Zerbanoo and Mark Gifford
We’ve talked a little bit about Zoroastrianism, the second question, and I know that we talked about that partly as well, but why did you either choose, or choose to remain in the faith tradition that you described?
ZG – I couldn’t help myself. I just am a Zoroastrian. It’s in my DNA, my whole being, and how I relate to the world. My Zoroastrian faith is my foundation and helps me make sense of life. Do you think anything else Mark?
MG – Well, it’s a personal question for you.
ZG – I have Mark, my interfaith minister son, to guide me in other religions. But I see that all religions are really the same, it’s all about being kind. It all boils down to kindness and for us Zoroastrians enjoying life. That was another thing I didn’t say about Zoroastrianism which appeals to me so much, it’s a religion about cherishing life. Nothing to excess, everything in moderation, but you’re here to be joyful. You’re here to have a good life and to give others a good life. I like that, I don’t value the idea of cutting yourself off from the world and just meditating for self-realisation. I enjoy participating in life the world for the better and helping to make the world a better place for everyone.
Fantastic. Okay, so moving on to questions specifically about human rights. Do you think that the UK is an equal and tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion and belief?
(ZG and MG exchange glances)
MG – Say what you think
ZG – Yes, I do. I think it’s over tolerant.
ZG – As I said to you before, what is missing, in Britain, is a lack of curiosity which is so important, and the willingness to engage. You’re allowed, as consenting adults, to do whatever you want to do behind closed doors, but there isn’t that sort of joyfulness, of seeing what the connections are and what our shared heritage is. That’s what I’m interested in. We share much more than divides us, and yet we look at what divides us all the time.
MG – Do you mean that you think as a society we live too separately from each other?
ZG – Yes, I think so, what do you think?
MG – What was the question again Helen?
Do you think basically that the UK is tolerant, 1) generally but 2) specifically in terms of religion and belief?
MG – One of the problems is that the UK is one of the most extreme examples in the world of a society that has become non-religious. There are only a few other European countries who could compete with us on that level. And so, people who appreciate faith, for whom faith is a very positive thing, they don’t have much of a voice in society, or they’re not generally appreciated. And so, I think that they have a massive involvement in civil society people like that, and they positively affect civil society, very strongly, but in terms of like a public discourse, or the way that the culture thinks, they’re marginalised. So, in a way the kind of work that we do at the ASHA Centre, in a way all that you can do is get on with what you believe in, and try and do the best you can. And ASHA is an example of that.
ZG – Having been in politics, I found it extraordinary in Blair’s time, because I knew Blair was religious, that he could say, we don’t do religion.
MG – He didn’t say that! It was Alistair Campbell who said that, when Blair wanted to talk about God.
Okay, that moves quite nicely onto the next question, which is, how easy is it for you personally to live in accordance with your particular faith convictions?
ZG – In Britain?
ZG – Oh, very easy. Extremely easy. We have our Zoroastrian centre, if we want to go to it. Every year the young Zoroastrians come to the ASHA Centre, as a group. We have many young, different religious groups come to ASHA but when the young Zoros come, it’s great fun they’re full of life. One thing I find about them is how competitive and taking life on they are. It’s a real joy to have them here.
Are there any, practical problems here? Things that just aren’t geared up?
ZG – Oh absolutely! I mean we Zoroastrians believe in the Tower of Silence
Yes, that was what I was thinking of…..
ZG – Yes, that’s going to be absolutely not possible. I mean everybody goes ‘oooh how awful!’ but it’s ecological. I want my body to go to the Tower of Silence in Mumbai. I know they won’t pay for it, when it comes to it when I’m gone…
MG – Who’s they?
ZG – Whoever is after me…..But I think it’s the most ecological way to dispose of the dead. That what’s so wonderful is that you come into the world naked and you leave naked. If you haven’t been charitable in life, on death you have to be charitable at least to the birds of prey. So charity for us is very important. It makes me very proud that in India they say Parsi thy name is charity. My community’s known for being big hearted. You can’t take anything with you. And how nice to be even useful on death. You only take with you what you have given away.
I agree, I think it’s one of the really appealing things about Zoroastrianism.
ZG – Very clean
Yes and somehow the idea of being taken by the birds rather than just..
MG – The worms
Cremated or something….well, at least worms there’s something in it, but the crematorium is……nothing. It’s too sterile even to fertilise plants.
ZG – Is it?
MG – Yes – ash
ZG – What the ash is too sterile is it?
They are…..They are absolutely useful for nothing. And people sometimes want to tip them…..and I mean obviously I don’t say anything as a vicar when people are saying that, you just say, yes of course if that comforts you, but yeah they actually damage your rose bushes rather than help.
ZG – Yes, that’s what I also thought. That if you want to put the ash anywhere you should put into water that is moving. It is not very good for the earth.
It is…..but socially and culturally it’s what people often do here now.
ZG – You know I believe that’s a lovely part of our religion is its insistence on cleanliness and ecology. Our religion places emphasis putting chaos into order. Visual order is very much a part of me. I like everything to be in its place, clean, tidy and beautiful.
Okay, that’s brilliant. Is there anything you’d like to add to that? Or are you happy…?
MG – No, no, that’s fine. I’m still thinking about the last question!
Well, I mean obviously…..
ZG – That’s an important question in England how…I mean you must know through the interfaith…does anybody say anything about how they feel?
MG – Sure.
ZG – I mean, you’re asking me as an individual. It’s my own personality, I can’t see anybody stopping me doing anything. So, I mean you know, other people might have experienced. I have experienced a lot of racial prejudice in politics. The unpleasantness of racism. But now I don’t because I’m not in the limelight but I’m sure that other people….
MG – But you weren’t prevented from practising your faith in any way?
ZG – No.
MG – That’s the good thing about Britain.
ZG – No I wasn’t, not all.
How does your religion regard human rights, and how has it contributed to or influenced the world’s understanding of human rights?
ZG – Well, I told you about the Zoroastrian kingCyrus the Great. He’s considered the first ruler to practice human rights.
MG – Woah, it’s a big question! The ancient Zoroastrian scriptures are very interesting, they’re one of the earliest pieces of literature that we still have……they’re from the Bronze Age and they talk about the conscience of each man and woman, and that religious belief should be pursued as a result of each man and woman considering in their conscience what they believe to be the right thing. So, even from the really earliest period it looks as though there’s an emphasis on autonomy but also personal responsibility, and that has kind of percolated down through the centuries in Zoroastrianism. So there’s always been, an emphasis on people doing the right thing out of their own conviction.
ZG – I missed that. It’s very important, you have decided for yourself and our prophet Zoroaster did say man and woman too. It wasn’t just man, he always spoke about the woman. Which is very interesting
MG – A Bronze Age Iranian pacifist (query whether word on the tape is ‘pacifist’)….that’s quite impressive
ZG – Truly impressive, Zoroaster was an early feminist, he always spoke about women’s equality…..he had three daughters and I think that’s really interesting. And that puts a big responsibility on us.
