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a woman wearing a striped top with long hair medium brown skin and holding a microphone
Golriz Ghahraman, an MP who initially moved to New Zealand as a refugee. Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

PoliticsDecember 18, 2018

We do not shed our skin: why all politics are identity politics

a woman wearing a striped top with long hair medium brown skin and holding a microphone
Golriz Ghahraman, an MP who initially moved to New Zealand as a refugee. Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

In this edited version of her speech at the Hamilton Press Club last Friday, Green MP Golriz Ghahraman recounts her journey from a childhood in Iran to becoming the first refugee elected to the NZ parliament, and why identity is at the heart of democracy

Being a Middle Eastern woman is a strangely over-burdened birth right, especially at this moment in global catastrophes. And especially to me, suddenly a politician.

I announced my candidacy for the New Zealand parliament right around the time of the Trump’s so called “Muslim ban”. Someone figured out that I would be, if elected, the first ever refugee MP. So inadvertently I got to stand as a counterpoint to the politics of division and hate, or populism (as it’s euphemistically known), on the rise around the world. Brexit had happened. The ‘world’s greatest democracy’ had failed to elect its first ever woman president. But as much as 2016 was billed as an anomaly of cosmic and human failures, to me none of this was particularly out of line with long set trends. In fact we saw a strengthening of status quo representation. Of course truth-irrelevant messaging delivered in under 140 – or 280 – characters wins elections, since we killed journalism.

Suddenly those status quo voices are screaming hysterically about free speech, political correctness gone mad, and against that thing called “identity politics”.

For me, for people like me, if there was ever any doubt, it was made crystal clear the closer I got to parliament and certainly as an MP, identity and politics are inseparable. In fact identity and democracy are inseparable. We know this, because we can’t shed our skin.

But the thing that stood out to me about the 2016 US vote was the election of Ilhan Omar, the first ever refugee to be elected as a lawmaker there. She has since risen further to the Senate, together with one other Muslim woman, and two indigenous American women, for the first time.

My life began with a revolution. The Iranian Revolution was one of the biggest popular uprising in modern history. Iranians poured onto the streets to fight inequality, to nationalise their oil resource. Everyone was affected or involved, communists, socialists, students, and Islamists. But their revolution was hijacked, and my life was ultimately shaped by one of the most repressive regimes in the modern wold, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Everyone knew someone who disappeared into a torture chamber. Everyone knew women flogged for disregarding Islamic dress. Everyone worried about their phone being tapped.

This was just the backdrop to a bloody war we fought against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Then scarcity set in with sanctions as America backed Saddam. When things got too scary for my parents, who were still very political, we fled. That is what refugees are made of.

We landed at Auckland airport. The fear was palpable, I can still remember it. I was nine years old. I knew the unthinkable was awaiting us if we were returned. But we weren’t. We were welcomed.

I went on to school in inner-city Auckland. I studied law and history, majoring in gender and sex. I did a Masters in Human Rights Law at Oxford University, and worked for the UN around the world. Politics via the Green Party made sense because I had actually been in the party for years.

In my maiden speech in the House I began by acknowledging everyone who got me there, but I also acknowledged all those who told me every day that I don’t belong here. That I should go home where I came from. That I have no right to criticise governments here – I should just be grateful I wasn’t left to die. Hundreds of messages and comments. Some called for shot guns to be loaded.

But I also have to acknowledge another phenomenon and that’s all the people, young women, women or colour, their dads, who run up with tears in their eyes when they meet me. That’s something I had no preparedness for. Imagine being that overwhelmed with the possibility that someone who looks a little like you, with a story like yours, could actually hold a place in public life.

So identity and democracy are inseparable for me, for those of us who bear the brunt of populist rhetoric.

We can’t shed our skin or our health-care needs or whatever it is that underlies our identity. We need minority representation. In a majority-rules-all system of democracy we risk being swallowed whole.

One thing Trump has taught us is that our rights are there by way of some gentlemen’s agreement unless we have an active hand in protecting them.

It seems to be a call for politics devoid of identity, which is sold as impartial and therefore fairer. But what then are the issues we are here to address? What issues are we erasing?

We know that in New Zealand, women are being paid around 9% less than men for the same work, so gender is an issue. Within that group, Pākehā women are paid 6% less while Asian women are paid 19% less, Māori 20% less, and Pasifika women are paid a whopping 23% less than the average man – so race is an issue.

For the 26% of our young Rainbow community who are made homeless when first they are honest about their sexual orientation or gender identity – those identities are material issues.

The problem is that when we say identity, we don’t count all identities as equal. In fact the more privilege an identity point has, the less we are likely to see it as an identity at all.

Nobody asks me, for example, when I came out as straight.

It turns out that only the perspectives of the less advantaged identity carriers are dismissed as “identity politics”. Talking from the perspective or in support of issues faced by privileged, status quo identities is just “politics”. No one notices that civic planning by able bodied policy-makers is biased against the disabled. No one seems to realise that for centuries, straight people aggressively and sometimes violently privileged their sexual identity over everyone else. No one would ever suggest bankers shouldn’t be allowed to comment on the economy because of their inherent bias or very real personal interests they may be protecting, in the same way that I am told I shouldn’t be able to talk on immigration or ethnic issues.

