Shabana Mahmood

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It is Possible for Asian Women to Break the Glass Ceiling

At the age of 32, Shabana Mahmood is living her dream. Elected to represent the Birmingham area of Ladywood, Aston, Nechells and Soho during the General Election of 2010, she became one of three British Muslim women Member of Parliaments. She had taken the decision to stand as a Labour candidate after deciding to take a break from her career as a Barrister. An opportunity arose when long serving politician for Ladywood and previously Secretary of State for International Development during Tony Blair’s premiership, Clare Short decided to resign from the government after the go-ahead was given on the Iraq war in 2003. Shabana flew at the chance and won by a total of 19,950, and having a majority of just over 55%.

 

Politics had always been in the family for Shabana, as both her father and grandfather are Labour Party activists. Talking to The Asian Today’s Hifzha Shaheen she highlighted the importance of why it was important for Asian women to get into politics.

 

1.       You were elected as an MP for Birmingham Ladywood at the 2010 General Election, how has the journey been so far?

 

It has been very interesting but very challenging; it is a privilege to do this job. To represent a city that I grew up in is a huge honour. It is not easy to be a Member of Parliament, especially being in opposition, it becomes very frustrating when you have different views from the governing parties, it means you have an extra difficulty to get legislation through that would be beneficial to my constituency.

 

2.       You were one of five Asian women to be elected. Do you think with yourself and the other four being elected to Parliament it has broken the glass ceiling for other Asian girls that would like to go in to politics?

 

I hope that we have shown that it is possible to break through the glass ceiling. I guess once you get that one or two through that ‘ceiling’ it does make it easier to get through. It is definitely a responsibility that myself, Yasmin (Qureshi, MP for Bolton South) and Rushanara (Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow) have constantly made the case for; it is a responsibility that we take seriously. We try to encourage other women saying that ‘if we can do it so can you.’

 

3.       Did you find any restrictions from your family, when you decided to go in to politics?

 

I had a lot of support from my family, my parents in particular who were incredibly supportive of me. When I did decide to run as a candidate, it was not really an issue for people; people were not sure of what to expect. If you have a clear idea of why you want to become a politician then you should have that people should not treat you any different than other candidates of any other background.

 

4.       The image of an oppressed Asian woman in society is constantly being used. Do you think enough is being done for women that find themselves restricted by family?

 

I have met with women who have not been supported by their own family or their culture and my stance is that politics is about change. Being a politician means being a community leader and when you come across a family as such it is important that you put the case as to why. The best thing to do is to try and take that negative perception that people have and turn it in to a positive. If Parliament doesn’t look like the people that it represents then it is not actually relevant as it should be. Having women in politics sets the tone for future generations of women. A minority of women giving other minorities a voice is a big part of that. To help women within those situations that are being forced to marry we have passed legislation. However, just because we have passed law doesn’t mean that culture changes and we have to make sure that women who need protection are being protected. There are still situations where women from an Asian background can find themselves in a difficult, unfair and immoral situation where their rights are being trampled over and we have to always be aware of this; so a lot still needs to be done.

 

5.       How do you tackle misconceptions from the wider community, not just the Asian community, about the Asian women?

 

We have to have more Asian women in positions of responsibility; but not just in politics, in senior roles, as school governors and as volunteers in charities. If you are not active in the community then people will start to assume things about your community; where as if you are then people will not make those sweeping judgments and generalisations about you and your community. 

 

6.       You talk about change being the reason why you wanted to become a politician. Do you think that you have met those changes or that you are on your way to meet them?

 

I certainly hope so. There is a difficulty in doing that because I am on the opposition bench so there is only so much I can do, which is not helping the people in my constituency.

 

7.       As a prominent individual in the community; who are your role models?

My mother is my main role model and that generation of women who came to this country in the 60’s and the 70’s and made it their home; raising their families. Thinking about the challenges they faced by not speaking the language and leaving what they knew to go to an unknown place with a very different way of life and dealing with it very quietly without any fuss and complicity; they just got on with it; they have done incredibly well. I could never imagine uprooting my life and living somewhere else where I did not speak the language and having to live within a different culture. We do not appreciate enough the challenges and the successes of these women.

 

8.       Finally, there has been a lot of uproar on the programme ‘Benefits Street.’ The street comes under your constituency; how much is it a reflection of welfare issue?

 

I think that the programme is a poor reflection of real life on James Turner Street. There are 99 houses on that street and the programme only showcases 6 houses. You need to be able to talk to everyone on James Turner Street before you can have an informed debate on welfare; but the programme makers did not want that.

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