When I was young, my dream was to become a famous actress or Michael Jackson. I was a child of the 80s, and MJ was revered as a kind of God. As it turned out, neither of those dreams were to be fulfilled. Instead, I focused on filmmaking and making an artform out of the ‘broke artist’ cliché.
Other friends of mine have thankfully taken other paths and for one of them this meant actually helping humanity in some way by becoming a human rights lawyer.
Golriz Ghahraman is a former refugee from Iran brought up in New Zealand. She is an Auckland based lawyer and former UN prosecutor who has worked on some of the biggest human rights trials in recent history. Just recently she decided to also step into politics and announced her candidacy for the Green Party Aotearoa.
I sat her down and over some happy hour proseccos, and we discussed why this is such an important step for women now, particularly women of colour and women from immigrant backgrounds.
You already have a very impressive resume – an Oxford grad, human rights lawyer and prosecuting for the United Nations including working on the tribunals for Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia. Was getting into politics just the next step?
Not at all. The next step was staying at the UN forever! Or focusing on my first love, bringing Bill of Rights challenges in court back here. But the Green Party has been my natural home and whānau for a few years now. I found New Zealand changed when I moved back home in 2012. It wasn’t just that we had a right-wing government trying to sell off our protected native bush to oil explorers, or privatise prisons, or defund Women’s Refuge in the middle of an epidemic of domestic and sexual violence (let’s face it). [There was an] unreal air of total apathy that came with it. So I went back to the Green Party as a volunteer, ended up co-convening Auckland and eventually on the national Executive, initially just to shield myself against the radio silence. The Greens felt Kiwi to me, because it isn’t Kiwi to leave kids hungry or cut the DOC budget.
What got me thinking seriously about running as a candidate though was that I want a different sort of politics than the empty populism growing in NZ and around the world. I don’t want us electing people for the best sound bites or being ‘good at twitter’. Being a lawmaker is more than getting attention on social media (surely we can hire those people to communicate the message?). It is about having the courage to protect democracy and serve the most vulnerable as well as the majority - but it is also about having the skills and expertise to actually solve those problems in a legislative context. I knew I could do that, and I realised I had to stop just talking about it!
What do you think are the fundamental issues we need to address here in New Zealand - particularly for young women?
One of the biggest issues has to be the record inequality we’re experiencing in Aotearoa today. We’ve had unprecedented cuts and privatisation of our public services, and a cultural attack on the poor that is unreal to me. Those things always disproportionately affect women, children, and minorities. The lack of state housing means women are less able to leave violent relationships, and when homelessness grows, women most often have the extra weight of caring for their children. Even living alone they are far more vulnerable.
At the other end of the spectrum women are consistently under-represented in public life – that is a key issue undermining our democracy. Our representation on boards is abysmal compared to our glowing achievements – for example, overtaking male university graduates. Governance bodies from Parliament down are dominated by men. And in the arts, as you well know, women’s representation on and behind the lens is incredibly limited.
Since you announced your candidacy, a lot of people have been supportive, which is amazing. However, you have also received some racist (based on you being an Iranian and former refugee) and even sexist backlash (based on your looks) in comments sections. How are you handling it?
I have had such overwhelming warmth pour out from all sorts of communities from around the world, so I’m in the privileged position of knowing that my message or story has resonated positively with a lot of people. From that solid base, I can mostly deal with the aggressive and mostly race based comments (though I mostly do not read them).
There were two interesting threads in the negative comments. One was my profile is too perfectly progressive so I must be an undercover Islamic plant. “What if she’s been groomed for this her whole life” – because I had to go to Oxford, live in Africa, be a UN lawyer, and join the Greens in order to one day attack NZ from the backbenches of its parliament. Almost too obvious.
The second was that my refugee bona fides was undermined by the fact I studied at Oxford. “If she’s a refugee how did she afford Oxford?” – The answer is: I worked, a lot. I worked as a barrister for three years before I went. I kept the link to the Oxford International human rights law Masters degree on my desktop the whole time for motivation. Then I worked at the Rwanda Tribunal the whole time I studied. That is how a refugee girl goes to Oxford.
Do you think that now, in the aftermath of Brexit and the Trump election, people who in the past have not been interested in becoming active might embrace activism?
Now is absolutely the time for activism. In fact, as a wiser activist than I once said: Activism is my rent for living on this planet.
Ultimately the sinister face of populism is what really pushed me over the edge to run as a candidate. The hate speech became scary. I knew that representation is important. I knew that to stop the very real attacks against minorities and women, we had to get really active, to support each other, and forge paths. We have to become leaders ourselves.