And it’s interestingly tied back to what you were saying about the idea of judgement and there being no kind of….
ZG – Escape
Escape yes, you carry with you what you have done for good or for ill.
ZG – That’s so isn’t it?
MG – Mmmm
ZG – And that’s like Hinduism as well. I couldn’t quite explain the subtleties between….it’s very easy to explain the influence Zoroastrianism has had on Christianity, Judaism and Islam, even the five prayers was a Zoroastrian thing, Muslims do it. But I couldn’t really explain the subtleties of the influence of Hinduism and the influence of Hinduism on us. Which you, you’re better at.
MG – Is that of interest to you?
And it’s of interest generally, really.
MG-Sure, well, in a nutshell, the ancient Iranians and the ancient Indians were originally one people. And the language of the scriptures of the two religions, the most ancient ones are in languages that are almost completely identical. It’s like two regional dialects of the same language and that represents, or illustrates the fact that there’s massive cultural connections between the two people.
ZG – What’s the language?
MG – Well, its Vedic Sanskrit, the most ancient form of Sanskrit and Gartgavesta which area almost identical
ZG – Mark had to learn Sanskrit at SOAS for his MA.
MG – The veneration of fire, the veneration of cattle, but also much more important philosophical concepts, especially this idea of ‘ASHA’ which in the Vedas is called ‘rita’ which is the idea that there’s this force in the universe which underpins everything, which is power of light, truth, beauty, goodness and which is opposed to the negative, destructive quality, it’s called drooge, in Arvesten and that’s darkness, chaos, disorder, pain, suffering, those sorts of things and in South Asia that concept developed later on into the idea of daherma which is a concept which exists in all the South Asian faiths of what is right. So there’s this ancient connection between Zoroastrianism and Hinduism and then very interestingly, Zoroastrianism had this impact on the Western religions, so it’s actually like a bridge between Western and Eastern religions, so that’s it in a nutshell.
That’s fascinating. I’m disciplining myself to keep on with the questions about law rather than asking too many theological questions. Do you think the way in which human rights apply to everyone equally, has been a good or a bad thing for UK society?
ZG – Sorry, you’ll have to explain that, sorry
Well, in some jurisdictions the level of rights given to citizens depend on the status they have legally, whereas here, human rights are, generally speaking, human rights, do you think that’s been a good or a bad thing? And also the way in which courts have interpreted and applied human rights, particularly since the passage of the Human Rights Act. Has that been a positive development or a negative?
MG – Undoubtedly positive.
ZG – Who would say it was anything but positive?
The Daily Mail?
ZG – I see!
MG – It’s a shame Adrian, a director at the ASHA Centre, isn’t here, there’s a wonderful idea from Rudolph Steiner, and I don’t want to mangle it. Steiner said that, it’s the ideas from the French Revolution of egality, liberty and fraternity, and they each apply best in different spheres of human activity. So, egality, equality is best in the legal sphere, where all men are equal before the law. Liberty is best in the spiritual or artistic sphere, where people are inwardly free to do whatever they need to do to express their individual gifts, not necessarily equal to each other and fraternity applies in the economic sphere, so the only true basis of a successful economic at least is when people relate to each other out of a sense of brotherhood. And so, according to that idea, equality before the law is absolutely essential.
Thank you, fantastic. Are there ways in which Zoroastrians have a practical influence on human rights in contemporary Britain? Do they have any groups which campaign on particular issues?
MG – Yes and so the government is supposed to consult these committees you know, when they want to introduce legislation which effects faith communities or whatever. I can’t think of anything else apart from that.
And presumably, individuals of the faith who are political active?
ZG – Oh absolutely
MG – So, who would they be Mum? Your good self, at least in the past if not now.
ZG – They are. The thing about Zoroastrians is that they do join committees and are actively involved in the interfaith communities.
MG – You know historically, the first three non-white MPs in the UK were all Zoroastrians
ZG – I can brief you on all of them because I’ve researched and written about all of these extraordinary men. The first one was Dadabhai Naoroji a Liberal Democrat, the second was a Sir Mancherjee Bhownagree a Conservative and the third one was Shapurji Saklatvala, a Labour MP and then, a Communist. It’s very interesting that they crossed the political spectrum and where all motivated by the Zoroastrian concept of justice.
MG – But in terms of human rights the first one in particular….
ZG – The first one Dadabhai Naoroji was inspirational. He was the son of a Dastoor, a Zoroastrian priest, and I believe that a had a huge influence on him. Even though his father died when he was young and he was brought up by his widowed mother he was always very religious. To be a Zoroastrians priest you have to be born into a priestly family. That did have an impact on his politics, the sense that one is in this world to do good.
ZG – He became an MP in the 1892 for the constituency of Finsbury Central.
MG – But the main purpose for him in becoming an MP, he came over from India, was to advocate for the Home Rule movement. Human rights for Indians.
ZG – Yes, Human rights for 250 million Indians that needed representation in Parliament.
MG – He was a major part of the….what do you call the independence movement?
ZG – One of Dadabhai Naoroji great achievement was to research and show how the British Empire was draining India of it’s resources. He wrote the book ‘Poverty and Un-British Rule in India which did have an impact. It alerted people to an injustice.
Dadabhai Naoroji was very high minded individual. When he worked in a firm in Manchester, he resigned because he didn’t approve of their dealings in opium with China.
MG – Mmmm, and he was a great inspiration for Gandhi. He was one my Gandhi hero’s.
ZG – He was seen as the father of the Indian independence movement. He and Thomas Clarkson the outstanding Englishman, who was instrumental in ensuring the success of the anti-slave movement and who I also wrote about were my two heroes. They’re both sons of priests, so they both had faith for as base as how they lived their lives and I think that’s very important. We forget that. And both their fathers died when they were very young, they were brought up by their mothers and they both had huge respect for the feminine principle and equality of women.
That is fascinating. Do you think that generally speaking, human rights are fairly well respected in practise by government bodies and emanations of the State in Great Britain?
MG – (laughter) They think they do. What do you think Mum?
ZG – The majority of British people these days, I am completely alienated from politics and I have complete contempt for what’s going on. I’m sorry, I was very, very involved with it and I really believed that you could change the system through politics. But now I believe that you only change the world for the better by changing yourself and changing the people around you, by your good example.
MG – Brilliant.
ZG – I just….my own personal experience has been so unpleasant that you could only do it by your own example. You can’t rely on statutory bodies, because they can always twist things to suit themselves.
Yes. Do you think that the State interferes too much or not enough in the lives of individuals and groups? 1) in a general sense and 2) where religious matters are concerned?
