all can criticise leadership, and that that, in fact, that manifestation of what it means to be equal was what love looks like in public.

So I felt like the attack was so fundamental that if I didn’t redefine what love is – for a country, a nation, a community – which includes protest, then the fact that I’d been in public life at all and had worn that criticism would actually mean that my presence is detrimental, cos there’d be people out there who are from my background consuming those attacks that I was getting and there wasn’t enough of a platform before then for me to respond.

Sign up for the e-newsletter

Success! You've been added to the list.

You have spoken and written about the importance of lived experience to your politics – as examples, you have mentioned your experience as a child refugee, a woman of colour, and someone living with multiple sclerosis. How have your own experiences of love informed your politics?

Just to bring it back to public life, I certainly see it as an expression of collective love to say that the Refugee Convention, for example – which is a very widely-ratified, accepted piece of international law that New Zealand accedes to – that that protection was granted to my family. So that was an act of love that I’ve received, and I feel very emotional about that moment of being accepted and saved from harm. Even though that feels like a policy-level, public expression of love, I think it was very, very personal to us, and I think it is very personal to every refugee once they’re resettled in a country and in a community and they have that status granted to them. And even the word is very, ‘refuge’ – like, to be granted refuge, especially when you’ve experienced harm, is very personal. So it’s like being loved and accepted by the global community, and by this particular community, where you can now live and grow and put down roots and have a family. That’s what the idea is, that you won’t be harmed again. I do hold that as a real moment of affection.

Iranian culture is a very loving culture in terms of an extended family version of what love looks like. And it’s very, very expressive – emotions are expressed, grief is expressed, and love is expressed. With every casual interaction you call someone ‘darling’, and your parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles would very readily say that they would die for you, constantly, cos it’s a colloquial thing that people say. So it’s very expressive! (laughs) I’m much less-so than that, so I feel like I was saved a little bit by stoic Kiwi culture.

But I also experienced love very early on in a time of great, great turmoil. I was born in the year that Islamic law was introduced to Iran and the war with Iraq started. So women and minorities – and men who were political, as well – were targeted very viciously. I think it might have been the following year that the massacre of the communist-identifying dissidents happened. So that set the tone for how dissidency would be received, how criticism of the Iranian government would be received. Which is ironic, cos that was the thing I wasn’t meant to do here either, apparently! And of course, women were suddenly outsiders, and I was a girl child, and my mother, who was my primary caregiver at the time, was suddenly in a state of grief for her lost humanity and deep anger – such deep anger – that I don’t think has ever died within her. And my dad was very political and had been photographed in protests, and so he was very fearful, and his friends and family were very political, and they kept disappearing, either to prison or they would become refugees, and you wouldn’t hear about them. So I was loved by these people who were really angry and really sad and uncertain.

I guess for me the model is that you engage with public life as much as you do with private life, and that’s what love looks like. I don’t remember a time when our private home life, for me as a child, was dominant over the conversations over what we needed to do for the country, and other people. People were dying, and amputees were coming back from the war, and children were being conscripted, and women were being lashed, so it was constantly about what we could do about those things, and what even I could do about those things, and everything was political. Like, what are you gonna buy your mum for mother’s day? Well, you need to buy it from somewhere that it’s a handmade thing that was made by a minority. (laughs) It was, every little thing had to be thought about. So maybe I’ve got a little bit of a warped view of what that looks like. (laughs) I’ll cry much more easily about something that’s happened out in the world than like, you know, having MS.

Are there political figures who inspire and sustain your political love?

I am endlessly really inspired by Iranian women lawyers who have stayed. Iranian opposition is everywhere, and it’s like in L.A., and there’s all these men who have radio stations and T.V. programmes on YouTube, and they’re forever formulating the next government – but there’s these women, like Nasrin Sotoudeh, who’s in prison now, and Shirin Ebadi, who has had to go into exile, who was the Nobel laureate. They are there – there’s teams and teams of them – constantly working out how to get an inch – an inch – for the people that are left there: for women who are losing their kids because the justice system is stacked against them; for political prisoners, at the risk of themselves becoming political prisoners; for the Baháʼí community, who are one of the most oppressed religious minorities – that’s a religion that’s indigenous to Iran, they’re not even allowed to participate in higher education, it’s harrowing. They just keep bringing these actions, keep becoming more and more and more well-versed in this Iranian constitution to keep using it against the regime, and pushing in a very real way.

Nothing I could ever do would be as difficult as that, or as meaningful, because there’s 70 million people or whatever trapped in Iran, and it’s really easy to talk about human rights here.

Golriz Ghahraman

As a human rights lawyer and Member of Parliament, you work within imperfect political systems. The criminal justice system, for example, is deeply flawed – it could be argued that a truly loving society would have a thoroughly transformed justice system (which even, perhaps, transcends the notion of ‘criminality’). How do you nurture your moral and intellectual integrity in your work within these systems?

