IT’S NO wonder that Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh seems to be in a hurry – a mother-of-four, she is a lawyer, actress, charity boss and now the first female Asian MP from Scotland.
Ahmed-Sheikh, 44, is one of the 56 newly elected Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs who took their seat for the first time in the House of Commons two weeks ago.
She secured 10,168 more votes than Labour candidate Gordon Banks in last month’s general election in the Ochil & South Perthshire constituency.
“There can be no higher honour than being a public servant,” a beaming Ahmed-Sheikh told Eastern Eye during a meeting at Portcullis House in central London last week.
“I’m grateful for it and I owe it to those people who voted for me. Their best interests is at the centre of everything I do.”
For Ahmed-Sheikh, politics is in her blood. Her father, Mohammed Rizvi, was the first Asian councillor elected in Scotland in 1986 in New Town/Stockbridge ward for the Conservative party.
Ahmed-Sheikh too was a member of the Scottish Conservative Party from the age of 16 and even ran as a candidate for the party once. But she said her views changed after getting married and having children.
“After marriage and becoming independent from my family and in-laws, I started to think about and formulate my own political views and where they were best represented.
“Fundamentally, when you become a parent, things change in how you look at things, from the perspective of how would I like the world which my children will grow up in to look like in the future.
“For me it was very much about how my children can grow up in a society that is fair, with equality at its heart, and is responsible internationally. I didn’t see that in any other political party other than the SNP.”
Walking into Westminster last month for the first time was daunting for the new arrivals who had left their day jobs to become MPs, said Ahmed-Sheikh.
“When you are coming to a place where you don’t know anyone or how things work, it’s very daunting. But upon arrival, you are each appointed a buddy via the House of Commons system.
“The Commons was clearly anticipating some electoral change and some newbies. They had passes ready for us, an iPad and we had connectivity by way of email. We met with all the House of Commons staff and so there was a very good programme of induction in the first week. That set us on a strong path and so we could hit the ground running and be immediately available for our constituents.”
Ahmed-Sheikh knows a few things about diversity, not surprising given her mixed-race heritage – her mother is half-Welsh and half-Czech and her father is from India. She was born in Chelsea, London, and moved to Scotland with her family when she was five. Currently she is the chair of the Scottish Asian Women’s Association and is also the SNP’s women’s officer.
“It’s incumbent on anyone who is fundamentally a democrat to ensure our electoral institutions reflect our society as a whole,” she said.
“I run various seminars and training sessions encouraging women into politics. I work with Asian and BME women, in particular, to make sure we are bringing them on. I am sure we will now see, in the upcoming Scottish parliamentarian elections and local government elections, more of them coming forward. But although we are making progress, we’re not there yet.”
On the issue of securing support from ethnic minority voters, Ahmed- Sheikh is aware that Asians were less likely to vote than other members of the electorate. But she added that during the Scottish independence referendum last year, the country set the benchmark in how to go about attracting hard-to-reach communities and could teach the rest of the UK a thing or two about engagement.
Around 3.6 million people voted Yes or No – a turnout of 84.5 per cent in Scotland as a whole and a new record for any election held in the UK. “It’s all about engagement,” said Ahmed-Sheikh. “People have to feel that they can contribute to a process and their voice is important within that process. Otherwise they won’t bother.
“The same is true of many people. I haven’t met a single person in the Muslim community in Scotland who has said it’s haram (forbidden). Whether you are talking about women or people who think voting makes no difference, they then don’t vote.
“There’s another Tory government in power now which many haven’t voted for, so you can understand why people then feel completely disenfranchised from a process.
“During the independence referendum campaign, it was key for us to ensure this was a debate about Scotland and its independence and ensuring all those within Scotland felt part of that debate and became involved with it, whatever their view might be.”
During SNP’s independence campaign last year, Ahmed-Sheikh started the Scottish Asians for Independence group and engaged with the Asian community across Scotland.
“This was with women who might not have voted before but then thought, ‘this is going to impact my kids, their education, their future, their ability to marry within the country or out of the country’. That is what needs to be happening across the UK – more direct engagement with people if it’s not already happening.”
Crucial to Ahmed-Sheikh’s success is support from the men in her family.
“My father was hugely supportive as an Asian man and my husband is a hugely supportive as an Asian man. That’s really important support to have in an Asian family,” she said.
But as joyous an occasion as becoming an MP was for Ahmed-Sheikh, it also carried a tinge of sadness.
“One of my biggest moments of sadness is when I won in the early hours of May 8, and my dad wasn’t there to see it. He passed away last June very suddenly. It was always his dream to see me as an elected parliamentarian. I’m hoping somewhere he is aware that I’ve achieved that.”