The UK’s youngest elected Asian female politician, Councillor Bhatti talks about the struggles and triumphs of her rise in British politics. She spoke to Omar Shahid.
As Rabia Bhatti opens the front door of her apartment in London’s Canary Wharf, it seems like something out of MTV Cribs. “Hi! Please come in,” she says, smiling, before moving to the lounge, which overlooks the River Thames and the iconic O2 arena.
Bhatti, 23, is the UK’s youngest elected Asian female politician. To say she is busy would be an understatement. Apart from being a councillor in South East England, Bhatti sits on the boards of various organisations, is an international guest lecturer, delivers inspirational speeches, and studies politics, philosophy and history at the University of London.
“I’m on call 24/7. You end up working the most ridiculous hours humanly possible to the extent you don’t sleep for days,” she says. So how does she hack it? “You have to be passionate. But being able to better people’s lives and work towards something meaningful makes it all worth it.”
Bhatti is noticeably intelligent and articulate; despite her hectic lifestyle, she appears calm and collected. Her bookish appearance is juxtaposed with her sophisticated sense of style. She wears black designer glasses, brown ballet pumps, a black cardigan and jeans. But most impressive are the odds she has defied. Being young, female, Asian and Muslim – traits that are too often obstacles in modern life – has not held her back from pursuing her dreams and fighting for what she believes in.
“If you give up now, you will never be able to live with that”
Born into a “British Pakistani working-class family” to parents who both worked for the Ministry of Justice, politics seemed the likely career. “Politics never interested me when I was younger,” she says, taking a sip of tea. “I actually wanted to be a makeup artist. But I soon realised it wasn’t for me and I became directionless,” she says.
Yet in 2008, at age 18, Bhatti became the youngest female school governor in Britain. Unbeknown to her at the time, this was the start of a string of great accomplishments. Her path to success, though, has not been an easy one. When Bhatti decided to run for local government elections in 2011, her father, Mohammad Bhatti, strongly advised her against it, warning her that she wouldn’t win. “My father told me not to run. He advised me against it, especially because I’d be running elections at the same time as my exams.”
She decided to run anyway. But nothing could prepare her for the backlash she received during her campaign. “I threw my heart and soul into it, but it didn’t go the way I thought. At 20, I wasn’t prepared for the racism and sexual innuendoes. I used to come back from a day campaigning in tears. People used to say to me, ‘I don’t want a Paki running our country.'”
From a strong, independent and courageous woman, Bhatti soon began to rapidly lose confidence in herself. “I started to crumble.” She pauses. “I would come home every night crying and it was taking its toll on my revision.” One night, after a torturous day of campaigning, Bhatti went home and sought the comfort of her mother. She received much more than she expected.
The first and foremost thing that restricts women is the belief that we can’t do it
Bhatti gazes up towards the ceiling, recollecting the words of her mother. “She told me – and I remember her words vividly – ‘Well done for trying, you will always be a winner. But if you give up now, you will never be able to live with that. Life isn’t about winning or losing. If you have this attitude, you will never acquire happiness. If you give up, you will not only be letting yourself down, but an entire generation of people who will look at you and see that because you couldn’t do it, they can’t either. So, do it for everyone who will gain strength from your victory and use it to win their own battles.’ As soon as she said that, everything seemed to fall perfectly into place,” Bhatti says.
“Up until that point, I had been fighting the elections for myself. But it no longer became about me; it was about principles and standing up for the people I represent.”
Bhatti went on to win the elections in style, gaining a huge majority. The election struggle led her to a rather profound realisation.
“The first and foremost thing that restricts women is the belief that we can’t do it. We need to stop laying the blame on others and realise we are in charge of our own destiny. We have seen so many examples of women being great leaders throughout history, in our religion, in so many different fields. We can’t stop every time we hit a barrier. We need to see ourselves as agents of change.”
Bhatti has a refreshing blend of enthusiasm for politics, desire to help others and deep respect for Islam. Though still widely unknown, she is perhaps one of the most promising young politicians in the country. The future looks bright.