Seema Ghiassi Kennedy has earned herself a spot in the history books: she is the British Parliament’s first member of Iranian descent, elected in May 2015 as the MP for South Ribble (in Lancashire, North West England). Though she left Iran at the tender age of four, her Persian roots are still a big part of who she is.
We meet in the giant lobby of Portcullis House, Parliament’s modern riverside annex, where more than 200 MPs have their offices. For scheduling reasons, the original appointment in an Iranian restaurant has been moved to the Portcullis House cafeteria, where the menu is unmistakably European. Ms. Kennedy does her best to introduce Persian touches to her plate: she requests rice – not potatoes – with her chicken, and a dollop of yoghurt (or mast) on the side.
The MP’s British mother and Iranian father met and married in Blackburn, Lancashire, in the 1960s. At the time, her mother was training to be a nurse, and her father was studying textiles and business at Blackburn Technical College, which had one of Britain’s first computers.
In 1974 – six weeks after little Seema was born – the couple moved to Iran, to the Caspian Sea Coast (or Shomal as Iranians refer to it) where he owned and ran a cotton mill. Ms. Kennedy still has distinct memories of that period. The family lived in a house in the center of Tehran with three levels; her grandmother, Aziz joon, lived on the ground floor. Because Aziz joon spoke no English, little Seema acted as the translator whenever British relatives visited. There were frequent trips to her uncle’s house in Shomal, where everyone gathered in front of a huge fire, and where the little girl once got sand kicked in her face.
The first four years of young Seema’s life coincided with the most tumultuous period in Iran’s modern history: the Islamic Revolution. The little girl was conscious of the turmoil around her. “You do remember when all of these very profound things are happening around and about: You just notice people talking all the time,” she says. “I can’t remember being unhappy, but I was very aware that things were going on in Iran, and that people’s lives were being really disrupted.”
The revolution drove the family to leave Iran for Blackburn, in Lancashire. There, Ms. Kennedy grew up and went to school, enjoying English and history as subjects, and doing well at sports – netball, badminton, running.
When the time came to go to university, she was faced with a dilemma. Her father wanted her to study law; she loved languages, and desperately wanted to learn French. One day, flicking through a prospectus, she noticed that Cambridge University offered the option of studying French with Persian. “I thought, ‘This is the way I can get past my Dad!’” Her Cambridge studies gave her good grounding in Persian literature and history, though her speaking and reading, she says, are “very bad.”
Before getting her degree, Ms. Kennedy spent a year in Paris studying Farsi with the Iran scholar Yann Richard. She “absolutely loved it” there. Yet she also lived through an episode that helped determine her future political orientation.
“It was the year of the general strike in Paris,” she recalls. “I had to go to college on the boat. It was freezing cold. I thought, ‘This is no way to run a country.’ We didn’t get any post. We didn’t get our bins emptied. It was ridiculous.”
After Cambridge, Ms. Kennedy followed her father’s wishes and got a Law conversion degree at the College of Law in London. She became a solicitor, working for six years for Slaughter & May, where she met her husband. She then gave up her law career to become a mother.
“Being a City lawyer wasn’t really compatible with having small children at the time,” she explains. “They said, ‘You can’t come back part-time.’” Seema went into the family business instead, managing the Ghiassis’ commercial properties in Lancashire, and doing lots of volunteering on the side.
With time, she became more and more politically aware. “Having the experience of coming from a country where you cannot speak, where you cannot express yourself, you realise how important democracy is,” she explains between forkfuls of chicken and rice.
“My Dad always used to emphasise that to us all the time. He would say, ‘You’re so lucky to live in a free country: You can say what you want, wear what you want, vote for whoever you want.'” That made her more alert to the political process, and to “how precious it was.”
Eventually, she got involved with her local conservatives, and in 2008, “I thought, why not try to become an MP? Maybe I’m good enough.” Victory was not immediate: she lost to a Labour candidate in 2010, before securing a parliamentary seat in 2015.
Ms. Kennedy’s Persian roots were not a hindrance at all, she says. The Conservative Party was mostly interested in the fact that she had spent most of her life in the area. Overall, the British Parliament today is much more ethnically diverse: there are actually two MPs named Seema, and only one named Kennedy, notes Seema.
Diversity is “to be applauded. In all parties, we now have more women, people from ethnic minorities, people who are older, who have more life experience, who are gay,” she says. “If you have everybody sitting there, looking the same, having all had the same experiences, they’re just going to make the same mistakes again and again.”
Her agenda as an MP nowadays is taken up with a wide range of topics. She spent the early part of 2016 fighting to prevent the Persian-language GCSE and A-level exams from being axed by exam boards starting in the summer of 2018. Thanks in part to her efforts, the exam board announced in May that it would carry on providing Persian-language exams, and that the long-term future of Persian was secured.
Otherwise, her agenda is taken up with local issues such as bus routes or WiFi on trains. Occasionally, far more urgent problems need solving. In the summer of 2015, the water in her constituency became undrinkable for a month, and households were forced to boil their water. Later that year, Lancashire suffered severe flooding, with tens of thousands of families experiencing power cuts and inundated homes.
One subject that is permanently on Ms. Kennedy’s mind – being half-Iranian may have something to do with it – is the fate of the elderly in Britain, and the neglect that they too often suffer.
“They’re literally hidden behind their doors, and nobody sees them. Some of these people could go for a week without speaking to somebody. That’s just awful,” she says. “It’s a moral issue, a financial issue, and a health issue. The more isolated you are, the more likely you are to get ill. What I can do as a parliamentarian is to ask questions of government, and try to get them up the agenda.”
At that point, duty calls the MP away. After a firm handshake, she rushes off to another corner of the Houses of Parliament. A group of schoolchildren have travelled all the way to Lancashire to see her, and she would hate to keep them waiting.