Zerbanoo Gifford gets her inspiration for Dadabhai Naoroji. She is an indomitable campaigner of humanity. Nothing can capture the invincible spirit of this British-Indian rights activist….writes Rajitha Saleem
Zerbanoo Gifford is the first non-white woman to stand for British parliament in 1982. She had bagged several laurels since then. It includes the International Woman of the Year Award 2006, the Nehru Centenary Award, the International Splendour Award in Hollywood, honoured by City of Lincoln, Nebraska, and by Sewall-Belmont Museum in Washington DC. The laurels bestowed upon her seem to fall short of what Zerbanoo has achieved in her life so far.
The recognitions awarded to her involvement in national and international humanitarian activities do not seem to do justice to the spirit that Zerbanoo embodies. A pioneer for Asian women in British public life, Zerbanoo made history by being elected as a Liberal councillor in 1982 in Harrow and being the first non-white woman to stand for parliament in 1983 and then again in 1987 and 1992. Zerbanoo was elected to the Liberal Party’s Federal Executive, again the first non-white to be elected onto any governing body of a British political party. She was a member of the Liberals Women’s SDP committee.
Zerbanoo is a Zoroastrian whose ancestors came from Iran to India at the beginning of the 20th century. Her grandfather started his business in a humble manner who went on to become a successful businessman in Kolkata. Zerbanoo’s parents came to England to set up their hotel business, when the young Zerbanoo was left in the care of her much loved paternal grandmother in India. When she came to England at the age of 4, she was enrolled in the best exclusive girls school—Roedean in Brighton, where she had quite a shock to her system, but nevertheless an adventurous life. But what she enjoyed most was playing the host at her father’s hotel. The lessons of hospitality she picked up at her father’s hotel proved really valuable later in her life when she established the Asha foundation for young people.
It is said that Zerbanoo has inherited her maternal grandmother Jerbanoo’s spirit of independence and freedom, which was evident in her controversial marriage outside her religion to the young lawyer Richard Gifford. Even though she faced stiff resistance from her father on the marriage, Zerbanoo remained adamant on her decision and created history of the sort in her family. Even though the spirit of humanitarianism was always high on her mind, she had no intention of joining politics while raising her young family.
It was a pleasant and timely coincidence that Zerbanoo was nominated as the liberal candidate in Harrow hill in May 1982 as the party wanted a paper candidate in the stronghold of Tories. Zerbanoo remembers the days when she would go campaigning with her young son Alexander in the push chair. People remembered the `young mum with the smiling baby’ when they went to vote. Zerbanoo created history again when she defeated the Tory candidate Major Harsant by a margin of five votes in Tory stronghold. It was a historic victory when political observers saw traces of similarity with Dadabhai Naoroji known as the `Grand Old man of India’ who had won his seat in 1892 as a Liberal precisely by five votes.
Zerbanoo made her presence felt in the political field with her flamboyance and soon her career became a `symbol of a woman’s ability to dovetail the personal with the political.’ But her political career was not without its share of racial attacks. Even her campaign was marked with people spitting on her and telling her that they would never vote for a `blackie.’ She was subjected to threats of kidnapping her sons and sexual assaults, her car was followed and damaged—all because someone did not wanted a `blackie’ to govern them.
`Giving up was never an option for Zerbanoo. A fighter, she continued to challenge the status quo, taking up cudgels on behalf of those who were marginalised or ignored. As she was invited to hold more and more offices, Zerbanoo decided to shift the gender balance in many committees such as the Community Relations Panel. She invited more women and ethnic minority people to join her in the many offices she held. Even when her calibre and dedication was overlooked by the British establishment which included her own party, Zerbanoo continued to work towards the empowerment of the marginalised sections of the society and the Asian community.
Even when her political career was behest with setbacks, she continued to improve her influence in the high society especially when she tried to raise money from the wealthy British for the many charities in India. Women’s rights and their empowerment is an issue which Zerbanoo pursued tirelessly, not only in the UK, but in India too. `Confessions to a serial Womaniser: Secrets of the world’s inspirational women,’ written by Zerbanoo is an ode to incredible women who have transformed their own lives and that of others through acts of their hard work, guts and acts of compassion. Interviewing over 300 prominent women across sixty countries for the book was a tough job, but one that Zerbanoo cherished.’ Her first book titled, ‘The Golden Thread: Asian experiences of Post Raj Britain,’ was well received where over a hundred successful Asian women living in Britain found their voice.
All through her successes and setbacks, Zerbanoo drew strength from her firm belief that there are three ways to change people’s mind sets, “The first is by using legal measures to ensure change. The second is by writing and using powerful stories to inspire people. The third and the most important: to change oneself into a better person as an example of how change can truly come about,” said Zerbanoo.
An interest in the abolitionist campaigner Thomas Clarkson motivated Zerbanoo to campaign against the horrors of slavery and apartheid. Her book, `Thomas Clarkson and the campaign against slave trade,’ is dedicated to the Quaker community for being in the forefront of abolition movement. Her visits to Africa cemented her resolve to fight against apartheid and she was chosen alongside Bishop Trevor Huddleston to hand in a massive people’s petition to 10 Downing street to stop the massacres in South Africa, apply full mandatory sanctions against the government and call for the release of Nelson Mandela.
Over the years, Zerbanoo became disillusioned with the Liberal party and their politics and decided to take a shift in her chosen path and the result was the ASHA centre—an intercultural multi-faith centre, where people of all communities and faiths could freely celebrate their differences and rejoice at their similarities. The centre was funded initially by UK National Lottery and had funds promised from Millennium Commission. But the centre of hope was soon embroiled a legal battle when the Harrow Council and the Millennium Commission withdrew their support for the project and was sued by Zerbanoo and Richard. After a long battle which took years, ASHA centre became a reality in the beautiful Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. The struggles to fulfil this dream challenged even the indomitable spirit of Zerbanoo, but her belief in good karma and the spiritual journey that she undertook to Zoroastrian temples gave her enough strength, where normal mortals would have been shattered.
Zerbanoo’s spirituality saw her rubbing shoulders with saints and seers—which included Pope to Mother Theresa to Bishop Desmond Tutu to Godman Sai Baba. She sums up the philosophy of her extraordinary life,”I believe in Karma—as you sow, you shall reap. Whatever good that you do in your life, it will come back to you. This is true especially with little acts of kindness. I am blessed to have an extraordinary husband and two amazing children. The time that you invest in your children is essential to the love and happiness you will find in your life.”
Zerbanoo: An uncensored life, the recently published biography by Farida Master attempts to visualise the influence the humanitarian had on marginalised sections of the world.