I’ve been thinking a lot about grit, determination and willpower recently. I’ve been glued to the Sunday evening TV series Who Dares Wins about SAS selection which this year, for the first time, has included women. I happen to know one of the contestants as she teaches amazing fitness classes at a studio called Barreworks in Richmond. As I struggle to do some of her apparently ‘simple’ plank and weight lifting exercises, I’ve always known Vicki Anstey was a bit of an inspiration and clearly had reserves of strength the rest of us can only dream of.
But, as she said in a recent interview about her television appearance: “I think one of the big things I learnt is you don’t necessarily have to be the fittest, or the strongest, or the fastest. This was about how many times you were prepared to pick yourself up and go again. It’s about resilience and grit and grind.”
And it is precisely that innate resilience which I hope will help Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian mother imprisoned in Iran following a holiday there to visit her parents. Nazanin is rarely out of my thoughts. But last week her courage in facing what is so evidently an unjust imprisonment reached new levels. Suffering extraordinary psychological stress at being separated from her young daughter Gabriella, who is being looked after by her Iranian grandparents, and having discovered lumps in her breasts, she embarked on a hunger strike until the authorities agreed she could have medical attention, something her family had already organised and a basic human right for any prisoner.
Nazanin, who worked for a charity, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested in 2016 at the airport in Tehran as she was returning home with her then 22 month old daughter. She is now serving a five year term in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, a place criticised by Amnesty International for denying prisoners adequate medical care and proper food, while human rights campaigners in Iran have described its curbs on visiting rights “cruel.” She was told after three days of hunger strike that she would now be given medical attention but at time of writing this still appears not to have happened.
I cannot imagine the agony Nazanin and her family are going through but her determination to show the world the pain she is facing deserves to be recognised. And her grit and common sense in ending the hunger strike were equally courageous. Had she persisted with her hunger strike, it might have cost her her life.
According to Anstey, who has survived the early stages of SAS selection, women are perfectly capable of serving in this elite unit “and there are ways in which women are – in fact – stronger than men.”
Those ways include sometimes having to operate on little or no food, one of the tricks the SAS selectors played on all contestants at which point several of the men, Anstey said, freaked out. Let’s hope Nazanin, already facing inhumane deprivations of so many basic liberties, does not have to deny herself food a second time, nor prove herself in any other way, and will soon be allowed home.