Page last updated at 13:34 GMT, Wednesday, 31 March 2010 14:34 UK

Asian women set to make Westminster breakthrough

By Rahila Bano
BBC Asian Network

Shabana Mahmood
Shabana Mahmood says Parliament has to be more representative

It is a job that, so far, no British Asian woman has done - but that looks set to change after the general election.

A record 22 Asian women are running to become Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs in England and Scotland.

It has taken quite a while to get to this stage.

The first Asian male MP was elected in 1892, when Dadabhai Naoroji, an Indian, took the seat of Finsbury, central London, for the Liberals.

Almost 120 years later nine Asian male MPs have been elected, but still no Asian women. So what is behind the upsurge in candidates?

Priti Patel was selected to contest the new Witham constituency in Essex for the Conservatives in November 2006.

'Freedom to succeed'

She said: "When David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party he was absolutely clear he wanted his parliamentary party to look and sound like modern Britain.

"I've always been interested in politics at the grassroots level. I've been involved in my party campaigning since I was 18.

Shas Sheenan
Shas Sheehan became frustrated with Westminster politics

"Politics for me was partly down to my family background. My parents came to this country as immigrants from East Africa after being kicked out by Idi Amin with nothing in their pockets.

"They just worked very very hard to become successful in what they did. I think it was that freedom to succeed along with some good conservative values and some very good policies that leant us naturally towards the Conservative Party."

Shas Sheehan, who is standing for the Liberal Democrats in Wimbledon, south-west London, said: "I didn't have a sudden moment of revelation, an epiphany moment to say a politician's what I wanted to be.

"There were issues that I cared about and I became more and more frustrated that nothing was being done about them at a political level."

Bristol East - Adeela Shafi
Witham - Priti Patel
Stoke on Trent Central - Norsheen Bhatti
Leigh - Shazia Awaan
Makerfield - Itrat Ali
Birmingham Ladywood - Nusrat Ghani
Glasgow East -Hamira Khan
Bethnal Green and Bow - Rushanara Ali
Ilford North - Sonia Klein
Bolton South East - Yasmin Qureshi
Bury North - Maryam Khan
Wigan - Lisa Nandy
East Worthing and Shoreham - Emily Benn
Birmingham Ladywood - Shabana Mahmood
Walsall South - Valerie Vaz
Scarborough and Whitby - Annajoy David Da-Bora
Central Suffolk and North Ipswich - Bhavna Joshi
Hayes & Harlington - Satnam Khalsa
Feltham & Heston - Munira Wilson
Glasgow South - Shabnam Mustapha
Wimbledon - Shas Sheehan
Leeds North East - Aqila Choudhry

Former barrister Shabana Mahmoodis is standing for Labour in the Birmingham Ladywood constituency.

The vacancy came up after Labour MP Clare Short switched to become an independent after the Iraq war.

Ms Mahmoodis said: "I'm honoured and privileged to represent the people of Ladywood. I think it will be an important barrier coming down so it'll be very good from a role model perspective to show people that it doesn't matter what background you're from, what your race or your religion is, you can make it.

"Parliament needs to be open to everyone and it really should look like the people it represents."

So why has it taken so long for British Asian women to make their mark in the world of politics?

Baroness Haleh Afshar, a lecturer in politics and women's studies at York University, was the first Iranian woman to sit in the House of Lords.

She said: "Asian women face discrimination because of assumptions made about who they are and Muslim women face the same problems, as well as Islamophobia, but barriers are to be overcome.

"Asian women are right up there demanding to be included and, once the parties get into responsive mode, we will do better."

Some groups like Operation Black Vote are calling for controversial "positive action" by the main three political parties.

Equality campaigner Karen Chouhan, who wants to see all-black and all-Asian shortlists for parliamentary candidates, said: " There should be around 35 MPs from the ethnic minority communities and, given that women make up just over half of the UK's population, this should also be reflected in the make up of Parliament."

But the candidates are not calling for more action.

'Track record'

Ms Patel said: "I think there already is positive action. There's a lot of mentoring. There's a lot of coaching and support. Selections don't happen overnight.

"There are many Asian women out there already serving their local communities and their political parties."

Ms Mahmood added: "Labour has four Asian women standing in safe seats at this election. That means it's likely we'll see four Asian women MPs. We have an excellent track record."

Priti Patel
It is a very tough process. It's not like going for a regular job
Priti Patel, Conservative candidate

But are there other reasons for Asian women not choosing a career in politics?

Ms Sheehan said: "There's cultural expectations. I mean that's a huge barrier for Asians, the persistent family barriers we have. We're really shackled to the family to some extent and money is also an issue."

Ms Mahmood added : "When I was first selected a lot of people said to me that Asian men or Muslim men won't talk to you or engage with you but I found for a lot of people it's a breath of fresh air."

It is the second time Ms Patel has stood for the Conservatives.

She said: "It is a very tough process. It's not like going for a regular job. You do come up against some very subjective views, but I'd say that's the same in all walks of life.

"I was up against a really tough field in my constituency selection. I was quite pleased about that because politics is a very tough arena and you've got to be able to deal with all sorts."

Baroness Afshar said: "When such women are elected or appointed in the House of Lords you can see that they are effective.

"They actually negotiate with the men and the women and they can work very well and I think next generation will prove it also in the House of Commons."

So, 118 years after the doors of the Palace of Westminster first opened to an Asian MP, Asian women could be following soon.

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