ZG – Who do they interfere with? Do they interfere with Muslims?
MG – (laughter) I don’t think so. This is you know, the big debate especially in America, and somehow in Europe we’re starting to ask ourselves the same question for some reason. But it seems to be an extreme vision of society where the government is considered only an interference, and the positive things we can achieve together through government are dismissed. So, you know, Britain’s a wonderful example of how the State in the first part of the twentieth century and the late nineteenth century massively improved the welfare of the British people. It took people out of poverty, that’s my view, what do you think?
ZG – Well, my view was, when I was young that legislation was extremely important, but as I’ve got older I think that writing, communication, speaking has a huge influence, you don’t know how much influence you have, because you never know the impact you have when somebody is listening to you, or in an audience when you’re talking. But we should all be balanced, we should all be there, legislation should be the foundation of communications and the way you behave, and it all has to be balanced properly. And it can’t be legislation and you just do what you want and when you’re caught …..
MG – The way the government operates, it arises out of the culture of the day. It’s not separate from the minds and hearts of all the people who live in the country.
ZG – The other thing is that we expect politicians to be leaders and to encourage us to do great things, but what happens is that politicians actually follow. They listen to focus groups because they want votes, so they’re actually listening to the common denominator which is often rather unattractive. They’re not listening to great souls who challenge the way we behave and are visionaries. That’s a shame. If you only pander to the low common denominator, it makes for mediocrity. It doesn’t make for magnificence.
MG – May I say something? It’s something that I feel quite strongly about, and it’s one of the reasons that I feel proud to be British. One of the reasons….what I understand to be and this is my own understanding of British social history, you know, it may not be perfect. But what I understand is that there were magnificent strides forward in personal liberty, personal freedom and collective wellbeing of society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; it was largely brought about by certain government legislation and that was reflection of what was going on in the minds and hearts of the British people. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that amongst the population of Britain there was a keen connection to Christianity. Lots of people had a rich interior life, inspired by collective worship and their own awareness of Scripture and that played its way out in government legislation eventually. What happened in the Empire is a completely different story because that was like adventurers going off around the world, who had a different modus operandi.
One of the reasons that we all feel…..I think a lot of people in Britain nowadays feels frustrated about the direction of the country. My analysis of it is that there is generally an impoverishment of the inner lives of people. And that ultimately expresses itself in the very mundane way that the government governs. And you know, the way we understand human rights and our relationship to other countries and all sorts of things. So, for me, the root of all these problems is this impoverishment and the answer to it is somehow to regenerate that inner inspiration in people. I wouldn’t, I’m suggesting that there’s any simple answer to that, like everybody’s suddenly just got to go to church on Sunday, it’s much more integral and comprehensive answer is required. But that inner spirituality is the root of it. That’s one of the ideas that informs the work that we do at the ASHA Centre. We’re not forcing and particular philosophical ideas on people, people are free but we are trying to say that there is an inner life that needs to be cultivated for people to experience themselves, society and their relationship to the Earth in as good a way as it can be, in a full, happy way, that spreads happiness and peace in the world.
ZG – Absolutely, what Mark said is fascinating and it makes me think that when I researched the life of Thomas Clarkson and campaign against the slave trade. Antislavery came from people that were Christian. It was the enlightened Christians that really ignited the anti-slave movement. It became the major political campaign of the period. It was through the churches and the Quakers that people’s minds were changed and slavery condemned. And I can’t…I always marvel…..when we did the 200th celebrations I spoke at Manchester cathedral and I said what I found extraordinary was that ¾ of the people in Manchester signed a petition against slavery and I said that with all the modern technology I don’t think that I could get two thirds of Manchester to sign for anything. How extraordinary that Thomas Clackson went on horseback and persuaded so many people to sign a petition against slavery. I don’t think that we could do it now. I would like to stop modern slavery and I know that we only need 10 billion pounds and every slave could be released and educated and given a livelihood. I don’t know if we have that kind of energy and feeling that we can make…turn something evil into good.
When do you think that the State should interfere in the sense of restrict people when they are expressing or putting into practise religious or theological convictions and actions and lifestyle choices?
ZG – Well this is happening now at the Home Office, isn’t it? Very apt question, it’s what Theresa May is doing isn’t she?
MG – What’s she’s doing?
ZG – Well, she’s saying……to curb Muslim priests from going around and agitating people….she thinks they are
MG – Where’s the line?
ZG – Where’s the line? I don’t know. Where is the line? Well Mark knows more about….well, Islam is the question really. I mean Islam is what’s happening…
And I suppose also in relation to vulnerable people and children and education, that’s a sort of….and not just with Islam…..I mean how far is it reasonable for parents to make decisions on behalf of their children?
ZG – Oh I see
Well, that’s just one possible other example as well as freedom of expression and Imams and how far is too far in that direction.
MG – Phew, that’s a really difficult question. My, what I always have at the back of my mind is that we to appreciate how a conviction arising out of faith, is not just like a normal intellectual conviction, if you believe that you have to do something or think something because God requires you to do that. It’s of a different…it’s like a different category from just a normal intellectual conviction and so, you sort to need to…..so a society or a government will need to respond accordingly. Now what the answer is in every single situation now…..ooof I’m not sure. It’s a sort of complicated question……
ZG – Ask the Daily Mail….it would solve the problems of everybody. One of the things about Zoroastrians, and why the Zoroastrian known as Parsis (people from Persia) were so successful in India, was they adapted and we adapted when we came to England. We dress in Western clothes, we speak English and we try and integrate ourselves. It’s very important to adapt, I don’t think we give enough emphasis on that. And it’s nothing to do with the Daily Mail idea that you’re a guest. I don’t see myself as a guest I see myself as very British and taking great responsibility and wanting to stand for Parliament and all the rest of it…..so I see myself taking part……but I also think that it’s important to learn the language to sort of look as if we’re part of it. Not sort of stick out all the time. You can do what you want again behind closed doors in Britain (laughter) if you want to dress up in fancy dress clothes you can…… but somehow you need to be able to speak English, it’s very important because you need to be able to converse and communicate. I understand in America everybody has to learn English, and that brought them together, that’s quite important, if you have something that is common to everybody, language, communications is so important.
MG – Can I say something else about this line, about where the government can and should intervene against religious convictions of others? I’m just trying to think about it off the top of my head. There’s a difference when it comes to a person’s family. Sometimes in our culture we don’t quite appreciate the importance of the inviolability of the connection between parent and child. And so I would….personally in other cultures I’m aware….so for example in Islam there’s a tradition of Mohammed which say that the mother should never be separated….sorry, a child should never be separated from the mother. In England, we have the idea that if we believe a parent might be abusing a child. There’s this idea that the child should never be separated from the parent whereas in the current UK set up we have the idea that if there’s even a potential risk to the child, the child should be separated from the parent. And so, as we said before these are all very complicated questions and you can come to different answers from a quite sincere perspective, but, we should have more humility about how other people choose to live their lives and have more reticence about intervening in other people’s lives.
