A leading icon of our Zoroastrian community worldwide, Zerbanoo Gifford is a globally renowned Human Rights campaigner, author of seven books, founder of The ASHA Centre (which aims at enriching young adults by delivering transformative education in various fields – www.ashacentre.org), as well as the current elected President of The World Zoroastrian Organisation (WZO).
A pioneer for Asian Women in British politics, in 1982, she was elected Councillor in Harrow and was the first ethnic minority woman to stand for parliament. Her humanitarian work spans over fifty years of grassroots and global activism, for championing the rights of women, children and minorities, and for her strong anti-slavery and pro-equality campaigns, for which she has received numerous awards, including the International Woman of the Year Award (2006); the Nehru Centenary Award (1989); the International Splendor Award in Hollywood (2007); the Freedom of the City of Lincoln, Nebraska, for combating modern slavery and racism; being honoured by the Sewall-Belmont Museum in Washington DC for furthering women’s rights (2010); and the Social Entrepreneur Award (2022) by the World Zoroastrian Congress in New York, where she launched www.zasha.info as a digital platform celebrating the diversity and talents of Zoroastrian women worldwide.
Her life has indeed served as a shining testament to service and solidarity towards crucial humanitarian causes, especially as a proud and magnificent Zoroastrian woman who is revered as a global icon. And now she has added to her responsibilities as the President of the WZO. “Zoroastrians gave the world its first Human Rights Charter – the Cyrus Cylinder, which now in the British museum. We nurtured the greatest philanthropist that ever lived – Sir Jamshedji Tata, who donated over USD 102 billion for social change. Today the TATA Trust is at the forefront of progressive innovation, under Ratan Tata, who is known as the mogul of giving. We nourished Dadabhai Naoroji – the first Asian in the British House of Commons as early as 1892. We come from a most blessed community.
I expect to work tirelessly with a fabulous team at WZO, where we will respond to our global community’s real needs and help with disasters and well thought out plans to care for our whole community. We will ensure that the wider world knows who we are and we will celebrate our people and faith.
My vision for WZO is to try and unify our community across all divides, concentrate on inspiring our youth to be proud Zoroastrians, ensure our women are recognised and celebrated for their great skills and community work. I’ve put into action a permanent exhibition at WZO House of Zoroastrians greats through history that changed our shared world by their individual endeavours. Dr. Cyrus Poonawalla generously contributed towards its installation, so visitors see what a remarkable community we come from. There are so many who are not aware of the Zoroastrian community despite iconic figures that the world knows of like Freddie Mercury and Dr. Poonawalla – I want to make sure everyone knows who we are and the impact we have made for good!”
Speaking about her digital platform – ZASHA (website) which champions Zoroastrian women, Zerbanoo informs, “The ZASHA website was created for the World Congress in New York last summer. It highlights nearly 500 Zoroastrian women worldwide that have changed the course of their lives and the wider world by their extraordinary brilliance. I wish for more women to be added, particularly from India so that more people know about your lives and work. Numerous women’s organisations and politicians have praised this endeavour and acknowledge how truly special Zoroastrian women really are! Hopefully, we all soon be able to work across countries and experiences to bring our global community together.”
Zerbanoo has always been a very dynamic and potent force in promoting unity within our community. When asked about the roadblocks and solutions related to being united on a global level as one solid community, she shares, “There’s an old saying that one twig can be broken easily, but tie twenty together and no one can break them. Unity is everything – it’s vital to the sustenance of our community worldwide. We have allowed ourselves to drift into disunity and it makes us weak. Ego gets in the way alongside selfishness, and an absurd belief that one knows best and everyone else is to be side-lined and ignored. Disunity leads to wasting resources; it drives away many in our community and it is ultimately self-defeating.
We have allowed the dividers to get away with dubious views that hold us all back by their mean-mindedness and callous regard for the truth. I suggest they go and learn about our prophet Zarathustra, who would be embarrassed by their ignorance and unkindness. Zarathustra was the most magnanimous genius that lived. His message was simple – that of how to live a good life. He would wonder who these so-called leaders are and why they call themselves Zoroastrians!”
Zerbanoo Gifford is also the founder of the ASHA Centre (ashacentre.org) in Britain, a charity working for the enrichment and empowerment of young adults, with an outstanding track record in delivering transformative education in the fields of Ethical Leadership, Social Innovation, Sustainable Living, Intercultural and Interfaith Understanding, and the Performing Arts. Sharing an interesting aspect about how it came to be, Zerbanoo said, “I’d been wanting to build the ASHA centre in Harrow for years but couldn’t. The wonderful Sohrab Godrej was a much-loved visitor to my home in London. He was a globe trotter and had once told me that the most beautiful thing to behold in the world was a cherry tree in blossom. I promised myself that if ever I created a centre for all cultures and all faiths, the pride of that place would be three cherry trees.
Years of sorrow and disappointment passed until I was driven to see a derelict estate in Gloucestershire that finally became the magnificent ASHA centre. I just stood there and laughed – I’d had asked God for three trees – and was given the most stunning view of the Royal Forest of Dean! An elderly Swiss lady inspired us to plant an entire cherry orchard on the grounds. Every spring, the cherry blossoms bloom in their full glory, making the center feel nothing short of paradise!
We went on to acquire a 54-acre estate next to ASHA Centre, where we constructed a huge accommodation block, auditorium and kitchen. It is being used for care leavers (adults who have spent time living in the care system, away from their family) forgotten by society. Those that had been fostered and not really blessed with a secure or happy childhood. At 18 they were released into a world with little or no safety net or anyone to cherish and guide them. Having worked with street children and the homeless, I knew this was the perfect idea for the new Asha Center. I love young people and am passionate about motivating and inspiring them to realise their inner greatness.”
Speaking about her passion to empower the youth and to promote young talent, she adds, “Every organisation should trust their young members to lead. They bring a new insight. A new dynamism and a fresh start from old grudges and small mindedness that we have allowed to appear in our global family. No one needs more than two terms in office to lead. We must inspire the young to be their authentic selves. We must encourage them to see the importance of volunteering and taking the lead in pioneering projects. We should praise them on their accomplishments – they really are our only future.
Some years back before the dreaded Covid struck, we had one of the most inspiring courses at ASHA for our young leaders. They all went on to shine! I can write pages about each one of them as they all are leading our community throughout the world with confidence, commitment and that rarest of things – courage to do the right thing. I salute them and love them all!”
Reckoned for her dynamism – in addition to all the above endeavours, Zerbanoo is also a remarkable and successful author of a number of books, including ‘Thomas Clarkson And The Campaign Against Slavery’; ‘Dadabhai Naoroji, Britain’s First Asian MP’; the bestseller – ‘Confessions To A Serial Womaniser – Secrets Of The World’s Inspirational Women’, for which she received Britain’s ‘NESTA (National Endowment of Science Technology and Arts) Fellowship’, as also ‘Z to A of Zoroastrianism: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living’. Zerbanoo’s biography ‘An Uncensored Life’ was published Harper Collins.
Currently authoring yet another potential blockbuster, she informs us, “I hope it will be a bestselling book on ‘The great Zoroastrian eccentrics I have known and loved… those crazy, courageous ones that thought they could change the world… and they did!!”
And what message would she like to share with the community on Jamshedi Navroz? “May this coming year be when we follow our Prophet’s advice: ‘Approach life with an open mind, seek and listen to all the highest ideals. Consider the most enlightened thoughts and then choose our own path for ourselves!’ Navroze Mubarak to everyone!”