13 Oct 2017

Golriz Ghahraman on discrimination, hate, and white dudes on Twitter

6:00 pm on 13 October 2017

'We're not in a post-race, post-gender society at all.'



Iran-born New Zealander Golriz Ghahraman says Trump’s rhetoric of persecution and his singling out of people based on race and religion will get worse if nothing is done to counter it.

Iran-born New Zealander Golriz Ghahraman says Trump’s rhetoric of persecution and his singling out of people based on race and religion will get worse if nothing is done to counter it. Photo: Luke McPake / The Wireless

*Meg Williams has a strong connection to the Green Party as Young Greens Co-Convener, and has been a member of the party for the last three years.

"It's funny," Golriz Ghahraman says. "My Twitter account is going into the national archives... It makes me smile sometimes to think all this stuff is going to go somewhere and someone's going to look at it."

Last Saturday, Ghahraman became the Greens' newest MP, when results of the special votes were announced and the party gained an extra seat. She has become widely known as the first former refugee to run for New Zealand Parliament and, at only 35 years old, has made a name for herself as an Oxford graduate and human rights lawyer, working on high-profile cases such as this recent family carers case. 

Ghahraman laughs in disbelief as she tells the story of a political commentator who questioned her intelligence on Twitter. Realising he had perhaps gone too far, and that his behaviour warranted an apology, the commentator decided to send a private apology to Ghahraman's partner, comedian Guy Williams, instead of apologising to her. 

"How embarrassing is that?" she says, her hands held up to the sides of her face with second-hand shame. "Every time I say it I feel so embarrassed for this dude... he said in that message, 'I just don't want you to think I'm another one of those white guys who just hates Golriz.' But he didn't apologise to me, like I wasn't human enough for him to apologise to."

When I spoke with Ghahraman this week, it became apparent that she felt a degree of responsibility, as the first MP to have entered New Zealand as a refugee, to be the one to withstand the discrimination that someone of her background faces, in order to normalise the idea of our Parliament being a much more diverse place. 

Last Saturday - on the same day that Ghahraman, who is Iranian-born, became an MP - Stuff published an article by Duncan Garner expressing his distress at seeing people of multiple ethnicities in a long line at Kmart while he shopped for underwear. 

"We're not in a post-race, post-gender society at all," Ghahraman says. "Not even remotely."

We were discussing Ghahraman's experience during the election campaign, which unfortunately involved large amounts of race-hate directed at her on social media.

"I wasn't as surprised as I think the people around me were when some of the attacks on me personally came out, but I think the fact that they were sustained was a bit of a surprise - the fact that it just kept going for the whole election, and it's still going now."

Naturally, our conversation turns to Garner's article.

"Essentially," Ghahraman says, "what he was saying is that he hopes that immigration policy is more race-based, because he wants New Zealand to look like him more than it looks like me... He literally doesn't want people to look different to him. So yeah, that's what we're dealing with. And I do look different. And I can't shed my skin. So I have to keep talking about it."

Ghahraman and her parents came to New Zealand as asylum seekers, as opposed to quota refugees. Where quota refugees often have their status as refugees determined before they reach their destination, asylum seekers must first travel to their destination and go through a legal process in order to be able to gain refugee status.

"Basically," Ghahraman says, "the standard for refugee status is that you have to prove that you have a well-founded fear of persecution, based on one of the grounds in the Refugee Convention, [some of which are] nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, or political belief. So it's actually quite limited and the standard is really high in terms of persecution, like, it can't just be discrimination or something like that, it has to be that you're facing torture or death or imprisonment."

It was the "political belief" ground on which Ghahraman's family sought refugee status. They had been opposed to the regime in a rather vocal way, which had ended up becoming dangerous for the family. Ghahraman tells a story about her mother, who had studied psychology, applying for jobs but refusing to sit the religious exam, and being vocal about it being an unethical requirement for work.

"All I remember growing up is people talking about how we needed to get out, and how our phones were tapped. The repression was really quite real... My parents were in the revolution trying to overturn the previous regime, and then they ended up with this far more oppressive regime. So it's kind of a tragic situation having this entire population or generation of people who are really engaged with democracy issues, and then suddenly the lid is really violently put on their movement."

When they did arrive in Aotearoa and successfully gain refugee status, the family immediately needed work to survive. Though her father was previously an agricultural engineer, and her mother a psychologist, neither of them were ever able to work in those fields in New Zealand.

"I think, like most immigrants, what happened was that they just immediately needed to get work to survive, so that's what they did... To go through the re-qualification process wasn't something that they really had time for, it was kind of more like 'we just need to survive."

Now their daughter is an MP. Where the potential discrimination and hate might scare some people away from running for such high profile positions, Ghahraman's understanding is that this is perhaps what it takes to change New Zealanders' attitudes towards migrants and people of colour.

"I got such a broad spectrum of attacks. They were sort of ranging from race hate to muslim hate to immigration hate, women, young women, women that look a certain way... The hope is that the more they see of me as just a professional, or a politician, it will normalise. And then the next time someone from my background runs it'll be a little bit more normalised, and then as we get more and more diversity in our public forums, one day we won't notice it so much."

What brought Ghahraman hope in an otherwise horrendous week for race-relations was that so many people were outraged at Duncan Garner's article, and so many people were not willing to let it slide.

"I think we have a sense that in New Zealand everything is okay on that front. Because we're next to our big, terribly racist neighbour, and so we chill out and we let the odd joke slide and we let the odd opinion piece slide, and then before you know it people are actually being silenced and actually living with all this internalised shame, and women are being scared off politics... At least someone like me standing and having those very public attacks happen has brought a few people out to kind of fight, so that's nice."