I think you’re right, I think it is hugely complicated. It is heart-breaking when you see children who have been appallingly abused by their own mother.
MG – It’s not an amazing idea, it’s simply that when you intervene in a situation you are accepting responsibility for that situation. If you don’t intervene, it wasn’t necessarily your responsibility in the first place to do something about it, even if you could have done.
I mean it’s an idea which resonates very well with the way that the Common Law operates.
MG – Right. Yeah, sure, so if someone’s hanging off a cliff it’s not your responsibility to help
Exactly, yeah in this jurisdiction, very different from Europe where it is probably your problem, but here
MG – But this as you said, the Wisdom of Solomon. Who knows what God requires of us?
Yes, you’re right. If you start trying to rescue somebody and you push them off, then it becomes your responsibility. That’s a fascinating take on it, I’d not thought of looking at it that way before really.
MG – I suppose that all I’m saying is that we need to be aware of the paradigms motivating our assessment of a situation. So in that situation of the mother and the child, for us, separating the child from the mother is not a theological issue……whereas for a Muslim who believes in what the prophet it is….I think that’s what I’m saying….
ZG – That’s very interesting.
Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democracy, because obviously, there are different understandings of democracy, makes it easier or harder to live in accordance with your faith or your convictions? And, is there any other form of government which you would regard as preferable?
ZG – To democracy?
MG – Was it Plato who said we should be led by 12 wise men? I think that would be great.
ZG – What about 12 wise women. I suppose democracy is the best system we’ve come up with, but it can lead to politicians pandering to unhealthy prejudice. And also, means that people don’t have a longer foresight into things because it’s almost more temporary because you have to always get votes. I remember Mrs Indira Gandhi saying to me just before she died…She said to me that everybody goes into politics with good intentions and they end up just wanting to win votes, win elections. And it’s very evident to me, that most people go into politics with good intentions but later think oh well, I need to fundraise, or I’ll need that to carry favour for more votes, so the purity of the intent is blurred. Which maybe if you don’t have democracy and you just have a good person…..but where are the good people?
Given that we do live in a democratic society, does your faith mean that you feel that you have a personal responsibility to vote and participate?
ZG – Oh G-d yes! Don’t you? Well, I mean I did participate, because I felt it was very important.
MG – But why was that Zoroastrianism?
ZG – Oh, simply because you’re able to change anything
MG – Yeah
ZG – Because you’re able to change the world by your effort and vision. When a teenager I used to work as a volunteer for the homeless and set up the charity Shelter their first shops. I also set up volunteering groups in London in order to transform the way people related treated the homeless. If people haven’t got a home at all it is an indictment on all of us. One of the reasons there wasn’t revolution in Britain was that people had their little home and their little plot of land, however small it was. They had something that was theirs and that’s very important. People have good accommodation, that it’s the basis of a lot of contentment. You know I’ve seen young children
MG – So you’re like a stakeholder in society?
ZG – I’ve seen young children that you know live in hostels and are continuously moved on they never get that sort of grounding, where there’s that security and comfort. I’ve always felt very strongly that I have to participate. I’m as responsible as anybody else and if there’s inequality in the world it’s just as much my fault as anybody else’s. I need to do something about it to make the world a kinder and more just place for everyone.
MG – And you could say that comes directly from Zoroastrianism?
ZG – Oh absolutely, the feeling that you have to be in the world arena.
MG – That life is not to be renounced. It’s not learnt that it’s an illusion, it’s something that you have to engage with. The teaching is that you are part of a spiritual battle and that man has to join the side of light, and thereby support God’s work……and he does that by helping other people.
ZG – Absolutely
MG – That’s how spiritual progress is made
ZG – I certainly don’t believe that life’s an illusion, life’s a great reality. We do have to justify ourselves and why you are here. You can’t just say, I didn’t want to interfere, and I wanted to become enlightened myself, you have to do more than that. You have to help
MG – So Zoroastrians in India, they’ve had a very strong experience of being able to impact that society positively.
ZG – That’s what I said about, the Hindus allowed us to
MG – Right. After the centuries of oppression in Iran, they were in a situation in India where Zoroastrians were free and could express their talents and abilities. So there was a great flowering of Parsi accomplishment, and so India Zoroastrians have a great sense that they can do things, that they can impact society in a positive way. I’m sure that’s a part of….
ZG – I’m sure…..one of the things that the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams spoke about during his visit to the Zoroastrian Centre was the idea that when a community is held back and then suddenly allowed to express yourselves, there is a great flourishing.
MG – Energy
ZG – There’s great energy and great goodness comes out of it. You’re free. That certainly happened with the Irani Zoroastrians who came to India in the early 20th century for religious freedom and a better life. They came because they believed that they wouldn’t be religiously persecuted under the British Empire, and they could practise their faith, which they couldn’t do openly in Iran. They did not have to hide their religious faiths they flourished and they’ve done very well, in industry, in law, in business, in everything.
That’s interesting. So indirectly, the sort of British legal system was of some benefit then.
ZG – Absolutely, absolutely, it allowed them religious tolerance, which they didn’t have in the Middle East.
There’s an irony and a fascination in that concept on so many levels really. On the one hand the British having gone and interfered somewhere else but there’s some sort of redemptive effect at least.
MG – Well, Indian had been a refuge for Zoroastrians before the British arrived.
Yes, because I was thinking that….I hadn’t realized that there was that connection as well
ZG – I always feel that there’s a big connection between Britain and India anyway. Britain is very hierarchical and Indian society is very much in the caste system and I don’t think that’s just disappeared.
MG – There was a meeting minds.
ZG – Yes, there was an understanding that there’s a hierarchy. And the other thing that I didn’t tell you about Zoroastrian influence was the hierarchy of angels. Because people didn’t believe in angels ‘til Zoroaster came…..the whole concept of angels….
MG – Sure, sure (laughs) you’re putting it at its highest mum! Nobody believed in angels before Zoroaster.
ZG – Yeah well, they did the hierarchy of angels, didn’t they?
MG – Yeah, it’s one of the ways I think in which Iranian religion impacted….
ZG – So I mean that’s important because there is a huge revival of the idea of angels and higher beings helping.
Parliament, generally has the final say here in still in making or changing British law? Should there be limits in the way that Parliament can change the law and should judges have power to strike down laws?
MG – Oh….that’s a question for a lawyer.
Well, that’s a perfectly legitimate answer, and just to pass on that one if you’d like to.