Most blatantly, right now, most of those screaming about “free speech” and demonising “identity politics” overtly appeal to identity. They constantly attack, with the same breath, groups like “feminists”, migrants, Muslims, as the scourge of society.

As I stood there in New Zealand’s House of Representatives that first time I also noted that the House itself contributes to the culture that means people like me are openly attacked, undermined and threatened based on identity. This happens every time politicians scapegoat migrants in that House, every time a TV presenter asks a prime minister when the governor general is going to “look like a Kiwi and sound like it a Kiwi”– and that PM just laughs. Every time an MP, later also PM, calls refugees “leftovers from terrorist nations” for political gain, every time we blame our housing crisis on people with “Chinese sounding names” that is felt on streets.

Recently I cried listening to the powerful Karlo Mila poem about Paul Holmes apologising for calling Kofi Annan a “cheeky darky”. I remembered it, as Mila does, as part of an overwhelming fabric of micro aggressions. For us it was a reminder that no matter how high we rise, even if we get to be the secretary general of the United Nations, let alone a mere MP, they can still just make a joke to put us back in our place.

How is that not identity politics?

When I made my decision to run as a parliamentary candidate last year I thought for a long time about how that would affect the way I relate to my ethnicity, and background as a refugee. If I would represent those groups, and why that might be problematic. But as the reaction to my candidacy grew on both side, I realised the truth is that unless we tell our stories, unless we take on roles in public life, the misrepresentations persist.

The point is that lived experience matters, but we also must recognise that minorities have diversity within our communities, just as status quo identities do. I hear a lot that suggests to me that good, well-meaning folk think of minority identities as being homogenous. When I get asked how I was able to assimilate so well as a Kiwi, I respond: what makes you think I have assimilated well? The answer is almost always that I’m a feminist, that I’m interested in human rights, that I’m an educated woman. I point out that I learned feminism from university students, women, who fought for it facing gun point. I point out that every culture has authentic feminism, democracy movements, environmentalism within it. So even feminism has to recognise diversity to be effective. I remember that my mother wears red lipstick as a mark of her resistance because where she’s from the patriarchy tells her to be colourless and desexualised. She and her generation’s resistance is part of that culture, as a feminist, she has not been rescued from her culture, but we need to recognise that she represents it as much as the Islamists.

I tend to think if more of us are deliberately given a voice in public life, this internal diversity will be made clear and the prejudice will dissipate.

So the point of identity in politics is not that women and minorities must vote according to those identity points. But we need more diverse representation to fight prejudice and secure our interests. We have to be at the decision making table – part of public life – because it turns out actual representation may be the only thing to truly safeguard the rights of vulnerable peoples.

It isn’t enough to be consulted on race, or immigration, or ‘disability issues’ (how would an able bodied man decide what policy areas affect a disabled woman?).

Last election I watched as a Māori woman told her story of being a solo mum on the benefit, forced to take $20 here and there from people staying with her while she struggled to raise her baby on her own. She went on to put herself through law school. She became a politician. She led a political party for a decade, watching as the inequality she suffered ballooned. She told her story as a last weapon in her arsenal calling for change – as only one like her could. Metiria Turei was savaged. Not just by the Mike Hoskings on talkback radio, but by every major media agency, notably by almost every pākehā male anchor we have, including on RNZ. That hurt.

We knew we were never among friends. By “we” I don’t mean the Green Party, I mean the real affected communities, the ones who knew instantly why this was the crime of the century – the poor, brown, families, solo mums and kids living the reality of prejudice and poverty in this country. The harrowing wound of inequality, homelessness, child poverty, New Zealand was experiencing was somehow conveniently eclipsed by a Māori woman admitting she struggled to feed her child without hand-outs. The obsession turned to finding holes in her story. Had she mentioned she was getting help from family? (Yes, I was there and she emphasised how lucky she had been.) But it was illegal! Yes. The fact that reality was even a shock to anyone became part of the gaping wound she was trying to expose to begin with.

But that a woman with that story got to raise her voice and tell that story still matters. It mattered to me, as someone who experienced child poverty in this country.

That was identity politics – because politics at its best and most transformative, comes with identity.

So I look to Ilhan Omar, that first refugee elected law maker in Trump’s America and I see history being made far more clearly than I see it in the Trump win. That’s just a sign that we still have a lot of work to do. A reminder that majority rules democracy might at any moment swallow us whole.

And I get to sit in New Zealand’s parliament, with a few other migrant-background politicians of colour, with a few members of the rainbow community, a few more women. We bring our expertise, but we also bring our stories, our perspective, and of course, we can’t shed our skin. Our being there will mean different things to different people. Whatever we win or lose on policy, the fact we get to participate – still means something for New Zealand’s democracy. Because representation means something.

So New Zealand gets to be a place where a nine-year-old girl, a refugee from the Middle East, can grow up to one day enter parliament. That means a lot at this moment in global politics.

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