The Herald this week marks the launch of Super Diverse Women — a new organisation dedicated to championing the rights and achievements of women from indigenous and migrant backgrounds. Today, Lincoln Tan talks to a laywer who came to New Zealand from Pakistan.

Describe your ethnic or cultural background and how this has shaped the way you view yourself and the world.

My name is Rez Gardi. I am originally Kurdish - we are the world's largest national without a state and one of the most oppressed people of modern history.

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My parents were political activists - or freedom fighters depending on which side you're on. They fought against the persecution of Kurds. They fought for Kurdish rights and independence. With the Iran/Iraq tension, Saddam Hussein's genocidal campaign against the Kurds and all vestige of Kurdish existence banned in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, it was dangerous to be Kurdish. My parents were forced to escape or risk death. I didn't choose to be a refugee; I was born as a refugee in a refugee camp in Pakistan.


The way people treat ethnic minorities from the Middle East conflates terrorists with the victims of terrorism. I have experienced bullying, hatred and racism for being different. I have been called a terrorist and told to "go back to your country". At times this has made me feel worthless, insecure and disempowered. However, it has also made me resilient - because I have no choice but to be.

The battle can feel endless - because it is a far more complex issue than just achieving representation in itself. While ethnic women try fight for gender equality on one hand, on the other hand we are also trying to overcome tremendous ignorance and lack of understanding about our unique experiences.

I come from a largely patriarchal culture; however, I was fortunate to be raised by a strong mother who spent her life as an activist fighting for equality and the rights of Kurdish women - at great risk of her life. My mother started the first Kurdish women's organisation in New Zealand in the early 2000s despite being shunned by the men in our community.

What benefits does society garner from more gender and ethnic diversity?

Excluding half of your population axiomatically means lower economic progress. By giving girls and women more potential to learn we can deliver stronger economies; by giving girls and women more opportunities, we can deliver better solutions.

Investment in gender and ethnic diversity powers progress for all. Gender and ethnic diversity allows for diverse, different and broader perspectives, ideas and solutions. We all have something different to bring to the table and our identity shapes and influences the way we see the world and the way we approach problems.

It is pivotal to enable members of oppressed groups to tell their own stories in their own ways, to voice their own perspective of how gender and ethnic diversity has impacted on ethnic women's lives, living it every day, and how it influences every choice and thought.

It isn't just about the individual incidents; it's about the collective impact on everything else - the way you think about yourself, the way you approach public spaces and human interaction, the limits you place on your own aspirations and the things you stop yourself from doing before you even try because of how you have been treated by society.

Lawyer Rez Gardi believes investment in gender and ethnic diversity powers progress for all. Photo / Doug Sherring
Lawyer Rez Gardi believes investment in gender and ethnic diversity powers progress for all. Photo / Doug Sherring

Many New Zealanders like to think they are part of an increasingly tolerant society. Is this fact or fiction?

Generally, yes. However, the issues we face are much bigger and more difficult to tackle - we face institutional racism and sexism, unconscious bias and stereotyping. As a Kiwi, I have had a lot of exposure to the disadvantages and issues that specifically Maori and Pacific Island women face such as lower socioeconomic status, over-representation in prison statistics, as victims of domestic violence, under-representation in education and employment and the list goes on.

While all women suffer the repercussions of gender inequality to varying degrees, in New Zealand the effects are exacerbated for Maori, Pacific Island and other women belonging to ethnic minorities. We are not even represented adequate by our own representatives in Parliament. How can laws fairly reflect and represent our views, perspectives and experiences when we are not even given a seat at the table to take part in decision-making in a real and meaningful way?

Outside of New Zealand, do you think the world is becoming a more tolerant place? If so, why and if not why not?

Recent global events have started undoing all the progress we have made globally to recognise and stand up to atrocious laws (i.e. Hitler's Germany, African-American segregation laws and numerous heinous genocides), and years of working towards tolerance and acceptance of diversity.

For example Trump's policies are divisive, cruel and regressive- it is causing an "us against them" mentality that is not only shameful, but incredibly dangerous. Trump's deeply inhumane and misguided Executive Order shows how fear, bigotry and intolerance have started to overtake reason, acceptance and compassion.

At the same time, what has been heartening is the number of people, internationally, who have come together, unified, and are standing up for equality.

What advice do you have to others who face it?

Wherever inequality lives, there stands an opportunity to turn the tide of adversity into a tidal wave of progress.

Debates around creating more equal workplaces have been dominated by the gender pay gap and gender diversity on boards or in executive teams. In your experience do members of migrant communities or ethnic minorities also face discrimination in the workplace?

The gender pay gap conversation is a critical one; however, it needs to take into account the reality that women are not a homogeneous group. There is a huge under-representation of a large group of women and their issues in this discussion - that of minorities: ethnic, religious, LGBTQI, disabled.

We must address the under-representation of all women and their issues by enabling their participation and highlight their issues in the discussion. The diverse experience of different women need to be represented. This relates to the concept of 'intersectionality', and entails a recognition that women's experiences are not homogeneous, but are shaped by many other overlapping facets of identity. We cannot speak for everyone; but we can provide the platform to allow a broad range of women with diverse experiences to speak for ourselves.

If so, do women from such backgrounds face double discrimination? Do efforts to tackle discrimination adequately reflect this?

The lives of ethnic women are particularly curtailed because we face a double burden of discrimination - sexism and racism. Institutionalised racism and sexism affects our participation in society, education, careers, health status and general standard of living.

Double discrimination" (or, indeed, triple or quadruple) has proved to be a crucial recurring issue. We need to be more aware of and acting on the fact that different forms of prejudice are connected, because they all stem from the same root of being "other", different or somehow secondary to the "normal", "ideal" status quo. So, just as women suffer from sexism because our society is set up to favour men as the norm from which women deviate, that is further exacerbated for women who are different from the other dominant norms - such as being heterosexual, white, cisgendered and non-disabled.

How can the media do a better job of reflecting New Zealand's growing diversity?

The great effect of media stereotypes on the treatment of particular groups of people - especially those suffering various forms of double discrimination - is a vital part of the problem. The media needs to stop perpetuating racism and sexism by portraying women and ethnic minorities according to stereotypes. We need to stop using patronising and stereotypical language and imagery.

What are other strategies you think could be effective in creating more diverse workplaces or social institutions?

Integration of efforts and issues is critical to advancing progress; there needs to be a genuine partnership. We need more diversity and gender equality in positions of influence.

Pay transparency is one method which could be effective in creating more equality.