ZG – Well, Mark you have qualified as a lawyer, even the courts can be…..even with a court judgement like the Chagos Islanders case, every time they win the government has the money to appeal, it makes a bit of a joke of justice. I mean you just think oh well, dear me….The point is that everything can be abused and misused, every system.
MG – And the system has to be flexible enough to deal with changed circumstances. So, I suppose in America one of the problems that they’re seeing is that they’ve kind of got a gridlock-because of what they 250 years ago, or whatever it was were trying to establish, in those circumstance. So, everything’s got to keep any development mechanism that is inherently flexible over the centuries, things need to be destroyed and renewed. It’s good enough for the time being, shall we say that? And the judges yes, they should be able to strike down law. Sometimes the legislature gets it, wrong don’t they? They misinterpret their own powers and step over the line, step over the mark, exceed them
Does your understanding of democracy as the will of the majority present problems for minority groups in society? And do you think our democracy is inclusive of all groups and citizens, or is it in practise here difficult for some people in our society to participate?
ZG – If you want to participate in Britain you can though procedures that make it difficult. I’ve often asked would I have gone back into politics with the hindsight of what I experienced and I often think, I wouldn’t do it again. I wouldn’t be bothered. I wouldn’t want to go through all that agony again. Having said that it was an important learning experience, it opened up whole new worlds for me, connections and understanding the how the system works. It was very important that period of my life. Looking back, I was courageous and did help open up the system for minorities and especially for women.
Interestingly I didn’t understand how the system really operated, and because I didn’t understand what was going on I thought I was capable of doing anything. I was so naive. I was able to do what I wanted to do because I just put my foot down. I said that I’ve been elected and this is the will of the people through me and you’re going to do it and the officers did it. There were certain situations where I was lucky and things happened so I dissolved committees that I took over as chair and insisted that half the committee was women, because I had the legal power to do it, nobody had ever thought of doing it before. But when I initially asked everybody on the committee to invite more women and ethnic minorities. They said no, the women didn’t have the right C.V.s and it wasn’t appropriate. They fobbed me off so I just dissolved the committee, took the chair’s action and then co-opted women onto the committee. I don’t think that I could do that now, I was able to do that because I was young, naïve, very energetic and a little defiant. I just thought there was nothing that could stop me, so sometimes having people who don’t understand the system can be interesting.
You have to have people who don’t understand how stifling power is. I didn’t understand then, now I understand what it’s all about. I understand committees are there to talk about problems but seldom to action solutions. It’s not there for people like me who just see solutions and don’t understand why nothing changes.
MG – Whose interest does it serve to stop solutions?
ZG – The people who want the status quo.
MG – And who are they?
ZG – The people in power. The people in power don’t want anything changed, it doesn’t suit them to change things. They will always have the token person on board, they will always make you feel that the system is open and you can get elected, which of course you can. You can get elected, you sort of can do anything which is true, but until you have a third of a committee, or a third of the Parliament, you don’t change the mindset. It’s very difficult, you’ve got to change the mindset and therefore you’ve got to…….. I think what happened in my time, the early 80s, was a many women who when they reached positions of power, were so tired by the time they got there that they didn’t have the energy to take on the system. They just sort of rolled over and accepted it and became sort of quasi-male in their thinking and behaviour, and that was the difficulty.
MG – Do you think that they might just have been forerunners of something that might succeed or come to fruition later on?
ZG – If you talk to young women these days, they don’t know what you’re talking about, they have no concept of what it was like. Because, it is possible now and see they people in positions of power and role models and all the rest of it. I mean it’s not something wonderful, you can do anything, sort of thing. I mean when you see a Muslim woman who’s a major pilot for the United Arab Emirates you think blimey, you know. But it was so different in my time. It was so difficult and so different……you had to, in a sense, play the game. And I always used to say that you had to, you know, sort of climb the walls of Jericho, get inside and educate and enlighten the Philistines……you couldn’t just walk around the walls and scream and shout. You know, the walls wouldn’t fall down. But I’m now with the trumpeters to go around the wall, I’ve changed.
MG – Can I ask you something mum?
ZG – Yes.
MG – I have a thought in my head, which is about, I want to ask you about how you think the system could be changed so that is supports solutions rather than blocking them. So, what I have in my head is, so for example in the debate in Scotland, everybody was very, very passionate about it, obviously because it arouses nationalistic feelings. And also because everybody’s vote made a difference. And so, what I have in my head is that our voting system and the way we have constituencies means that most people’s vote doesn’t matter. I’ve never voted for a party that actually won anything, ever…..
ZG – Well, I mean obviously, nobody campaigned properly for the PR vote.
MG – Do you think that would make a difference if there was a different voting system?
ZG – Absolutely……the voting system is very important…..the voting system….nobody, during the PR vote for example, there was no funding for somebody to go round to the minority communities and say to them….do you know what a difference it would make if you vote really counted? So, if you are a minority it would have made a big difference, and they didn’t vote for PR, people didn’t even go out and vote. People didn’t even go out and vote because who was bothered? Nobody actually really wanted to change it. And the PR vote obviously does help and it helped me. I became chair of the Community Relations panel because everybody voted for themselves first and voted for me as their second choice, as the only sort of ethnic woman. I didn’t think that I had a chance of winning and I got everybody’s second vote. Obviously, that was the way that I won. I didn’t get people’s first vote. I’m not so stupid. But because I then got the position of power I was able to do things. And that led to lots of other things that I did. So, I think of course the voting system is very important, the voting system is………first past the post is very difficult for minorities. But then I always say to people, you know women who say that, but you’re the majority anyway. So, if you want to make it happen you can make it happen because you’re the majority.
And I used to say, I used to get very upset when I was campaigning to be told that I wasn’t from the area, even though my children were born in the area, I lived my life in the area….because I was not born in England I found it very unpleasant and there was nothing you could do.
But then, you know foreigners are foreigners forever. There was a letter in the local press in Harrow about how I should go home and fight elections in my own country. And I just thought that that was hitting below the belt, that wasn’t proper. I went and saw the editor. I told the editor that the racist letter he printed was objectionable. Firstly I reasoned with him and said it wasn’t right. I was a Harrow councillor and I had been elected with a landslide and he’d seen the work that I did. He said that he admired what I did, but there was a feeling among the public that people like me should not be standing for Parliament and that we were foreigners. I told him that it is irresponsible to print letters from people who don’t exist, a Mr Smith of some street in Harrow that didn’t exist. He just wouldn’t listen to me, so I said fine, the next time you print a letter like this, I shall make sure that every newsagent, they were all Guajarati Asians, nobody would sell his newspaper. I told him in no uncertain terms, you leave that to me. I said the newsagents make 5p profit per newspaper they sell, I will make sure they stop selling your paper. Never again did the editor print another racist article because he knew I was serious. So, I was able to use the power of a minority because I knew they controlled sales. I reasoned with the editor, but he wouldn’t listen to my reasoning. He was a man that should have understood that all communities should take part in political life. He knew the importance of the work that I was doing, and the need to involve more people who were marginalised in those days.
