Power, responsibility and freedom: an exclusive interview with Anum Qaisar
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By Swarupa Tripathy
Being only the second female Muslim MP in Scotland’s history is no small feat to achieve, and having beaten all odds through sheer hard work, Anum Qaisar has proved that she is here to stay.
Born to Scottish Pakistani parents, Qaisar grew up in Central Scotland in a tight knit family and had a happy childhood. She admits to having understood that as a part of being from a mixed background, she had to balance the aspects of her identity being a Scottish, Pakistani and a Muslim woman. However, she found that the three could coexist with each other “quite easily, quite peacefully”.
Describing the kind of environment she grew up in, Qaisar says, “I’d say that my household while I was growing up was fairly conservative with a small ‘C’. So in terms of modesty, how you dress, how you speak… that kind of cultural aspect was literally embedded.”
Qaisar alludes to the fact that her background does pose challenges sometimes. She says that despite being Scottish, she has a “very strong sense of Pakistani identity”, which can get confusing for others as well as herself at times.
Regardless of that, she is thankful for the kind of upbringing she had, because even though the Pakistani community in Scotland isn’t very big in comparison to places like England, she was surrounded by people who shared the same cultural and traditional values. She adds, “I have a very large family, my mom was the youngest of six. I have over 25 cousins and over 30 nieces and nephews, so we are a really big family. I never really felt like I lost out on that.”
The 30-year-old MP talks about the struggles her grandparents had to go through when they first arrived in the UK several decades ago in the 1960s. “My mum was born in England, my dad’s from Pakistan and three out of four of my grandparents were all born in modern day Pakistan. My paternal grandfather, was born in modern India – he was from Jalandhar. After the independence of Pakistan and India from the British Empire, he moved from India to Pakistan.”
She informs that when her maternal grandfather arrived in the UK, he worked in factories outside Manchester, trying to make a living for his family through manual labour. She continues, “And my nani ammi (maternal grandmother) moved over in the late sixties, and again she worked in factories and manual labour, and they had a really difficult and challenging life.” Both of them spent their whole life working in factories and made huge sacrifices to support their children.
Qaisar draws inspiration from the women in her family, who did not have much choice to pursue their own dreams to raise and earn for their families. “So, when I think back to my nani ammi, my maternal grandmother, who came to this country in the 1960s, didn’t speak any English, and worked in factories and manual labour her whole life; she was married at the age of 16, my gran didn’t really live a life, apart from the life that she lived with her husband and raising her kids. And then I’ve got my aunty who didn’t go to high school, she got pulled out after primary school, and was told to go work in the shops.”
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She reveals that her mother’s story was along the same lines, as her parents told her not to go to school anymore after completing the National 5 (N5) qualifications, in order to make more money for the family. She then married at the young age of 21, and got busy raising Qaisar and her two younger brothers.
Qaisar’s father, however, played a major role in fulfilling her mother’s aspirations, as he selflessly motivated and uplifted her. “It was only after she got married that she managed to fulfil the experiences she wanted to. It was with my dad that she found successful businesses. It was my dad who encouraged her to go back to college and gain further qualifications,” she says.
From a very young age, Qaisar was motivated to be politically active and fight for social justice by her family. This sentiment probably trickled down from her grandfather, who was a strong figure at his workplace and community, and believed in supporting those who needed help.
After the September 11 attacks, which was also her birthday, she recalls being discriminated against at her school. This incident left a huge impression on her as a young Muslim girl. She remembers going home upset and asking her parents why this would occur miles away in Motherwell, Scotland, where the family lived at the time. In response, Qaisar’s parents encouraged her to stand up for herself and make others understand that she was “just as Scottish as anyone else”. This was the beginning of something powerful for her, even though she was just a little girl, she knew what she was going to do for the rest of her life.
Qaisar continued campaigning and standing up against social injustices. At the young age of 11, she mentions that she also wrote to then-prime minister of the UK, Tony Blair, on the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, telling him about her disappointment on the issue.
She went on to become very active in the political scene as an adult. She worked as a parliamentary researcher for Scottish National Party (SNP) politician Carol Monaghan, and as a case worker for then Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf. Before being elected as the Member of Parliament for Airdrie and Shotts, Qaisar also taught modern studies at Boroughmuir High School and George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, highlighting to her students the under-representation of ethnic minority communities in politics.
In April 2021, after the resignation of the sitting SNP MP Neil Gray, she was selected as the SNP candidate for the Airdrie and Shotts by-election, which she won and made history by becoming only the second female Muslim MP to be elected after Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh in Scotland. Consequently, she was hailed as a role model for the ethnic minority communities across the country.
As a woman in position of power, Qaisar wants to be the face of change. She is a strong supporter of the Scottish Independence, as she believes that “decisions for Scotland should be made by Scotland, by the people residing in Scotland”. Alongside that, she is also working on other campaigns including paid menstrual leave for women as well as pushing the government to do more research into why the Asian community in the UK is “more likely to live in poverty” and the reason behind the ongoing cost of living crisis “having a disproportionate impact on people of colour” – that can help it to take the best course of action to support and empower them.
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When asked about a common misconception that people have of her, Qaisar confesses to being aware of the fact that she does not look like a stereotypical MP, mostly because she is a young woman of colour with a sense of fashion not shared by others. She says, “I suppose that I just don’t look like an MP. I have lost count of how many times when I’ve been in Parliament people have come up to me and said, ‘Oh, so which MP do you work for?” She continues, “I am the MP! Of course I’m young, I’m a woman, I’m a woman of colour. I wear makeup, I wear high heels. And that probably doesn’t fit in with what stereotypically an MP looks like.”
As an Asian woman in politics, she says that she is at the receiving end of several types of abuse. She explains, “So I’m Asian and I’m a young woman. Much of the abuse that I receive isn’t just linked to one part of that. So it is not only misogynistic, it’s not only racist, not only ageist. Very often, it’s a combination of all three.” She then adds, “But I would say to people. Look, if it’s not me, who else is going to be? Because if it’s not me, there’ll be ten other men who want to take my place.”
The MP’s struggles are not her own, as she reveals that it is “very challenging for women of colour to be elected”. However, she says that political parties have taken on the responsibility of promoting diversity with “a number of South Asian women elected”, the biggest example being the SNP.
She also believes that Asians can be the leaders of the future, with “respect and empathy” being the two most important qualities that one needs to inculcate in order to be successful. Qaisar adds that she wants to see more representation of Asians being at the top of their respective fields. She continues, “It’s really important to me that their contributions are not just accepted by society, but the society understands that we are a living, breathing part of the United Kingdom… and all four nations.”
As a shining example of someone who has only grown stronger despite all the challenges that have come in her way, the MP is hopeful for the future of the Asian communities in the UK. Her only advice to those wanting to make a mark for themselves is to “take every opportunity that comes, be selfish”. “If an opportunity comes, take it, you’ll learn it and it will make you a more rounded person,” she recommends.