Nazila Ghanea

Nazila and her daughtersPlease tell us a bit about your background.

My parents are Iranian but had moved to Qatar before my birth. I’m talking about Qatar pre-independence and long years before its World Cup bid. At that time Qatar was a British protectorate. To put it into perspective, even in 1984, the population of Qatar was less than half the population of Oxfordshire today. Now its population stands at over 2.7 million. My father was one of the early doctors to practice there. Mum was in tertiary education too and had many years of experience as a teacher trainer in Iran. She was not able to continue her career in Qatar but was very active in the community on educational and other fronts. Both had been the first generation to attend university.  

In Qatar, we could be considered minorities (and ‘temporary workers’) par excellence, but as a child I experienced it as being cosmopolitan and peaceful. When the revolution broke out in Iran in 1979, we were immensely grateful of our context, especially when in addition to the general unrest Baha’is came to be singled out for targeted religious persecution which regrettably continues to this day. Though I didn’t recognise it for years this grounded a commitment for human rights.

I had my schooling in Qatar until age 16, when I moved to Cambridge to study A-levels, and my higher education was all completed in the UK. Mobility was a challenge with the suspicions surrounding an Iranian passport holder and I enjoyed that challenge for years until I got a UK passport in the mid-1990s after 10 years of residency in the UK.

What led you to a career in academia?

To make ends meet, I taught English during the holidays when I was an undergraduate and postgrad. I also taught English at a university in China for two years in 1993 after my Masters degree and before starting my doctorate. That all provided for an easy transition to being appointed a GTA during my doctoral studies. Academia followed and I’ve never looked back.

It was certainly unforeseeable to me that my academic teaching would be primarily focused on teaching international human rights law at the postgraduate level. This has meant I continue to learn a lot from our students and become re-energised and recommitted to the role of law in advancing rights year-on-year. This started with teaching in London from 1999 and now I’m entering my 14th year in Oxford with the Masters in International Human Rights Law.

What are your research interests and why have you chosen those particular areas? What are you working on at the moment?

My research has been in the field of international human rights law and particularly around questions that arise regarding tensions between different rights. It would also be fair to say that this research continues to be stimulated by praxis, and evolves in relation to it.

Key cornerstones of that research have centred around minority rights, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and discrimination. I’m currently completing a piece on gender and freedom of religion or belief. I’ve enjoyed collaborative research as part of research grants, research projects or merely co-authored monographs. It helps develop a text that benefits from different perspectives and sometimes even different disciplines. My next project will critique the method of international human rights law but I’m still in the early stages of drawing out the contours of that project.

What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time?

I have to admit that this has adjusted as my daughters have got older. They are now 15 and 17 and both face national exams this year if GCSEs and A-levels actually go ahead in 2021. Lockdown also fed my regular escape into gardening, long walks and cooking. I’m trying to maintain the fitness part of that equation in lockdown 2.0! Lockdown has also meant that more neighbours have been around in Cumnor and I treasure the new friendships that participation in our village Covid team enabled. Who knew doing a weekly shop for neighbours at Aldi could be so fulfilling!

What is the best thing about living/working in Oxford?

I live just outside in Cumnor. Its village school was what initially attracted me, but it’s also a wonderfully stable neighbourhood and we really value knowing neighbours and looking out for each other. Of course Oxford is on our doorsteps and its architecture and nearby countryside options continue to inspire!

Academic interactions in Oxford are very different to other academic institutions. It seems to rest on numerous and overlapping concentric circles and is an ocean of opportunities! As to my closest colleagues on the Masters, I learnt a lot about being tirelessly student-centred from my colleague Dr Andrew Shacknove, who retired one and a half years ago. I really respect the professionalism of my colleague Dr Shreya Atrey, and we operate with the excellent support of Laura Thomlinson.