MG-So minorities have to galvanize themselves.
It was a brilliantly clever solution.
ZG – Well the point is because I went to him and tried to reason and I always think you should reason and you should say to people this is not right and explain why it’s not right. But then when they’re bullies, and they want to bully you, then, then, you know, I’m not going to be bullied by anybody. I had the British National Party after me and there’s no way…..I said if you want to stop me stand, against me, but you’re not going to bully me and smash my car and break into my home and death threats after me and my family. You stand up for what you believe and that’s fine, and I stand up for what I believe in, and then we go to the electorate. There should be people who do stand up for themselves that so that people don’t feel intimidated. One of the things which used to happen in Harrow was that the Asians wouldn’t go campaigning with me because they were scared as they were abused on the door steps. They were willing to give me funding and help me like that, they were very good, but they wouldn’t do the knocking on the doors. Now I think that’s all changed. And that things have really changed.
I hope so.
ZG – Things have changed in Britain, they’re much better. I don’t think that that could happen now. I don’t think that you’d be spat upon and abused and all that. I don’t think that it could happen now, but it did in those days. And it’s all documented, so we don’t forget those dark days. I hope things are much better.
For example, go back to legislation, quite important. Farida Master who is in the process of writing my biography ‘An Uncensored Life’, for the publishers Harper Collins. She went through all my political documents that have been archived. And I’d forgotten that about 35 years ago I’d taken on this whole issue politically of sex and violence against women and paedophilia which are now the big issues of the moment. Farida was reading letters that I received from politicians, saying that if I carried on my political career would come to an end…..that this wasn’t an issue for the police, politicians or me. Now look at it 35 years later, it’s the issue that’s on television every day. It’s a huge issue. And she brought that out which is quite interesting because I had completely forgotten about it. Things are improving and being brought into the open. There does need to be legislation. The police and people in positions do have power should be made aware what’s going on at the grass roots. How people suffer and have suffered.
Related to democracy, is it problematic that members of the House of Lords who obviously have a role in legislation although not a final one aren’t elected?
ZG – It’s absolutely outrageous. It is a joke, that the British establishment goes around the world talking about banana republics. They should look at themselves. How can you have a second chamber that is not elected? How can you have a second body that has people who have been convicted of crimes who go to prison and come out and still legislate for us. Nobody’s voted for them and nobody wants them there. We all know that people have landed in the House of Lords by paying money to political parties and it’s just a nod and a wink. And the whole thing stinks. Britain should grow up. Anybody who puts any credence by the place should be looked at, and it’s just a place, a fashionable club, to put people who’ve retired from politics and their mates who’ve given them money. That’s what it is.
MG – Do you think that you could have a purified second chamber, that isn’t elected? If you just put worthy people there, or that just wouldn’t work in practice? If you’re worthy and you stand up I think that it would be very interesting to have elections to the House of Lords. There’s a huge move in Britain at the moment to elect people who are independent. I think there’s a great interest in people who are not party political who don’t sing the party song. You know, the singer not the song, and who have got a background in what they’ve done. So people actually say to them what have you done, and what is the experience you will bring to Britain as a legislator. And the electorate is much more sensible than people give them credence for……Do want to say anything about the Lords?
MG-I just wanted to ask you a question. What do you think if they had like people in the House of Lords temporarily so long as the fulfilled a certain office. So you’d have people like the Archbishop of Canterbury….the bishops and the archbishops in the Lords.
ZG – (laughs) Well I’d keep them there.
Because that’s actually the next question.
ZG – I’d keep them there because….first of all I think we’re in a Christian country okay? I t’s important we’re in a Christian country. And I went to a Christian school and I’m very grateful for the wonderful education I had. It’s given me a knowledge of Christianity which, you know, I wouldn’t have got otherwise. It would be very interesting, if you have an elected second chamber, then that elected chamber should probably…if you have people of faith there, then they should be of all faiths, but I think they should be elected by their own community, not just put there. Their own community should elect them.
That’s fascinating……it’s something which we have been thinking about, because it seems to be an obvious solution. But it would be how would you identify the boundaries between faith communities where it wasn’t necessarily clear as to where the divide between faith communities came and who gets the right to vote for whom if that makes sense.
ZG – That’s very important. Either you say to the great British public voting for the second chamber, we would like a faith component, these are the people that have put themselves forward and you have it on a PR system. So, for example, Zoroastrians aren’t going to get may people voting for Zoroastrians, but it might be a good way about enlightening people about the different faiths. Everybody might vote for Zoroastrians second, who knows? You just never know and people can be very capricious, they might just say well I want to vote for something that’s different. I don’t know who these Zoroastrians are but let’s give them a chance, you never know. I believe that there should be a proportion of women, there should be a proportion of faith.
MG – A set proportion?
ZG – Yes, even if it’s a minority. Yes, in lots of governments around the world minorities do have a spokesperson. Even in Pakistan, which is a Muslim Parliament, you have the minorities in place. And even in Iran, the Zoroastrians have a minority that speaks on their behalf. But it must be somebody who speaks on their behalf and not just a little club of people who’ve decided who they want to put there. Because that’s another fear of mine, even if you have a community, they among themselves, the men among themselves can decide who they want to put there and there isn’t a vote. So, it’s fraught with difficulties. But there must be a fairer way than what there is now.
MG – Do you think it should be elected by the general population.
ZG – I think.
MG – And it’s different from the House of Commons in that they represent…..
ZG – The House of Commons.
MG – Rather than constituencies they represent interests within society.
ZG – Yes, or even just people, it would be very interesting for the debate for people to have what is real wisdom, you have a second chamber of wise people. I mean it sounds ridiculous but why not? The world is changing people want wise people.
MG – Well shouldn’t we have wise people in the first chamber?
ZG – We should, but that’s up to them to decide for whom they want to vote….the rabble rousers…..but I think there should be some system whereby…..you see I don’t think wise people and people with long experience……I think a lot of people haven’t got the guts to go into politics and go through the electoral system and to bang on doors and do campaigning. A lot of people don’t like doing that, are not good at doing it, but they have things to offer. But you have to have some voting system, I don’t think that you can just plonk them there because the prime minister thinks they’d be good or a political party puts them forward.
MG – Can I just ask you, what about if we got the bishops and the Chief Rabbi and whoever it was and the heads of the universities and the most eminent people and the head doctors, and don’t who they are, the head of the medical society, the head of the Law Society.
ZG – I wouldn’t give it to the heads.
MG – Top judges.
