Of women and politics: be the change

I was at networking event listening to success stories by inspiring women. Stories, that one would call page-turners and tearjerkers. I sat next to a lady on a table of four. She looked pretty ordinary to me. All I could see was that her badge had many letters and salutations on it.

At the end of the speeches, I introduced myself to her. I told her what I did. I asked her what she did. I am Cabinet Member at Chiltern and I am also the Mayor of Amersham, she said. And that’s how I met Councillor Mrs. Mimi Harker OBE, someone who looked pretty ordinary to me but had an extra-ordinary story that I had to tell.

While I am passionate about the community that I live in, I do not claim to actively follow political leaders and their agendas. It is also pretty funny that my horoscope charted out by Indian astrologers claims quite the opposite. It says that I will hold a very senior government position, something my husband and I have often laughed about. I have never had the opportunity to vote in my whole entire life. I left India at 18 and then could never vote in the US or the UK given that the only time I have thought of giving up my Indian passport has been when I have needed to travel and given my citizenship status have had to apply for a visa.

All Indian passport holders around the world will share my feelings. However, each time after getting a visa, that feeling quickly subsides and the patriotic Indian me re-emerges! Alas, I remain Indian and unable to vote. The same day that I spoke to Mimi, my friend Chetan happened to send me an article titled Are women their own worst enemies when it comes to the top jobs? The article, amongst other things, claimed that even Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq far outshine the UK for women in positions of political power, a statistic most people would find quite surprising.

Mimi, on the other hand is part of this statistic. She is the first Asian woman to ever be Mayor of Amersham. She has also received the OBE for services to women, in particular minorities in the public sector from none other than the Lady with the Handbag, the Queen herself. She is also one of the 149 women with an ethnic background to be elected in the UK. This is out of 20,000 elected members in the last set of elections and out of 4.9 million ethnic minorities living in the UK according to the 2001 census.

For those of us who are parents, Mimi is also the lady behind the 12-A (whether or not a movie is suitable for viewing by under 12’s) classification.  It happened as a result of her son who was eight and wanting to watch Spiderman in the cinema. Given his age she wasn’t allowed to take him to see it but after watching the movie figured there was no content that a child his age could not have been exposed to. She lobbied the film board, cinemas and district council and 12-A was born. Mimi, I asked, “how and why politics”? Her parents were Bengali from India. Her mother, the most fabulous cook and hostess ever she says, even went back to India to give birth to Mimi and her sister in the tea estates of Darjeeling. Her father, a Chatterjee, who was an engineer by training was recruited by GKN and brought to the UK. Her parents had a traditional arranged marriage and while her father worked as an engineer, her mother worked as PA to one of the Directors of Lambeth Council.

Mimi was always shy she said. She was the older of two girls and always wanted to be a journalist or an actress. She worked in marketing and advertising and thought politicians were horrible people. When she got married she chose to stay home and be a mother to her two children. A property related dispute entailing her (and a neighbors) backyard is what led her to engage the community that she lived in to fight for justice. She lobbied ferociously to get a petition signed (even borrowed her children’s little people furniture to sit in the middle of the road to ensure it happened), fought tooth and nail and brought the developer to justice. Even the newspapers wrote about her case every week for four and a half years! She ultimately won.

Post victory, her MP came to visit her community and asked her if she wanted to stand for the local elections. After giving it much thought she agreed. She is now Councillor for Women, Children and Young People, communities she is very passionate about. A day in the life of Councillor Mimi Harker begins as early as 8am with council meetings and ends normally around 10:30pm. She was recently seen planting bulbs with children who designed an Olympic scene flowerbed and was also seen in front of Tesco for eighteen hours fund-raising for the new Adizone playground that she is planning to build.

It is a hard and tough schedule but at least her two children are now older. It was harder when they were younger but she chose to manage her work life around their schedule.

To all the women who are reading this article, Mimi wants you to know that being a woman brings another element to our professions. Being a mum is a further differentiator. Mimi’s son could have been Spiderman himself given the Spiderman pyjamas he lived in, the Spiderman cup he drank from and the Spiderman duvet he slept in. He was devastated when his mother couldn’t take him to the cinema. Little did Spiderman know that he ended up with Superwoman for a mother who changed the world of cinema not only for him but also for every other child out there! You just have to have a passion and you can do anything you want, Mimi says. Mimi might have wanted to be an actress or a journalist but not only does she have the voice and the pen, but she also has the vote to change the world. And she is doing it!

*Deepali Nangia works as a freelance business consultant helping entrepreneurs shape their ideas into businesses and their businesses into bigger ones!  Deepali also provides career guidance and counseling services.  She is a mother of two, loves the arts and is a strong supporter of women in business.  She can be found on www.empowerbizsupport.com or [email protected].  

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