Tulip, Rushanara, and Rupa Huq didn’t participate in any Bangladeshi elections but their victory seems to be ours. Never mind that a UK MP has nothing to do with our political life but these three ladies of Bangladeshi origins do make us proud. They won tough elections in a very tough year for their party, Labour, which lost the elections handsomely.
This is why the three victories are also significant for UK voters as well. There is a surge of immigrants making it in the West, and South Asians are on the move, including in politics. The result therefore, is significant for everyone touched by the elections, UK and Bangladesh.
Some argue that these MPs have nothing to do with Bangladesh and their loyalty is to their country – the UK – and their voters, which is of course true.
But they are UK citizens of Bangladeshi origin and so to say that they have no connection to Bangladesh is not right. Of course this is not about representing us or our interests in the Commons, but by being part of the wider Bangladeshi identity that stretches very far, from here all the way to there.
In fact there are thousands of UK citizens who are living in Bangladesh and the UK. The citizenship is only one part of the loyalty matrix. The origin and the connected emotions are also there. We are happy to see such success. They are not our MPs, but they are our daughters. And that is good enough for us.
Rupa Huq & Rushanara Ali
Their victories are significant too. As Labour was wiped out, the three candidates were victorious much against the tide. While Rushanara was re-elected with a huge margin, Rupa Huq wrested the seat away from the Conservatives that was once held by her party. A University teacher and activist, her sister Konnie Huq is a major TV star and nationally known. Rupa is a feisty woman who has not allowed men from her opponent’s party to intimidate or bully her. It’s a matter of measure of her popularity that she was voted to victory by an ethnically diverse group of voters.
Tulip Siddiq’s victory from Hampstead has been a fantastic achievement since many did not give her a chance. It’s an upper middle-class area, and she was running for the seat which had been vacated by the legendary actress Glenda Jackson. This star represented the elite of the UK and Western cultural world, and Glenda was popular in her own right and not as a Labour star.
To win in that seat, facing very stiff competition indeed makes her an emerging star of UK politics. All the more important is that a section of the UK press campaigned against her, attacking her family connection to Bangladeshi politics. Her photo with Putin when she accompanied her aunt Sheikh Hasina on an official trip to Russia was prominently displayed in Tory media, in an attempt to show her as part of Bangladesh’s “powerful family that dabbled in the arms trade” and close to Putin – a hated figure in the West. However, she outran them all and emerged a winner.
South Asian success
What is very interesting and impressive is that South Asians in general have done well. In all, 24 MPs of South Asian origins have won, including 10 Pakistanis, 10 Indians, 3 Bangladeshis, and 1 Sri Lankan, making nearly 5% of the Commons filled by such people.
This means MPs can become a voice of influence and pressure as the voting community in the UK from the region is closely linked to their original homelands. So, though the MPs are British, they do carry dual identities if not passports, and that is why the link with South Asia will be strong, if only for practical reasons.
What does it mean for Bangladesh? For one thing, it celebrates not just the rise of the expat community but the women who are at its heart. It’s not an accident that out of the 11 Bangladeshi origin candidates, all three winners are women, while another female candidate lost by a narrow margin. This shows how strong Bangladeshi people are, and particularly their women – once given a chance they can reach great heights. It will go a long way in dispelling the fiction of the weak Bangladeshi woman.
Lessons to be learned
There are political lessons too that can be drawn from the UK elections. Although the elections were dramatic there was no disturbance, rigging, fake voting, or polls violence.
It was a great relief to see such a good election, even if it was not held in our land. It means that if we are given a chance, we too can bring forward the best souls among us to serve the people. We need to believe in ourselves and our democracy. If that happens, we will be happy not just with a foreign election where Bangladeshis win, but with elections in our own homeland where they do too.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher. He has worked for the Dhaka Courier, the Daily Star, and BBC among many others. He has also worked as a Human Rights specialist with the UN and other agencies. Afsan was the Oak Fellow on International Human Rights of the Colby College in the USA in 2008.