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Culture bars Asian women from councils in Britain

A new study says women from the Indian sub-continent face several cultural barriers in their families and communities before they can enter local government.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2007 12:41 IST

Councils in Britain are said to be dominated by councillors who are "pale, male and stale", but women from the Indian sub-continent face several cultural barriers in their families and communities before they can enter local government, according to a new study.

Several men with roots in the Indian sub-continent have been elected councillors in various parts of Britain. Some like Harjit Gill (Gloucester) have gone on to become mayors, but there are too few women councillors from the Asian community.

The study, by the Fawcett Society and the Government Equalities Office, titled "Routes to Power for Ethnic Minority Women", reveals that Asian and Afro-Caribbean women face many barriers to becoming councillors. The Fawcett Society is a charity organisation that works for equality between men and women.

According to some research participants, the difficulties in juggling domestic and professional commitments are more acute for some ethnic minority women because their families and communities still value a traditional sexual division of labour.

In this view, ethnic minority women who act as councillors "disturb the order of things", raising resistance based on the fear that husbands and children will suffer because women won't be able to play their caring role as fully as they are expected to.

A woman councillor who participated in the study said: "In the Indian community, it is looked upon as something that men do. Women are not supposed to do that because it takes them away from their other domestic duties, cooking and cleaning. This is changing slightly now, but there is still a stigma."

Another said: "How many times am I being asked: 'Why isn't your husband doing this? How does your husband feel about it?' Of course, if I were a man, they would never be asking this. It's just not seen as a role for women."

"People from our own community can also be very nasty and do anything to pull you down. I think it's an Asian issue: active older men in their 50's and 60's feel threatened by a young Asian woman and start saying: 'She should be at home with her baby, she doesn't really understand this, what is she doing here?'"

Women from Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities face several barriers to becoming councillors, the study noted. Being a councillor is still looked upon as a white middle class hobby. The councillor role continues to be treated as a pastime for those with spare time and money -- considered rare for most ethnic minority women.

Political parties' commitment to diversity remains weak and potential candidates among ethnic minority women face poor support and even discrimination from parties. Besides, the local parties are not bridging the distance to ethnic minority women.

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears said: "There are those who talk about our councillors being 'pale, male and stale' -- I think that label is unfair but we do need to ensure all elected representatives, national and local, better reflect their communities."

"I know what an invaluable role councillors play in every aspect of our communities. But if we want to make sure that councils are truly representative so that every voice in every part of the community is being heard it is vital that we find new ways to encourage more black and ethnic minority women to take up these crucial posts."

Minister for Women Harriet Harman said: "The 2.3 million Black, Asian and ethnic minority women in the UK make a great contribution to our society and economy and we need them to be represented at every level of our democracy from magistrates and councillors in their local communities to MPs at Westminster."

One of the few Asian women councillors is Zakia Zubairi, 65, of Labour, in Barnet, London. She moved to Britain from India 30 years ago. She stood in three successive elections before becoming the borough's first woman Muslim councillor in 2005.

She said: "For me, local democracy is really important, and I want Muslims to get involved. Hindus are very involved in things in this area, and I want Muslims to do the same. I've been a Labour Party activist for the past seven years."

"My focus is my community and I've always wanted to help it. Even before I became a councillor I helped people a lot. If people didn't have transport to get to hospital, I would give them a lift and I looked after people's children."