I’m not saying I’ve perfected anything per se, but I think it’s really, really important to keep remembering who you’re accountable to and whose criticism you should be really fearful of, and I think it has to be the people who have the least platform or voice, in terms of political life. Like, if you look at the Israel and Palestine situation – just because that’s front of mind for me right now, I guess, and that happened over the last week – it’s sort of, ‘Why do we keep talking about Palestine? Why are we continuously as outraged as we are about that when there’s other conflicts happening as well?’ And I think it’s the disparity in might. I think it’s about the fact that it’s literally the world’s second most powerful military against this trapped civilian population. But when I talk about Palestine – I mean, it’s Green Party kaupapa, but I’m not accountable in my own mind so much to the Green Party or, say, parliamentary staff, or to opposition leaders, or the Labour Party, or the Israel Institute, as I am to the community of Palestinians here. So I think you have to continuously check in with the people that are most affected, that have the least voice, and if you’re doing what they want you to do, or if they feel you haven’t done what they needed you to do, then I think that’s where the measure should lie. I’ve tried to continue to do that, but I think it’s really easy in the political world to become disconnected from that.

It does help, I think, if you’ve gone through a sector. I worked outside of parliament for 10, 15 years, or whatever it was, so I think I feel the watchful eyes of the child rights sector, or the actual people in the Human Rights Commission and the Criminal Bar Association. If you’ve only had politics and you’ve only ever consulted with sectors and never been at the front lines, I think it’s easier to let go, and you end up going along with the louder voices. They just are louder, they’re more present, you don’t have to constantly access them; whereas with others, you actually have to, like, find out their phone number and call them, and be like, ‘What do you want? How can I do that thing?’ and then call the next person, and the next person. (laughs)

I think that helps, and I do think criminal defence practice is the purest form of human rights law in our system, domestically. It’s every single day that you’re dealing with a prejudiced system, and it’s you advocating for this person who’s stuck in that system, and dealing with police powers and unlawful detention and search and undue process, and it’s every single day the Bill of Rights Act, and I don’t think there is any other area in New Zealand, where you walk into a district court and that’s what’s happening on a mass scale. There’s hundreds of cases going through. Every time someone stands up, they’re applying the Bill of Rights Act, and they’re standing between the mighty force of the state and this individual person who’s already, probably, triply marginalised for various reasons.

Most of the clients that I served who were in custody couldn’t read or write – like, no one could read or write. It was just so normal. You couldn’t give them a piece of paper and be like, ‘This is your police charge sheet.’ You have to adapt to that, and you have to deal with it really respectfully and uphold their humanity while you’re doing that. You can’t lose their trust. They can’t see you as looking down on them – that would be an absolute breach of your responsibility to them. So how do you read that to them without being weird about it? Or, everyone’s come up and it’s been the worst day of their life, and the complainant’s their family member. Every time you felt like you should have got a psych report for someone, it would have been a removed child. It was so common. If you had a little bit of an inkling that you should get a psych report for someone, 80% of the time you’d get it and they’d gone through the foster care system cos they were a Māori child that was removed.

It’s so much cheaper just to support those mums, way back. So much cheaper just not to be racist, than these billion-dollar prisons!

As well as working for legal change, you have called for cultural change. In your view, what sort of cultural changes do we need to realise the Politics of Love?

So many levels.

So, obviously, the things that massively stand out are things like misogyny, and racism, and ableism, and whatever, and we just need to get rid of those. But that’s a very weird and oversimplified thing to say. And then we often also say, well, we just need to acknowledge our privilege.

I was talking to Judy Bailey about my book before, and it was so funny. She was like, ‘Do you think that New Zealand is inherently racist?’ and I was like, ‘Well, no, no one’s inherently good or bad or inherently anything, but we are racist, and so we need to be open to learning.’ But I think if you just relate it back to the experience that I’ve had, and you go, ‘Okay, what can we do to make public life safe for a woman who’s from a refugee background; who is brown; who is from the Middle East, so perceived to be Muslim?’ So if you just take that, one of the things that I often get screamed at about is identity politics. So, ‘you’re using identity politics’. And there’s that idea where it’s only identity politics if it’s a minority identity, or a marginalised identity. So we’ve never realised that majorities, or the status quo, also carry those same identities and they have benefitted vastly from those identities. Everything is identity politics. The size of that door, and the fact that a wheelchair can or maybe can’t get through it is identity politics. You know, someone has decided what is ‘standard’ to suit them, and violently attacked the rainbow community for years and years through its laws and whatever else – that’s identity politics. So it’s not a gay man standing up and saying, ‘We’ve got to reform homosexuality laws.’ It’s the guy who put in place the homosexuality laws – that was identity politics. And if we start to look at it that way, what love looks like is dismantling those systems and going, ‘We are actually willing to start over.’

Like, this police force was implemented by people playing identity politics. It’s not the critique of the police force that alone is identity politics. We have to accept that there’s these dominant identities built into, woven into, every single institution, and we have to be willing to undo that, and say, ‘It’s unfair. What does it look like if everyone’s identity is duly noted?’ And ‘duly’ means, if it affects you most then it should reflect your needs most, and otherwise let’s just be equal about it. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that. I think that as far as we’ve come is to go, ‘Well, maybe we should listen to marginalised communities or voices and try and do them a favour.’ We’ve never recognised that, actually, we actively took away from them, as dominant identity holders.

