Golriz Ghahraman tells Greg Bruce about the dark side of New Zealand, which she sees every day.
How much of our interview was devoted to discussing her safety and how to avoid this article further endangering her? A lot. Too much. Any discussion would have been too much. How did we, as a country, get to the point where a backbench MP for a minor party is worried about leaving her house?
She is the only MP besides the Prime Minister to be assigned a security detail, which was provided for her two weeks ago, after Newshub revealed threats on her life and David Seymour described her, less than two days later, as, "a real menace to freedom in this country".
Speaking the following week, Ghahraman says: "I don't think most adults have ever felt that kind of very visceral feeling, like physical danger kind of fear, other than if you live in a war zone, but that's what it did feel like last week."
"I'm just hoping that it will just go away," she says. "I hate it."
Safety concerns are not new to her. In her maiden speech to Parliament in October 2017, she said: "I want to acknowledge also those who tell 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, comments. Mr Speaker, some call for rifles being loaded. I'm numb to it because this is reality for those of us from minority backgrounds."
She says now: "It was very eerie for me as a politician to live through the Christchurch terror attacks because I kind of did think back to my maiden speech, and I have mentioned that I get people commenting that it's time to load the guns when they see that someone like me is running. And that was October 2017, that someone stood up in Parliament and said, 'Hey, people think I'm Muslim [she's not] and as a result they're talking about gun violence.' And then Christchurch happened and so it was like, 'Oh s***, they meant it.' That's what it felt like."
In the couple of weeks after the attacks, the abuse directed at her became more intense. "Turns out this is us," she says.
The Green Party decided she would no longer have to look at it. Instead, several Pākehā men in the party office, not MPs, told her they would take care of it. They weren't prepared for the scale or intensity, she says. "They had no idea. They were quite shaken by it."
The abuse is not limited to politics. She posted a photo of her mum on Mother's Day and received feedback telling her not to post foreign stuff here. "It's just about my mum! And in that photo she's in Iran. Like, it's a young photo. And also, it's Sunday! I can post whatever I want! I'm not at work.
"The world isn't an even playground, and that idea that you are getting attacked for what you are saying rather than who you are is just so debunked. And you only have to look at the fact we [The Green Party] called for a review [on hate speech], Andrew Little has initiated the review, and he's not getting the hate and he actually has the power to change the law. He literally has done what we were asking."
She tweeted that Seymour's "menace to freedom line" was "dog whistling to racists" and says it uses the language of white nationalism. "It's not debating the issue," she says. "Very, very deliberately, almost, not debating the issue."
David Seymour is dog whistling to racists. The same racists who were just caught talking about how to kill me.— Golriz Ghahraman (@golrizghahraman) May 16, 2019
Otherwise why not mention that the Justice Minister and PM are also leading on hate speech reform? This is dangerous and dirty. This is not NZ https://t.co/QlRHHrbSDd
The language he chose, Ghahraman says, was language that is triggering to those groups and she doesn't know whether it was calculated to appeal to them or whether he picked it up hanging out on their forums.
"I think it was calculated to attack me in particular and I think he wasn't debating the issue but I don't think he's trying to kill me. I just think people don't know - and that's probably a really good example of it - for some of us this is real life and for everybody else it's rhetoric and votes."
In a post-Christchurch society, she says, we need to stop and listen to communities who are affected. Every time a politician says something that feeds prejudice rather than debating the issue, she says, it makes New Zealand less safe.
"We are on notice now. They want people dead. They want - some of these people in our communities - they want us dead. You have to stop. And it's not just Seymour, everyone across the political spectrum has done or said something at some point that feeds xenophobia in New Zealand, and we don't want that culture here."
Often, she says, people question whether it's right for her to be "offended" by comments like Seymour's. They question whether he would be equally offended if the roles were reversed.
"Leaving aside that Parliamentary security and police don't get involved to help with someone being offended, the point seems to be that if I called him a menace no one would be outraged and that's unfair. But to truly reverse the situation Seymour would have to be a member of a minority group constantly targeted by abuse, recently to deadly effect in a mass shooting, that it was just publicly revealed extremists were talking about killing him in online groups, then I went on radio to call him a menace to freedom in New Zealand.
