Know Your Place: MP Golriz Ghahraman Talks About the Journey to Telling Her Story

The popular Greens MP Golriz Ghahraman talks to Emma Clifton about her new book, living with Multiple Sclerosis and why politics can still be a dangerous place for minority women

There’s an anecdote in the early chapters of Golriz Ghahraman new book, Know Your Place, that might just break your heart a little. In fact, there are many. The Greens MP is open-hearted about her childhood in Iran and the heart-in-mouth journey that took her and her parents to Auckland as refugees in the early 1990s. But there’s one episode in particular that highlights the small moments that can illustrate the big losses that come with finding a new identity in a foreign land. At 11, a young Golriz is being dropped off by her father Behrooz at that Kiwi institution of the Blue Light Disco. She’s embarrassed about the parent proximity to the school grounds and asks him to drop her off around the corner; something that so many young people have done (and so many parents have endured). But it’s only when her mum Maryam reprimands her that Golriz realises how personally her father has taken this. “For him, my reaction was part of the fabric of this new world where he was losing himself,” she writes in her book. “I could see it so clearly in his lack of jokes. In his demeanour when we were out, in the way he struggled to know what people were saying. Now, he wasn’t the cool dad anymore and that was one more thing on top of all the other things he had lost from his old place in the world.” 

A family photo with Golriz and her partner Guy Williams, and both their parents, right before she gave her maiden speech in 2017; Clockwise from left: Behrooz and Maryam Ghahraman, politician Jesse Chalmers, Gary and Roseanne Williams, Guy. (Photo: Damon Keen)

When her parents fled Iran and arrived in New Zealand as refugees, they were in their mid 30s – younger than Golriz is now. “I think ‘What if I suddenly had to move to Japan tomorrow?’ where the language is completely different, where the written script is completely different,” Golriz says on the phone. “How would I cope and who would I become?”

“I think about that a lot, that they were like me and they were my age and they had friends, and they had this idea of themselves as being cool and young… and that’s not what we as a society look at, when we look at migrants who are doing menial jobs. We don’t ever think ‘Oh well, maybe she also has an interest in literature, or fashion, and hangs out with her friends or is a university activist.’ And they were! Most migrants have these other stories that we just don’t connect with, with the idea that they could very well be like us, in lots of ways.”

Golriz being sworn into Parliament. (Photo: Tim Onnes)

When Golriz was first approached to write a book, her initial reaction was one of “Don’t be silly, I don’t have much to say.” But the longer she stayed in parliament, the more she realised that her journey from refugee to lawyer to politician was important to a lot of people. The book covers everything – and, it’s fair to say, it’s been a heck of a ride. And now it’s coming out in the middle of one of the most turbulent years in recent history: protests, upcoming elections and, of course, a global pandemic. “It’s been a weird few years, right?” Golriz says. “Every year, we’ve gone ‘Oh my god, who could have foreseen this crisis,’ and then the next year….” She breaks off. “Part of where I see the push to write this book is when I announced my candidacy [in January 2017] and the fact that it means a lot to different people and when I say that, I include – in large part – the people who hated it,” she laughs. “It coincided with Donald Trump being elected; there was this global atmosphere of ‘them or us’. There was “it’s time to build a wall,” and BREXIT had just happened, but then there were also people talking about diversity and inclusion way more openly and honestly then we’d see before.”

It’s definitely not an easy political climate, but Golriz says having a job where both her work and also her very presence as our first refugee politician brings a lot of hope to people is very gratifying. But there are significant consequences to what is, at the end of the day, just a job. Golriz has been on the constant receiving end of racist, sexist threats throughout her time in parliament and from time to time, the toxic discourse has been so bad she’s had to be escorted around by security. The massacre of March 15, she says, drove the level of danger home but Golriz also believes it made New Zealanders more aware that they have to stamp out dangerous attitudes. “I would hope – and we’ve got an election coming up – that politicians have become aware of just how damaging any kind of xenophobic rhetoric can be, for no valid reward. So I would hope that if people do go there again, there would be community pushback and accountability.”

With US politician Ilhan Omar in 2019: both she and Golriz are the first-ever refugees in their respective nations’ House of Representatives.

With that in mind, does the good outweigh the bad of her job? Does she think politics is becoming a better place for young women, particularly young, brown women? “We need to hold space for the different kind of experiences women have in politics, so whether you’re queer or you’re brown – and whether that’s migrant or Maori – whether you have a disability, it’s harder for different people and those paths haven’t really been well-trodden yet. But what we really need to get away from is the idea of putting the onus on women or on minorities… ‘Just break the glass ceiling, smash it and come on in.’ Because… it’s not safe. And for those of us who have made it, as well as the men and women who are already there, we really need to change the system so that it is more safe, instead of encouraging individual women to put themselves on the line. Because I wouldn’t necessarily feel good telling a young woman from my background to come on in, knowing what she might face, unless I was doing my darndest to keep her safe in a systemic way.”

Pandemic, forthcoming election and a book release aside (!), 2020 also marks the year that Golriz revealed she is living with Multiple Sclerosis. But, in what now becomes clear is her trademark lemons into lemonade attitude, she says it was helpful in giving her better insight into looking after the disabled and vulnerable community during the lockdown policies. “It really drove home to me the importance of having that idea of disability representation as well, as we’re constantly raising the issue of having [lockdown] guidelines created specifically for that community.”

In her own life, she inherited quite the mixed bag of circumstances. “There have been such incredible advancements for MS treatments… but they shut down your immune system,” she laughs drily. “So it was like, ‘Oh, I’m so lucky to access this amazing medication’… ‘Oh no, there’s a pandemic.’ Good news, we’ve got one thing under control! Bad news, you can’t leave the house.”

It’s been an adjustment learning how to manage her time to then manage her condition, Golriz says, but she says the caucus has been incredibly supportive.  “I had to learn to ask for something when I need help, which is hard – because you don’t want to be that person and there’s a little bit of shame involved,” she says. “It’s the kind of stuff you’d fight for, for someone else, but you don’t want to do it for yourself.”

On top of that, there is a level of determination and drive associated with first-generation immigrants because they – in some cases quite literally – hit the ground running and have to set up a new life, fast. “You don’t say no to anything,” she agrees. “Everything is a responsibility and an opportunity and you keep just saying yes.” But even with the frustration that can come with being in politics, Golriz knows she’s in the right place. “It’s such a humbling thing to say or do something in the world and then have people hear it, or talk about what it means to them. And even if we’re going quite slowly, we’re still going in the right direction.”

Know Your Place by Golriz Ghahraman, HarperCollins Publishers NZ ($39.99 RRP)

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