It’s been a big year for the United Kingdom, as we faced one of the biggest and longest General Elections. On Friday 8th May, Britain emerged with a Conservative majority in Government with David Cameron as our Prime Minister for the next five years.
As Cameron announced his Cabinet, we saw a number of familar and new faces surface. Out of 26 names, eight Cabinet members are women and two prominent Ministers are of South Asian descent. While I’m not a Tory voter and/or supporter, one name has particularly caught my attention and given many British Indian women and girls a new found sense of hope. So much so, that I’m putting aside my personal views on the state of British politics and writing tonight’s blog post with a detached perspective.
When I was a child, I would proudly proclaim to my entire family that I wanted to become Prime Minister when I grew up. This was before I briefly changed my career ambitions to become a frog (yes, I know!) and then set my sights on working in creative industries. At the time, everyone supported me and saw it as a childhood folly to indulge me with. However, it wasn’t until I declared my ambitions to my classmates (met with much laughter and bullying), that I realised it was near impossible for someone like me to reach the dizzying heights of Number 10.
Whenever I see a South Asian actively taking part and showing an interest in British politics, I feel a sense of: “Yeah!” regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum. Even if you take race and ethnicity out of the sentence, it’s an honour to see/hear young people dispel stereotypes and engage in politics.
Recently, I had the privilege of going to Birmingham, and being part of the audience for BBC Asian Network’s ‘The Big Asian Election Debate’ alongside people from various Asian communities from different parts of the UK. I also had the opportunity to see a panel made up of South Asian politicians from across politics. This was the first time that I had experienced this – even though I was born, brought up and live in one of the UK’s most diverse cities. This was where I saw and heard Priti Patel (now Minister of State for Employment) speak for the first time. I remember listening to what she said, even though I didn’t agree with any of it, with deep respect and interest. I am happy that Patel has secured an important Government position, and I wish her well in this, but I wait with baited breath to see what policies and changes she makes during her tenure.
Although we live in the 21st century and in a nation that is often deemed as ‘multi-cultural’ with opportunities open for all, it is still notoriously difficult for South Asians to break through, succeed and establish themselves in certain fields. It’s a well known fact – and a point to celebrate – that Asians have truly succeeded in careers such as Law, Finance, Medicine, Dentistry, Enterprise and teaching, yet we are still to establish ourselves in more industries. Already there are many names coming up in the creative industries, who I am sure, will one day be recognised for their talent and work.
Many do not recognise the importance of having South Asians in notable political positions, nor do they understand the struggles many face to get the same positions available to candidates of Caucasian descent. There have been many comments from people who don’t understand why Patel’s ethnicity is being highlighted. Some of these include: “How is she Indian?” and “Stop putting holes where there aren’t any” to the gleefully ignorant “This is stupid, anyone from anywhere can succeed in Britain today.” These comments, unfortunately, come from Caucasians who still do not understand why this is a big deal for Asians and the British public in general.
I’d like to take the latter to task: while it certainly is ‘easier’ for my generation to shatter more glass ceilings, in comparison to my dad’s and grandmother’s generations, we still face new challenges from both our own communities and the country that we live in.
It’s not about defending how Priti Patel is still classed as an ‘Indian woman’, when she was clearly brought up in the UK. It’s not about how ‘un-Asian’ we are when we succeed in unusual professions. Nor is it about making Caucasian people ‘feel uncomfortable’ every time an Asian speaks up about feeling misrepresented in a country they were born in. This is about giving thousands of Asians, particularly our women and girls, hope and a visible sign that it is possible to succeed – regardless of their political and social stance.
To those, who are wearing blinkers, and naively state that: “Anyone can make it here” need to have a reality check. There are still numerous barriers that women of colour continue to face – Saida Grundy and Michelle Obama are just two names out of millions. Some of the obstacles we face range from being compared to gorillas, hyper-sexualisation and attacks on our physical appearances to being silenced for having opinions.
Despite having made significant progress in the last 50 years or so, we still have a long way to go before we begin to see politics, the media and the arts become a true reflection of how diverse modern Britain is. Priti Patel joins a list of other British Asian female politicians who are beginning to challenge our social narrative and show many that – in time – politics will no longer be an exclusive game for middle-class, privileged white men and women.