"In that case, the outrage would and should be the same. But you need all those circumstances reversed, not just an isolated incident. I think that's what we need to learn about each other's experiences."
She feels lucky to have parents who were so committed to democracy and freedom that they were willing to sacrifice everything to escape the oppression of Iran.
"They were just these really politicised hipsters, essentially, in the late 70s, and they were absolutely battered, that generation of Iranians, for what they had fought for."
What they fought for, what her parents fought for at least, was democracy, but the revolution that overthrew the Shah and his corrupt, tyrannical rule, led instead to theocracy.
"That reality dawning on them, and those women, hyper-political kind of women, suddenly having to wear the hijab - and a lot of them identify vaguely as Muslim, but just that kind of oppression - and having to sit at the back of the classroom, and all that kind of stuff happened to my mum. And she used to fight back everyday and it was at the risk of death and torture. That's where my feminism comes from - these women that were having to risk their lives when they went and demonstrated "
As Iran began changing around them and repression reigned, Ghahraman's parents and their friends would get together and drink moonshine and try to listen illicitly to BBC Farsi or Radio Tel Aviv. Their phones were tapped, surveillance was everywhere and so was propaganda. They knew they had to get out.
They arrived in New Zealand as refugees, when Ghahraman was 9. She grew up here, went to high school at Auckland Girls Grammar and then to law school, because her parents wanted her to. She fell in love with the law and with advocacy but she saw the University of Auckland, where she studied, as a feeder for the big corporate law firms, and found it hard to relate to the people there. When she finished law school, she interned at Amnesty International, working on refugee issues.
She knew she wanted to work in human rights and she understood it was the courts that applied human rights, so she decided she had to get to court as soon as possible, to figure out the mechanics of it. She knew she had to learn by starting at the bottom. She became a barrister, which meant she was thrown straight into the court environment, "whereas, at a law firm, you draft an email and, like, 12 people check it and in eight years you might see the inside of a courtroom."
"It was hard and dirty and not a comfortable work environment, but it was also really fulfilling to kind of know that you're trying to bring dignity and fairness to people's lives. It's the worst day of their lives. Everyone's having the worst day of their lives at court all the time."
From there, she secured an internship at the UN, which led to her working overseas on both defence and prosecution on trials of accused war criminals, and in the middle of that she completed a Masters in Human Rights Law at Oxford.
She said she misses the chaos of her work for the UN and feels unsettled now, in her relatively comfortable Auckland life, disconnected as she is from all that. She went through a period of mourning it after returning here six years ago, which is what drove her into politics.
"This is where I grew up and obviously I'm really attached to it but I knew also, you come back to Auckland and it is all big white weddings and house renovations and mortgages and whatever else. So to avoid becoming depressed or having to flee again or whatever, I was like, 'Ok I have to become really active in the Greens'."
Still, she lives in a nice place in Auckland with her boyfriend, leading New Zealand comedian Guy Williams, who often makes jokes about himself being the embodiment of white male privilege. Ghahraman says, "One of my really old friends that I've been friends with since The Hague, and we constantly see each other in weird post-atrocity places, she's got a joke that I've got the most boring fetish in the world, which is dudes who look like colonisation."
She thinks of the negativity toward her as being a sort of knee-jerk reaction to a perceived increase in equality by those who see themselves as victims of that equality: "So there was a rise in white supremacy to my mind and there always is whenever there is any measure of a win for people who are already oppressed."
"I think that's why people feel like I'm dominating them. But there's only one of me and I'm a backbencher! They're like: 'Oh my God! We've got to organise!'
"But there's 120 people in the House [of Representatives] and only one of them is from a refugee background. We're not going to suddenly take over! And it's through a small party that's not going to be the government.
"It's always been this hilarious joke where I've waited 28 years to come up through the back benches of New Zealand's Parliament. Through the Green party! You've got to pretend you're not Muslim for the whole length of time, never go back to Iran… You actually can't go back. And the kind of things that we've missed: loved ones dying and whatever. But we are trying to take over the Western world so you just gotta keep at it! Live with this large white man in sin and all that stuff. Just waiting."
