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‘Sad but exciting’ to break barriers, says first London Assembly Muslim woman hopeful

In an interview with The Independent, Liberal Democrat councillor Hina Bokhari tells Nadine White about balancing motherhood with making history – and grappling with discrimination

Nadine White
Saturday 01 May 2021 08:44 BST
Hina Bokhari
Hina Bokhari ( Andrew King)

Hina Bokhari has mixed feelings as she’s set to become the joint first Muslim woman to sit on the London Assembly, being second on the party’s local election list for the seat.

Though the south London alderwoman describes the historic prospect as “exciting”, she carries an element of sadness about achieving this in 2021.

Speaking toThe Independent, the 45-year-old Liberal Democrat councillor said: “It’s a wonderful thing to have the title but it’s also incredibly sad and shocking that it’s the case in 2021. 

“When I was first elected in 2018 as the first Muslim woman councillor in Merton, I thought politics was more diverse than it is – you hear about these amazing brown, black, ethnic minority women in politics but they’re the minority.

“There really isn’t enough and the fact that I am the first really highlights that.”

After entering politics in 2017 following the snap election, Bokhari has had to grapple with abuse including being targeted in an online campaign wanting to ban halal meat; having the address of her children’s schools posted online and being told that she should be “sweeping the streets, not canvassing on the streets”.

Women in politics, she says, are “treated differently to men and subjected to more vitriol”.

There have been times when the councillor has taken her daughter canvassing and been reprimanded for not staying at home to attend to childcare.

“I don’t think it’s meant in a way that’s supposed to make me feel less but it does,” she says.

“And that’s the battle I constantly have within myself; reminding myself that I’ve got every right to be doing that, I should be going out, my children are proud of me getting elected.

The councillor beams with pride when she recounts how politically aware they are.

A mother of two, an 8-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl, Bokhari regularly practices her speeches in front of them and her daughter films her videos for social media.

But parenting as a politician is not easy, she says.

“It’s very hard to get elected as a woman, firstly; I’m a mother with two young kids. I think this pandemic has really highlighted that there’s definitely more of a pressure on women.”

More than three-quarters (78 per cent) of mothers in the UK found it challenging to manage childcare and paid work during lockdown, according to a poll by campaigning group Pregnant Then Screwed.

“I was homeschooling, doing cooking, cleaning, my amazing husband helps out but there was more pressure on me to get things done,” she says.

(Andrew King)

A Muslim woman, she adds, must be “stronger than the average white man” in order to get elected.

She frequently sees distinct differences between how she’s treated by some members of the public and people within her field in comparison to white, male colleagues.

“You have to possess the resilience of a hundred tigers,” she chuckles.

“Women generally find it tough in terms of these types of roles but add the colour, the brown face, the faith, and it’s harder.

Hina and Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate Luisa Porritt ( Andrew King)

Bokhari is a qualified teacher, having entered the profession in 1997.

She then decided to venture into politics after witnessing, first hand, the devastation that budget cuts were wreaking on the lives of students, parents and teachers.

The Londoner is accustomed to historical feats; in 2018, she won her first election, and became the first non-white councillor in West Barnes ward and first Muslim woman elected in the Merton borough.

Before that, in 1985, her father, Naz Bokhari, became Britain’s first Muslim headteacher at Ernest Bevin Secondary school for Boys in Tooting.

London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan is among his most famous alumni.

“My dad endured a lot. People called him racial slurs in the streets quite regularly and he would often get turned down for jobs because of his ethnicity,” Bokhari says.

“He would say to me, ‘It’s not what you do that matters, it’s what you do for the generations after you that matters.’ I have to do this for the people behind me who are going to follow, who are watching what I am doing.”

Naz Bokhari talking to his students (Naz Legacy Foundation)

Bokhari wants to help usher in a “shift” in what she calls a common view of Muslim women.

“There’s this perception that they’re weak, can’t speak for themselves, just do what their husbands tell us. It’s as though because many of them wear hijabs, headscarves, wear modest clothes, they can’t be independent of thought or they’re being made to wear that kind of stuff but actually that’s not the case.”

Labour’s Marina Ahmad and Sakina Sheikh, both Muslim women, are also running to become London Assembly members and, if elected, will share this prime feat.

“Muslim women are incredibly strong and have been doing amazing things throughout history but we just don’t hear about them. I want people to perceive all women as strong – and as a Muslim woman I can help to change that narrative.

“I don’t see that happening if we’re going to keep electing the same kind of people every time. Nothing’s going to change.

“The only way things are going to change if you have people like myself who talk differently, see the world differently and have a different voice. I’d love it if some little brown girl came up to me one day and said “you inspired me to get into politics”, that would be a dream.”

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