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Speaker Series: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

It was an honour to welcome Nazanin to South Hampstead and learn more about her life before, during and after being detained in Iran for six years.

The Speaker Series event was fully booked within hours, as pupils, parents, staff and friends of South Hampstead came to hear her story – a story that hit the hearts of so many in our local community and millions of others across the world. In conversation with Mrs Paul, she shared her experiences of growing up amid the Iranian Revolution, against a backdrop of the Iran Iraq war. After studying English Literature at the University of Tehran, she worked for the Red Cross and the World Health Organisation before being awarded a scholarship to study for her masters in London, where she met Richard. Their daughter was born in 2014.

In April 2016, the dual national was about to return home to West Hampstead with baby Gabriella, after visiting her parents for the Iranian new year holidays, when she was arrested at Tehran airport. What she at first thought must be a case of mistaken identity turned into an unimaginable six-year ordeal which saw her become a pawn in a geopolitical stand-off between Iran and the UK. Throughout those 6 years, Richard campaigned vociferously for her release, despite being advised to keep quiet. It took three different Prime Ministers and five Foreign Ministers to finally bring her home in March 2022.

Throughout the evening, Nazanin spoke with incredible poise and dignity, explaining how it felt to be a victim of a patriarchal system. Despite enduring terribly difficult conditions whilst incarcerated – including solitary confinement in a tiny windowless cell – she described motherhood and faith as her superpowers, helping her to find the resolve to remain positive and keep fighting. She shared stories of finding solace in reading and making clothes to escape the dehumanising prison uniform, as well as the power of female solidarity as a source of courage in the darkest of times. “In prison, you don’t have tomorrow, only today.” 

She recalled the joy, inspiration and motivation brought by Gabriella’s weekly visits to her in prison, then making the incredibly tough decision to send her back to London to be with Richard and start school.  She reflected with great poignancy on the moment she could finally braid Gabriella’s hair again but also on the complexities of freedom she has encountered since her release, expressing her gratitude for the support of strangers with great warmth and humility. Nazanin continues to shine a light on the plight of others and speak out about human rights, in particular women’s rights. “I hope that one day, we can all live in a world that is free, where women can stand up for each other, and no child is forced to be separated from their parents.” 

Two of our Sixth Formers, Olivia and Lois, put their own incisive questions to Nazanin, before Olivia thanked her for such an inspiring evening.  The audience left Waterlow Hall to a track by Massive Attack, whose lyrics Richard scribbled on a placard on the final day of his 21-day hunger strike in 2021. He wrote: Love is a verb – a doing word. 

The event was featured in the Ham & High and a recording of the evening is available here.

The Speaker Series has been running since 2017 and is generously funded by donors from our community, including the Friends of South Hampstead. Previous Speaker Series events have included South Hampstead alumna and BBC Europe Editor, Katya Adler, on Brexit; comedian, David Baddiel, on antisemitism; and Dame Stella Rimington on her role as the first female Director General of MI5. At Nazanin’s request, in place of accepting any fee, we have made a donation to a charity who provide emotional support to hostage victims and their families.  

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