ZG – It wouldn’t be the heads…you see, the heads, what I’ve seen in life, the people who get to the positions of power are good at manoeuvring, they may not be the wisest, often the people who could actually change the way we live don’t want to go into that minefield. But I think that if they were given the exposure, in the media, which they would be if they were standing for election, the debate would change a great deal. I’m thinking seriously that we should have a programme, it would show another way of education. People need to know that people are doing things differently, which we don’t get exposed to and I think that’s important. So maybe this would be a way of opening up the debate and looking at the way…..I mean, I rang up Chanel 4, they were discussing, who’s that Lord?
MG – What did he do?
ZG – You know, the one who was molesting women in the Liberals….Renard I spoke to Cathy Newman and it would be interesting, I thought that the women were very brave. Because my generation just walked away from people like Renard, we just walked away and said we don’t want to be involved in this, and these are unpleasant people they’re horrible, and they would stop people’s careers, destroy people’s careers. And then these young women came out, especially the woman from Oxford and stood up and said we’re not going to put up with this. Even if our careers destroyed we don’t care, our political career, we’ve got other careers we can go into academia whatever it is. I really admire them because we didn’t do it, our generation thought that….a bit like the Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard. I think that Gillard was interesting. She said if you expose them you’re being a harridan, if you don’t expose them you’re being a victim. It’s very difficult to find the right way, anyway, I was speaking to Cathy Newman about it and I said to her what really needs reforming is the House of Lords. It’s not going to happen in a hurry because those in power will never allow it to happen. People in power know that’s where they’re going it’s their safety net, so why are they going to change it? I mean the debate on PR and the reform of the House of Lords was nonsensical there was no debate, because nobody wanted to debate it, so nobody went and voted. It should have been an issue on all media programs, schools in every workplace etc, and didn’t even know anybody was voting on it. And so I hope that something like this book will actually make it a debate. Top me it’s really important. When you have the appointments commission with people who refuse to stand down and have been exposed for taking money by the media and they’re still there, they’re still deciding who goes in to the House of Lords, then you wonder how the public think the system isn’t working for them. When they’ve been exposed in the papers for corruption and they’re still kept there by those in power. That’s a mockery of democracy.
What does your faith teach about people with power and how they should be held accountable?
ZG – Everybody’s accountable. There is no escape from karma. As it says in the Bible ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’.
So in Zoroastrian terms there is this understanding of, in a relational sense, sort of good being owed between human beings as well as being between humans and the divinity?
ZG – If I can bring joy to someone’s life it is important to me. I fight for other people’s justice but I fight for my own justice as well. And I think that’s quite important because people forget that. I went to Nick Clegg about an issue that was unjust. Even though I had left the Liberals 20 years ago. I think the way they’ve had behaved was despicable. Clegg refused to discuss it, absolutely refused to discuss it. That’s cowardice, and for a deputy Prime Minster of Great Britain it’s pathetic. I think it’s wrong when people go to those in power, with a misuse of justice and it is not taken up or even acknowledged. So, does that answer your question about justice?
Is it important for you personally to always act within the bounds of State law?
MG – Sure!
ZG – Of course! I always drive at 30mph…..
And does your religion teach anything about whether to respect secular law, whether to defy it in some circumstances?
ZG – It doesn’t say anything like that does it, it’s such an old religion.
MG – Zoroastrianism….yeah it’s a very ancient religion and in the very earliest times there was very little prescriptive stuff about what’s right and what’s wrong. Right and wrong is very important, but it’s not defined so clearly. It was later on in the Classical period but then a lot of those writings were lost after the Greek and Arab conquests of Iran, and so, Zoroastrianism you’ll find doesn’t have a lot to say in detail about lots of things. Zoroastrianism is much better at the big brush strokes, and these kinds of specific questions don’t always apply. You can always ask individual Zoroastrians how they interpret their religion.
ZG – If something is wrong I would expose it, I would see it as my job to expose things, if something is legally right and I think it’s wrong I would challenge it.
Do you think that in Great Britain the Rule of Law is applied equally to everyone in our society, or do some groups experience either preferential or prejudicial treatment from public bodies…..and that would include things like schools, hospitals the criminal justice system….
ZG – It’s very subtle discrimination, I don’t think I could pinpoint it for you. But it’s very interesting. When I researched for my first book, A Golden Thread: Asian experience in post Raj Britain’’ I interviewed a lot of Asians in quite positions of power……all of them without exception said they felt prejudiced against and they couldn’t pinpoint what it was like, sort of background noise it was always there. And often they didn’t talk about it because it made them sound you know weedy and silly and that they were you know, complaining all the time about discrimination but there was not a single person who didn’t feel some sort of prejudice. I’m in no doubt that if I was a white woman I’d be in Parliament. No doubt, I think I’ve been prejudiced against because of my heritage, no doubt. But you know, it’s changing, you know, it’s changing. And it’s changing because people are more aware, they’re questioning.
Okay…and I think that the last one has been pretty much covered really…..but are you aware of any specific legal rules which have a direct impact on your freedom to practice your faith and are any of these recent?
ZG – I think it must be the Towers of Silence.
Yeah, that must be the biggest.
ZG – It must be the Towers of Silence, but the Towers of Silence couldn’t work anyway because of the heat. They’d have to go into lime, I don’t think it would be possible, would it? I mean there is a woman in Gloucestershire that is breeding….
MG – Vultures.
ZG – Vultures for us.
That is fascinating, I don’t really know enough about the mechanics of how long the vultures would need to….
ZG – Well, you need the heat to….for the bones…..but I suppose the bones could go into lime.
Yes, maybe once the vultures had done their job maybe you could artificially do the rest. Would that then be permissible for someone to disturb them before a particular time?
ZG – No, but, you have the well where the bones go into which then is lime, so I suppose they could make it steeper. But I don’t think you could do it here because I don’t think there’s enough sun. First of all, I don’t think that there’s any part of England where you would have enough space to put it, or a high mountain. Where would you put it? I mean you could put it in Snowdonia if you gave us permission.
MG – You could always just feed the bodies to dog’s mum, why not?
ZG – Well actually……you could feed the bodies to dogs, I remember Lord Avebury said that, as a Buddhist he would give his body to Battersea Dogs’ Home. But I don’t think that’s the point, it’s a little but more than giving it to dogs. It’s to do with birds flying, isn’t it?
MG – Oh.
ZG – I think it’s to do with that
I think…..I’m sure I read somewhere that birds were chosen partly because there was no risk of the Earth being polluted.
ZG-I think so, I think it’s because birds go up.
Because dogs cache stuff and ..
MG – Oh right, right, yeah.
ZG – It’s to do with going up as well, the birds…..We haven’t got a Fire Temple have we? But I don’t think the government would object to that, it’s just us don’t bother.
MG – Yeah, yeah.
ZG – They wouldn’t object to that.
MG – It’s just too expensive.
I mean what exactly happens in the Fire Temples?