I don’t know if we’ll get there, but I think we can try. (laughs)

You have a broad portfolio, and it includes human rights, foreign affairs, and trade – things which most New Zealanders understand as having relevance to us – as well as refugee policy and ethnic communities – which are often labelled ‘minority issues’. Are these really ‘minority issues’, though? How would love treat them?

Yeah, I find it really conflicting. I mean, refugee policy, I get, cos it’s like immigration policy. It’s not policy about immigrants per se, it’s just immigration policy – so, just the visa system. It’s literally immigration policy. But then once immigrants are here, then the whole range of policies obviously affect them. And refugee policy’s the same: it’s just about, ‘How do we run our quota system?’ or whatever. So I’m okay with that. (laughs)

But ethnic communities, or women, or whatever, starts to be conflicted for me, in terms of whether they should be freestanding. There’s benefits to them being freestanding policies, cos then you have someone that’s solely responsible, and maybe there needs to be that point of contact and watchful eye, if they’re empowered in that way – which they’re not necessarily in political parties that don’t value those issues. But then it also means that you’ve ghettoised the input or interests of those communities. So you’ve potentially exercised a ‘tick-box’ approach. Whereas, obviously, those communities are actually really internally diverse. Ethnic communities also have disabled people in them; they have a queer segment; they have women and men. So, what is an ethnic issue? And then you go, well, we also use roads, and we use the justice system, and we use healthcare, and we go to school – so is it actually education? Is it justice?

I think the starting point of what love may look like in terms of the way politics treats those community-based portfolios – so, they’re not issues-based, they’re community-based – is to recognise our humanity, and the fact that we are internally diverse, so that there isn’t one sort of blanket tick for the interests of ethnic communities; and that even within our communities, there are power structures, there are loud voices, there’s conservative religious voices, there’s progressive feminists – that they’re all authentic and real to our communities. You know, when we look at how someone interacts with the justice system, we don’t ever think that women and men will come through the same, but for some reason we think ethnic communities might? But actually internal to that is a queer, brown, recent migrant is going to have a different experience to a third-generation, straight woman. We have humanity, and that makes us diverse. So if we come to those portfolios in that way, I think that would be quite loving – but I don’t think we have, as far as I’ve seen. 

In your book, Know Your Place, you talk about the responsibility you have felt to your country of origin, Iran, which lost ‘generations of human resource, innovation and activism’. You write, ‘For me, the state-sponsored atrocity that shaped my life was ongoing. Helping build accountability for state crimes was part of the reparation I felt I owed for escaping.’ I find it fascinating that you used the term ‘reparation’ here – and it made me think about the privileges that all of us enjoy as New Zealanders. In what ways do these privileges shape our responsibilities to people living in other places?

There’s that great quote: ‘Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.’ I thought for a long time – because my parents were activists, and they paid the ultimate price for their activism, and they did lose pretty much everything, and as they live on as refugees here, I think it becomes more and more stark to me how much they’ve lost. You know, as they’ve become retired, and their family members passed away, and so it just builds and builds. It’s immeasurable what they have lost. And yet, others have stayed, and they’ve never had their freedom. I mean, anyone who’s my age – and there’s that bit about Behrouz Boochani, and what he lost is vastly different and far worse than anything I could ever say I lost. And actually, our conversation was really interesting about race. (laughs)

So, maybe I used the wrong word to say ‘reparations’, cos I hate for people to feel- It’s a very personal feeling that I have, and it’s a bit- You know, it’s that thing we have much more compassion sometimes for our friends and people in the community than we have for ourselves. So I do feel guilty – like, a type of survivor’s guilt – and I do feel like I have to pay some type of reparation, not just to Iranians, but to communities that have had it harder than I have. But I don’t want every refugee to feel that way. (laughs) You actually don’t owe anything for being free from torture, or persecution, or war. Those are fundamental human rights. You don’t have to be grateful, even, because as you note, some of us are born into that, and that’s great.

In fact, I think it’s the idea of feeling guilty for privilege that’s maybe hindered the kind of race equity and gender equity movements the most. (laughs) We’re not trying to get anyone to feel guilty for having the level of freedom and access that any human being should have. We just want those people to acknowledge that they may be benefitting from somebody else being marginalised and help undo the marginalisation. So maybe it’s not so much a feeling of needing to give reparations so much as that responsibility to help bring others up.

Yeah, I mean, having said that, I said this to my dad the other day, cos he’s retired and he was feeling like he wasn’t doing enough for the world, and I said, ‘Well, everything that we do in human rights – everything we do in human rights and law-making and everything else, but especially in that kind of atrocity crimes-type law – is to make sure that most of society doesn’t have to be engaged in those things; like, most of society can do their gardening, and walk their kids to school, and dance and drink and all of those things.’ (laughs) It’s not to say that there should be any guilt for enjoying the freedom that human rights and justice institutions like at the UN are supposed to afford us.

(Interviewed on 26 May, 2021.)

Sign up for the e-newsletter

Success! You've been added to the list.