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Meet UK's new Asian women leaders

May 21, 2010

The election of six British Asian women as members of parliament is being seen as an event that would reinforce the importance of these women in UK’s political arena. However, women's campaigners remain gloomy due to large inequality in number of seats won by women.

London: Britain's general election has been tortuous and confusing - but it yielded at least some clear winners as British Asian women were for the first time elected members of parliament. After a record 22 Asian women stood as candidates, the odds of their success were good.


It's a breakthrough, nonetheless, that nearly 120 years after the election of Dadabhai Naoroji as the first Asian Member of Parliament in 1892, six Asian women have at last won seats. They include three Asian Muslim women, a section of the population often regarded as among the least likely to enter politics.

Shabana Mahmood was chosen to represent Ladywood in Birmingham, central England, her native city, and Gujarat-born Yasmin Qureshi for the Bolton South East constituency in northern England.

Both are Muslims, both are barristers and members of the left-leaning Labour party, which ruled Britain until the May 6 general election - in which the more right-wing Conservatives won the most seats, and went on to form a coalition government.

Contrary to popular belief, said Mahmood, Muslim women were very interested in politics. "The image of the voiceless Muslim woman who cannot leave the house is just not true," she told the BBC in the run-up to the vote. "Parliament is for the people - all of the people and the ethnic minority population should claim it."

The third successful Asian Muslim woman was Rushanara Ali, also for Labour, who took Bethnal Green and Bow in London. She moved from Bangladesh to Britain when she was seven and went on to earn a place at Oxford University.

On her website, she argues her story is typical of those growing up in London's East End: the area is known for its social problems, but high achievement is possible when teachers and youth workers believe in and encourage youthful ambition.

"My family's migration is part of a long tradition of people who came here to build a better future for themselves and the people around them," said Ali.

In addition, three other British Asian women have risen to power. Priti Patel gained the Conservatives a seat in Witham, southern England, while Valerie Vaz (Labour) was elected in Walsall, West Midlands.

She is the sister of an already established Asian MP, Keith Vaz, and in another first, the siblings are the first brother and sister to be sitting in the House of Commons at the same time. A sixth Asian-origin woman to be elected was Lisa Nandy for Wigan, northern England.

Another notable female, although non-Asian, victory was the election of Britain's first Green Party MP: Caroline Lucas, who will press her environmental and fairness agenda as parliamentary representative of Brighton on England's south coast.

Women's campaigners are, however, less than satisfied. British-based equality campaigner, the Centre for Women and Democracy noted the 142 women elected to be MPs represented only 22 per cent of the total of 649. That is a small advance on the 126 women - 19.5 per cent of the total - when parliament was dissolved ahead of the election.

"British-based equality campaigner, the Centre for Women and Democracy noted the 142 women elected to be MPs represented only 22 per cent of the total of 649"

What is even more telling is that only four women have made it into David Cameron's 29-member Cabinet. The Conservative Party's Sayeeda Warsi, a British Pakistani - the only non-white member in the Cabinet - has not been elected into parliament and holds no portfolio.

"No party will be able to govern with authority or democratically without women or without immediately addressing the shocking state of women's representation in politics that this election campaign has exposed," said Ceri Goddard, chief executive of the London-based Fawcett Society, a long-standing champion of equality between women and men.

Women might well feel they have common cause with Britain's third largest party the centrist Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg, who did well in opinion polls ahead of polling day, but whose performance in the final vote (the party won fewer seats than in the last general election five years ago) did not echo their levels of popularity, known as Cleggmania, during the campaign. The Liberal Democrats have long argued for reform of the voting system, which they say favours the most established parties.

Political campaigning in the run-up to election day was so focused on women the press spoke of the WAGs (wives and girlfriends) election. The wives of Labour leader Gordon Brown and of Conservative leader David Cameron were everywhere to be seen, although Clegg's wife chose to keep a lower profile.

The press also coined the phrase the Mumsnet election, a reference to the high-profile British parenting website, courted by the main political leaders as potentially instrumental to triumph. "All the parties have decided that women are key to electoral success, that the family will be a crucial issue ... and that the internet is a vital campaign tool," wrote an article in 'The Times', ahead of the May vote.

Perhaps it worked in part, but the spirited women who engaged in debates on the Mumsnet website were determined not to be stereotyped.

"I dislike the attempt, in this pre-election period with the 'Mumsnet election' and all of that to suggest women are likely to vote en bloc," one of them wrote on the site. "Can you imagine commentators asking how parties were going to court men? Of course not because they are credited with being a diverse complex bunch with lots of different kinds of motivations based on circumstances other than their sex."

The point is women of all backgrounds are as important as men in politics - neither more so nor less.

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