When people were saying Trump's election was historic, she disagreed: "To me, that was just a rich, white guy getting power, and I was like, 'That's just normal. That's just more of the same. He's just a bit more embarrassing.' It turns out he was a lot worse, but when he was elected it was like, well, yeah, I guess so."
Far more historic for her was the election to the US House of Representatives last year of Ilhan Omar, a refugee from Somalia who landed in the US with her family in 1992. Ghahraman hopes to meet her later this year.
I asked Ghahraman: "Is there any cross-border refugee politicians network?"
She said: "There's only two of us." I laughed. She said, "There's literally two of us."
She thinks the abuse she gets is largely because of her race. "The reason I think that is because they tell me. it's very explicit." She says research shows that women get more abuse online than men, and women of colour get more than anyone. Although she moved here when she was 9 and speaks with a Kiwi accent, and is objectively far more Kiwi than, say, Russel Norman or Julie Anne Genter, she does seem to get a disproportionate amount of abuse. I ask if she's compared her experience of abuse with fellow high-profile, young, female, Green MP Chloe Swarbrick.
"It's nothing the same," she says. "I've compared notes with many female MPs. People get it, but it's not on that level. But of course women mostly get it."
"Part of it is just that thing of, 'Well, you can come in - okay, fine, go and be a part of Parliament - but definitely don't act like you're equal to the other politicians and actually criticise the system.'
"It's funny because you look at everything that any politician ever says: it's either talking about something that needs to change or criticising something that already exists that needs to change, or celebrating something they just changed. That's all anybody ever talks about. That is literally the job, because get out of here then, if you think everything's fine. Why are you even here?
"But I very, very, very regularly get: 'We let you come here and now you think you can criticise us? How dare you?' And I get it now after the news about the death threats: people come up and they go, 'Of course she's getting death threats. She's come over here and she's telling us what to do, so she deserves it.' There's a real feeling of, 'She deserves everything she gets because as a foreigner she should have kept her mouth shut' and no realisation that that would mean I wouldn't be doing my job."
In the midst of the attacks, though, there has also been support. After Seymour's comments, a cross-party group of women parliamentarians sent him a letter calling his behaviour unacceptable, saying his comments had had a significant adverse effect on Ghahraman and asking for a public apology.
She says: "I think the reaction has been incredible for me in terms of support from across the House. And it was from across the House."
It's not unusual either. In the wake of Christchurch, there was an outpouring of love and unity. Dunedin sold out of flowers. We have a chance now, she says, to foster equality, true inclusion and representation.
"People have a lot of love, so I think there's that moment we are turning that outpouring of love into something sustainable in our culture. And part of that is maybe reviewing our hate speech laws. Maybe, beyond that, looking at who we give a platform to: whether we call out media outlets, whether we call out politicians, and I think that's fair because New Zealanders have been very clear: they don't want to be America or post-Brexit Britain or Australia with Fraser Anning. We're not that country."
This is us; this is not us; they are not us. What is "us"? And what is it doing? And why won't it leave Golriz Ghahraman alone?
"It's very, very stressful to suddenly realise that you do just kind of consume mass racism. It is actually really stressful no matter what it is: whether it's a threat or not. It was so stressful at times for me that I suddenly thought, 'Why am I even here? I'm not going to get to do the stuff that I wanted to do.'
"I want to have that constitutional conversation. I've practiced constitutional law. I want to talk about bringing human rights and the Treaty of Waitangi into a written constitution for New Zealand. That's part of what I am here for. I want to talk about children's rights. I used to help draft New Zealand's child rights report, but am I not going to get to do that? Am I not allowed to do that because, actually, I'm so diverted by talking about race constantly, or feeling threatened, or responding to things that are not my substantive work? Is that the reality of being a refugee MP?"
Whether it is or whether it isn't, it's possible that nothing Ghahraman achieves in her time in politics will be as important as what she's already achieved.
"If my legacy is in every 9-year-old little girl who's a migrant of colour being able to look and see someone in a position of power and leadership that looks like her and has her story, a little bit of her story, and that makes her feel more confident in doing something - whether that's entering politics or the law or whatever - then I think that's a good enough legacy - if not the best legacy."