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July 24, 2019 | by  | in Interview |
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“The movement is diverse, the battlegrounds are different”: Talking feminism with Golriz Ghahraman.

 

 “Politics is about identity. Because your identity has defined everything, that is identity politics. You design the world to suit your identity.” – Golriz Ghahraman 

As the first refugee to be sworn in as an MP in New Zealand, Golriz Ghahraman has made history. Having studied at Oxford and then worked as a lawyer in both UN Tribunals and the NZ Supreme Court, Golriz has a longstanding history of enforcing human rights, upholding the rule of law, holding governments accountable, empowering women engaged in peace and justice initiatives, advocating for child and disability rights, and being involved in refugee and migrant rights activism. An impressive portfolio for a woman not yet 40 years old. As an Iranian–Kiwi woman who was a child asylum seeker in 1990, Golriz has become the embodiment of diversity, progression, and inclusion within New Zealand politics. However, this was not always her intention: Early in our interview, Golriz stressed that she never entered politics as anything more than a human rights lawyer and a Green, certainly not in order to position herself as a representative voice for women, POC, or refugees.

Originally, we interviewed Golriz with the intention to understand her experiences as a female refugee MP and her views on feminism. Armed with a set of pre-written questions, we had a fairly good idea of how we planned the interview to go. What resulted, however, was a connection that we never saw coming: a complex and nuanced discussion of the Westernisation of the feminist movement, the hierarchy of gender and racial identities within experiences of oppression, and the need to reconstruct the rhetoric of ‘women’s issues’ being somehow separate from ‘other’ issues. Straight off the bat, Golriz presented herself as someone of authenticity, someone who means what they say and says what they mean; a refreshing face of politics. It was clear that feminism, for her, was not a buzzword to be pulled out when convenient, a spare-time hobby, afterthought, or something that she showcased for constituents; feminism was and is consistently a priority at the forefront of both her political agenda and personal motivations.

As is common within individuals from marginalised or minority communities, Golriz wanted to cement her political identity separately from her place as a woman of colour. In the meritocratic dream, or some dystopian version of an entirely equal and equitable society, maybe that would be possible. However, it soon became that, although her political identity was not designed to be one of representation, the role was imposed upon her by others. “[Being] a woman and a refugee and a woman of colour, and a woman from the so-called Muslim world means something, to different people. Whether it’s that they hate it and want it excluded and gone and shut down and silenced, or they love it; they never thought they’d see it, they feel inspired by it, they feel safe talking about their issues with me”.

For many young female feminists in New Zealand, female leaders like Kate Sheppard or Jacinda Ardern are considered feminist idols, gaining the vote for (white) women or unapologetically balancing motherhood with successful careers. The difference with Golriz is that she represents a group of people who have previously remained unaccounted for. She provides a voice and a face for people who do not, and cannot, relate to the white privilege underlying the voices of many previous female leaders in New Zealand, regardless of how well intentioned their messages are. Representation must be diverse, because patriarchy manifests in diverse ways. The Westernisation of feminism has led to the idea that feminism is all young white women proudly growing body hair, wearing short skirts and as much makeup as they want. Whereas, in actual fact, “feminism is diverse, the movement is diverse.” Of the oft-cited first, second, and third waves of feminism, Golriz questions—“Well, whose waves are they?” They’re Western feminism’s, because there is no single “universal progression of feminist movements”. 

For Golriz, who grew up in the post-Iranian Revolution Islamic regime, this was a particularly important point she reinforced throughout the interview, because “the fiercest feminism I’ve ever seen was under the veil of an Islamic regime”. The recognition of the different manifestations of patriarchy is important, because it means the battlegrounds are different: “We can’t look at anyone and assume anything about them as a woman.” The claims from some women that you cannot be a liberated feminist if you’re wearing a hijab—or if you wear makeup, or raise your children at home, or are a porn star—are harmful. Judging feminism from this specific Westernised lens of ‘freedom’ makes feminism exclusionary.  

Culture, Golriz says, becomes so inextricably weaved into the feminist identities of people of colour, that for white women, it can be hard to see women prioritising what they see as ‘racial issues’ over ‘gender issues’. Whilst she admits that she experiences discrimination and harassment as a woman, the threats which she has received against her life have all been on the basis of race. Golriz calls these ‘oppression points’ (race, gender, disability, etc), and explains that people prioritise different points at different times in their lives. For a straight, white, cisgender upper middle-class woman, their only experience of oppression is through their identity as a woman—therefore, that it what they centre in issues of equality. However, the lived experience for many is that their identities as women run simultaneous to their other oppression points, so issues of race, sexuality, or disability are equally ( sometimes more) important in their daily experiences of harm. For women like this, feminism is one thing out of many—their gender—whereas Golriz emphasizes that in actual fact, to be truly feminist “ is […] to support other women [to] face their other forms of oppression too”. 

When asked about whether she has any advice for young women developing their feminist identities in New Zealand, Golriz was very quick to answer strongly with one thing—solidarity. “Our unity is our greatest strength,” she says, explaining that we must accept diversity within the feminist community, stick together, have each other’s backs, but also constantly be open to learn, ask questions, and respect each other’s experiences and means of pushing back. No matter where you are, and what the patriarchy may look like in your culture or community, she tells us that gender oppression boils down to “controlling women’s bodies and our sexuality, and the way that we interact in the world. So all of us, across the world, are saying, ‘Actually no, I control that.’ Therefore, whether you’re trying to cover me up, or expose me and sexualise me, I get to choose. The message is the same.”

The key, for Golriz, is to understand that the patriarchy manifests in different ways, “so we’re going to look different as we’re fighting it.” 

 

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