ZG – I mean if this was the Inner Sanctuary, you’d have the big urn, the silver urn with the fire……to be fed only with sandalwood which is becoming very difficult to get and is causing great problems to get sandalwood because you can’t cut down the woods to get sandalwood.
Is there an expectation that where possible people go very regularly or…?
ZG – Oh yes, but what we don’t do is we don’t have a day like….unless there’s a festival. When everybody goes to the Agiary the Fire Temple…..we don’t, it’s not a certain day like a Sunday, it’s not like the Muslims go to a mosque on a Friday. My family would go everyday to pray in India. They’ll go to the Agiary and pray or they’ll go whenever they want. I think there’s interaction between Zoroastrians and Christianity especially respect for the Virgin Mary……and it’s because many Zoroastrians went to Catholic schools.
MG – Zoroastrians in India, a lot of them have become quite syncretic in their religious practices, they’ve absorbed the openness in a lot of Hindu culture, so they take an interest in many different things. So mum was talking about karma earlier on and everyone’s going to get their just desserts…..there are all sorts of other examples.
ZG – We’ve taken a lot from Hinduism, because we’ve been there so long and we’ve given to people. But religion is just so interconnected…and for me 21st century is really about evolved souls getting together and just saying you know this is the way we can go forward and we support each other. I see that the forces of darkness work together and they’re very powerful and they control…..they have power and they know how to use power. I meet many extraordinarily good people, very creative, loving people but they’re doing individual things and nobody brings them together, there’s no system that brings them together, so you don’t feel their power of what they’re doing, so you think there isn’t so much goodness but there’s a lot of goodness in the world…..but they don’t work together, they don’t get pulled together…..the forces of darkness know each other, they work together, they support each other, they promote each other.
MG – They feed off each other.
So why do the forces of light not do the same?
ZG – I have no idea….I often go to conferences and ask them…I meet the most extraordinary people all over the world where I talk….extraordinary, doing really interesting things and nobody has brought them together….that’s…..if anybody can do that they’ll be doing the next karmic move for the world, to bring these people together and say, you know, they should be meeting. And again, I don’t know why. Often you go to interfaith events, I don’t go to very much now because it’s the same people. But they just sort of go to conferences, and instead of actually experiencing what people are doing in the workplace and how they’re changing things. So for example, in the education system there’s a lot of people doing good things…..they should get together and go to the Education Minister, have programs and you know and bring it out to the wider public, this is what we’re doing and this is the impact it’s making. So, you can bring communities together. Like when we had the Muslims and the Jews, in the end the Muslims were joining in the Sabbath. The Jews couldn’t believe it….and they were really interested.
MG – What was this mum?
ZG – When the young Muslims and the Jews came to the ASHA Centre. We were thrilled and it completely changed the way they behaved towards each other. Before then all they used to go on and say to us was ‘oh the Muslims hate us….they want us out of Israel…oh they hate us’ I mean when the Muslims actually listened and sat in and watched the Sabbath they were fascinated and then the whole equation changed one evening. That’s a completely different experience to saying to people, oh we’ll take you to see the Temple….it’s just a sort of outing to a museum, they don’t experience what somebody really feels….what keeps them going.
Is there anything else that you like to tell us? Particularly about freedom and belief in Great Britain, but anything in general that you’d like to say?
ZG – Do you want to say something about what people at ASHA do?
MG – The young people that come to the ASHA Centre, we get really extraordinary feedback, and it’s sort of beyond what we as individuals are offering. And so we ask ourselves the question, why are they having such an amazing…..what’s feeding them so strongly? And the answer we’ve come up with is two-fold. Firstly, it’s because people here are in a beautiful environment they’re in nature and there is just something about that that allows them to relax and experience a kind of inner peace and I think that people are very disconnected from nature now and spend a lot of time in front of computers and in cities. The second thing is that they are able just to enjoy one another’s company, in a way that they’re not judged they’re not having to prove anything, they’re not in any kind of role, it’s not like work. And they just sort of connection as human beings, who they really are, everybody’s accepted. We play all these games at the beginning to break down barriers and everything, and so there’s this experience of community and all relationship with nature. And those are the two big things that our societies need.
Author, human rights campaigner and founder of the ASHA Centre, Zerbanoo Gifford holds the International Woman of the Year Award 2006 for her humanitarian work, which spans more than 40 years of grassroots and global activism. In 1989, Zerbanoo was presented with the Nehru Centenary Award for her work championing the rights of women, children and minorities.
A pioneer for Asian women in British politics, she made history in 1982 by being elected to Harrow council and becoming the first non-white woman to stand for Parliament. Zerbanoo chaired the Commission looking into ethnic minority involvement in British Life and was a member of the advisory group to the British Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Jack Straw MP.
Zerbanoo was the London organiser for the homeless charity Shelter and former director of Anti-Slavery International. She was also awarded the Freedom of the City of Lincoln, Nebraska, for her work combating racism, human trafficking and bonded labour, and for authoring a book on Thomas Clarkson and the Campaign Against Slavery.
She has been a women’s magazine editor and was nominated for the British Editors Award. She has written widely on historical, social and political themes, with all proceeds of her seven books going to nominated charities. These include: The Golden Thread: Asian Experiences of Post-Raj Britain; Dadabhai Naoroji, Britain’s first Asian MP – for which she chaired his centenary celebrations in 1992; The Asian Presence in Europe; and most recently, Confessions to a Serial Womaniser: Secrets of the World’s Inspirational Women – featuring interviews with 300 exceptional women from 60 countries. The book, website and international mentoring project result from Zerbanoo receiving a National Endowment of Science, Technology and Arts Fellowship. She contributed to BBC’s Video Nation series and was involved in two documentaries on street children for Channel 5.
Zerbanoo’s greatest achievement is founding the ASHA Centre in the Forest of Dean – recognised globally as a centre creating opportunities for young people to experience inspiration, connection and purpose. ASHA’s richly varied programme of activities are designed to meet the challenges of the times – combining community arts, sustainable living, transformational leadership, intercultural and interfaith dialogue, and active volunteering. Her biography, An Uncensored Life, written by Farida Master and published by Harper Collins, is now available on Amazon and all good bookshops.
Mark is the Director of the ASHA Centre, a British educational charity and retreat venue. ASHA provides opportunities for young people from around the world to experience inspiration, connection and purpose. Its does so through its four-fold educational model which brings together community, land and arts based activities with an approach that engages head, heart and hands
Mark has a Masters (Distinction) in the Study of Religion, is an ordained ‘interfaith’ minister and a qualified solicitor. He studied at the Universities of Durham, Oxford and London and before joining ASHA, was Assistant CEO of an international British based youth and interfaith charity. His main loves are his wife and son, but he’s also passionate about the Forest of Dean, classical music and the religious traditions of India and Iran