It is February 2017, a strangely over-hyped and over-burdened new year, laden with the expectation it will bring an antidote to the last. Billed as an anomaly of cosmic and human failure, 2016 saw the eruption of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump – or, the failure of ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ to elect its first female president – and countless deaths of beloved geniuses of the arts. But to me 2016 was neither an anomaly nor particularly out of line with long-set trends. It saw a strengthening of status quo representation and further move toward hollow populism on all sides. Punchy, if empty, messaging in under 140 characters wins elections because we killed journalism remember?
“2016 was neither an anomaly nor particularly out of line with long-set trends. It saw a further move toward hollow populism on all sides.”
In response to the rise of mob rule in political discourse, reference to ‘identity politics’ was thrown around in a flurry by campaigners on the Left. In turn, the failure of women and minorities to rise up and vote for the ‘right’ candidate led to a chorus calling for an end to identity politics. As far as I can tell, that criticism is aimed at the idea that women, voters of colour, the disabled, or the LGBTQI community are defined as voters by those identity points. In particular, that they must vote in solidarity with candidates bearing the same identity points. But, as the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign proved in the US, young voters don’t need youth in their politicians. Their elusive and savvy vote was captured by this much older candidate, who could speak authentically to the issues they cared about from a depth of experience and expertise. And as the US election ultimately proved, women – even university-educated white women – are not automatically won over by their own image.
The mistake in the latest surge of attention to identity politics has been to disregard substance, with the assumption that minority identities are hegemonic and all-encompassing to voters. This ignores class, and intersectionality; most obviously, it fails to account for diversity within groups. A woman, a refugee, or any one member of the Iranian community is assumed to represent me or my interests more than any Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand politician, which is who I would in fact vote for. But that doesn’t mean, as many now suggest (Mr Pilger!) that appealing to the politics of representation is always empty, and that class, for example will always trump race. To say that minority representation in politics matters isn’t to say that I must vote for the Hillary Clintons of the world simply because I am a woman. It does mean that we need more women to run for office.
“The mistake in the latest surge of attention to identity politics has been to disregard substance, with the assumption that minority identities are hegemonic and all-encompassing to voters.”
Identity and democracy are inseparable for me, and for all who bear the brunt of populist rhetoric. We can’t shed our skin or our healthcare needs or whatever it is that underlies our identity. We need minority representation, otherwise the very system that gave us the vote will swallow us whole in a majority rule system of democracy. Identity isn’t a substitute for core values or policy, but identity matters because diversity and representation matter. In fact, 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, for example?) That ghettoises our input. It also does little to ensure our perspectives or interests, even on minority issues, are prioritised. A frightening example in the New Zealand context occurred when our parliament passed legislation using its urgency processes – dispensing with consultation and expert reports – to remove access to human rights remedies by those caring for their disabled family members. This happened with a simple majority vote and allowed pay discrimination against ‘family carers’. I tend to think it would not have happened if disabled persons were better represented in parliament.
“We need minority representation, otherwise the very system that gave us the vote will swallow us whole in a majority rule system of democracy.”
It was interesting to be in India on the day Trump won the US presidency, because the lead story there was the historic election of four Indian-Americans to the US Senate and House of Representatives, bringing the total of Indian-American members to five. Later, I realised an even greater leap in US politics had been the election of the first-ever female Muslim, and refugee, law-maker, Ilhan Omar. Ilhan called her win “a victory for that 8-year-old in that refugee camp…a victory for every person that’s been told they have limits on their dreams.” As a former child refugee from the so-called Muslim World, as a woman of colour, I know she’s right. Ilhan Omar’s victory matters for democracy, in part because it matters to me personally. My family and I fled post-revolutionary Iran and a bloody war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to find refuge in New Zealand when I was nine years old. Eventually, that nine-year-old refugee girl ended up prosecuting heads of state for the United Nations. I think it was important for the process that a former victim of governance by repression and mass murder got to stand up in those courtrooms, dominated by Western men. I didn’t know it at the time because I had never seen anyone like me forge that path, but I got to hear it over and over from my female interns of minority backgrounds.
Being a Middle Eastern woman is a strangely over-burdened birth right, especially at this moment in global catastrophes. I decided to run as a parliamentary candidate late last year, and before doing so 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. I was wary that as women of the ‘Muslim World’, our identity as Muslims – even as lapsed Muslims – as victims, and as reborn symbols of Western triumph (if we make it out), is pitched again and again as the antidote to the eternally archaic and frightening abyss of our culture. But I had already worked to become comfortable with representing the face of Middle Eastern refugees during the latest humanitarian crisis, when activist communities reached out and I realised the need was bigger than my fear of tokenism. The truth, I realised, is that unless we tell our stories, unless we take on roles in public life, the misnomers persist.
“Unless we tell our stories, unless we take on roles in public life, the misnomers persist.”
So I look to Ilhan Omar, and I see history being made far more clearly than I see it in the Trump win. That’s just a hitch, a sign that we can’t get comfortable in formal democracy. What is important is that we are jolted into participation. If I ever sit in New Zealand’s parliament I will bring my expertise, but I will also bring my story, my perspective, my face. That will mean different things to different people. And whether I make it in or not, running still matters. It brings me, and people like me, to the frontlines, where we should be.
Golriz Ghahraman is a human rights lawyer and former UN prosecutor, with a Masters in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford, specialising in minority and identity rights. Follow her political journey.