Putney High School’s Ramita Navai – Alumna of the Year

Ramita Navai is a multiple award-winning journalist, documentary maker and author. She is also an alumna of Putney High School and winner of the GDST’s Alumna of the Year Award.

Back from a longer-than-planned assignment in the West Bank, Ramita Navai views her career and what brought her here through a very long lens. She starts her story well before her years at Putney High School (which she joined in Year 7), with some of her most formative experiences in Tehran, at less than five years old.

Always engaged with the world around her, Ramita and her friend Natasha started an Amnesty International group at Putney and began writing human rights letters from an early age. “But,” she says, “it may also have been my background that informed this, with the fact that there was a revolution in my country and so political talk at the breakfast table was normal. And not just any political talk but talk of revolution, and the impact of it on friends and family. And the bloody, violent regime that was installed afterwards. That was all normal talk for me growing up.

“I remember the revolution. I was five years old when it happened; six when I finally left the country. My Mum took me out as a child, secretly, to the protests. She carried me in her arms. We had a flat with a little balcony and Mum would take me out onto the balcony and show me the tracer fire when there was fighting and shooting. And I remember militia fighters coming into our cul-de-sac and everybody turning the lights off and being very still, huddling together. I remember knowing that people were feeling afraid.

“I was sitting on my own, and I remember Mum whispering, did I want to come and sit with her? I said no. I was watching. I was fascinated. I knew this was abnormal and the adults were fearful, but I felt safe with Mum and Dad.”

A career in frontline journalism may well have been her destiny, but Ramita says she found her way “quite late in life”. She graduated with a Masters in journalism, and headed straight to Iran, where she worked initially as a freelancer for the UN humanitarian news site (then called IRIN News, now The New Humanitarian). Which is when disaster struck. Iran suffered a massive earthquake, leaving tens of thousands of people dead, and Ramita was one of the first western reporters to get to the area. “That was 2003, the Bam earthquake, and the first newspaper job I ever did. I phoned up The Sunday Times and said, if I can get myself there, will you take the piece? They carried the story, and then the next day The Times found out I was there and asked me to file for them too. My story made front page of The Times: I was the first journalist who had never written for the paper before to get a Times foreign front page story.”

But, she says, “It’s something that doesn’t sit well with me… it was this horrific event that gave me blood diamonds in Zimbabwe, sex trafficking in Mexico, child prisoners in Burundi, the Taliban’s treatment of women in Afghanistan, India’s rape scandal and El Salvador’s child
assassins, to name just a few. She talks about the bravery of people she has met along with way, like the Iranians risking their lives to stand up against the regime, the young women in Afghanistan running secret safe houses, and the Indian men and women speaking out against rape. Or most recently, the Israeli peace activist she met, helping Palestinian families with their olive harvest.

“These are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They’re speaking out when there’s so much pressure on them. Social pressure, political pressure, cultural pressure,” she says.

“It was this horrific event that gave me my break. There’s something very uncomfortable about that.”

So, how does Ramita keep herself safe? For a start, she stresses that she is “not a soldier. I don’t want to be on the frontline. I don’t do frontline journalism. While my appetite for risk hasn’t changed, I guess the more experience you have, the safer you are, and you probably have a better instinct for danger.

“We have a rule when we’re working; if one person [on the reporting team, usually of three people] doesn’t want to do something, we don’t do it.”

Psychologically, it is a different matter, and she is mindful that the mental strain might one day take its toll. “I’m very good at compartmentalising,” she says, “but none of us are immune from breakdown. So far that hasn’t happened… though I do have a sense that I’m very unimportant – especially when I’m reporting something horrific – and that it’s not my pain. In a way, I think there’s something slightly egotistical about taking on somebody else’s pain, when I’m really lucky to be able to go back home to my life, my friends and my family. I don’t have the right to take on others’ pain.”

With all that she has achieved, Ramita is most proud of her book, City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran (2015). “I felt that ordinary Iranians’ stories were not being told,” she says. “If you live and work in Iran as a journalist, you have to elf-censor, or you’re censored, and if not, you get arrested, possibly imprisoned and maybe worse. I knew I wanted to write all the stories that I hadn’t been writing as a journalist, but it came at a cost. The price I pay is not being able to go back to my motherland, ever.”

So, what’s next? “I’m really interested in the power of fiction,” she says, “and the power of art to convey a message and tell a story.” She talks about using fiction to raise contentious, often frightening issues with new and large audiences, and is exploring different mediums to tell her stories. She has recently started writing a novel, “inspired by the truth”, and is working up a television series with a UK production company – an experience she describes as liberating.

She stresses, though, that she has no plans to leave current affairs reporting and documentary-making behind. “I can’t imagine not doing what I do,” she says.

Ramita Navai

Ramita Navai is a British Iranian investigative journalist, documentary maker and author. With a reputation for working in hostile environments, she has reported from over 40 countries, made over 30 documentaries and features, and worked as a foreign correspondent for print. She completed a Masters in journalism at City University, where her graduating film on transsexual legislation in the UK won the national Young Broadcast Journalist of the Year award. Some 20 years on, her work has taken her to many of the world’s most dangerous and war-torn countries across the world. With this, she has won over 20 major awards, including two Emmys and two Robert F Kennedy awards, with nominations too numerous to list. She has written and contributed to two books (so far), guested on scores of television and radio shows, created a Top 10 Apple podcast, The Line of Fire, and has appeared – as herself – in the thriller TV series, Homeland.

GDST Life Alumnae Magazine 2024/25

Ramita is featured in our 2024/25 edition of GDST Life alumnae magazine, where you will find a whole host of features and articles including stories, tips and viewpoints from a range of alumnae contributors, GDST and school news, our latest alumnae book listings, and how you can keep in touch.

Read the full GDST Life Magazine