The Tell-It-Like-It-Is Future of Scotland

Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh
SourceAlvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY

The Tell-It-Like-It-Is Future of Scotland

By Fiona Zublin


Because after 2018, she could be a rising star of the world’s newest independent country.

By Fiona Zublin

To an American accustomed to the soaring rhetoric that marks the U.S. political landscape, watching British politicians can be jarring. Petty sniping and obvious, cheap political points are more often than not the order of debate, with supporters of different politicians openly yowling and jeering at the other side on the House of Commons floor. Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh is good at the one-liner game — but she’s also a rarity in British politics: an idealist.

She’s also the first minority woman member of Parliament for the Scottish National Party, and the first female Muslim MP to be elected in any Scottish constituency. Born into a political family — her father, Mohammed Rizvi, was the first Asian regional councilor in Scotland — Ahmed-Sheikh, who could not be reached for comment, initially joined her dad’s party. After working as a producer and actress in the Pakistani film industry, she began her career as a rising star among the Tories, chairing Edinburgh Central Young Conservatives and serving as a deputy spokeswoman. In 1999 she ran to represent Glasgow Govan in Scotland’s Parliament in Holyrood, battling it out with the SNP candidate, current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (they both lost to the Labour candidate). But just a year later, dissatisfied with her party’s position on asylum seekers, she defected to the Scottish National Party, the group that’s led the recent campaigns for Scottish independence.

Now 46 and a mother of four, she’s one of the country’s most visible representatives, taking to TV and speaking in Parliament to defend Scotland’s sovereignty in vivid terms and unflinching language. The message, in her signature brogue: Let Scotland do what’s right for Scotland — or risk our departure. The message isn’t entirely humored by British politicians, despite the obvious Brexit parallel. A larger body can lose its neglected or disaffected cousin, after all. 

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Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh campaigning in 2015 in Crieff, Scotland. 

Source Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Though Ahmed-Sheikh is able to hold forth on a range of issues, from Scotland’s economy to its independence, controversies surrounding racism, sexism and xenophobia tend to choose her. For someone who finds herself the representative of so many communities — Scottish people, working women, Muslims, Britain’s diaspora communities, not to mention the people of Ochil and South Perthshire who elected her — she’s also representative of the SNP’s undeniable success at a tough-to-nail balance: How can one be a progressive nationalist party in a world where nationalism is increasingly synonymous with racism?

Turns out the answer is: by not being racist about who you believe counts as one of you. “Scotland seems to be very much different [from England],” says Aamer Anwar, a Scottish human rights lawyer who’s known Ahmed-Sheikh for more than a decade. “You can be Muslim, Pakistani, but you’re still accepted as Scottish.” While Scotland, demographically, is still 95 percent white, the general debate around migration is more progressive here than in England. Nasar Meer, a professor of race, identity and citizenship at the University of Edinburgh, says that surveys indicate white Scottish people aren’t any more progressive about minorities being called Scottish than white English people are, but that Scottish minority communities “have no hesitation about claiming Scottishness as their identity” and have not been received with the same nastiness common in England. After all, Scottish people are historically more opposed to the English than to most other diaspora communities. 

Ahmed-Sheikh’s own story of integration began in Edinburgh. She’s spoken about getting bullied in Scottish primary schools for being mixed-race — her mother is white — and about feeling like an outsider with her husband’s traditional Pakistani family. Later, she became famous for her forays into the Pakistani film industry, but Ross Bond, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, says her acting career wasn’t emphasized during the campaign, even though it too straddled cultures: Des Pardes, a popular 13-part serial in Urdu, was a drama about the lives of Pakistani émigrés living in Scotland.

The SNP also gained a lot of credibility with Scotland’s Muslim community during the Iraq war, Bond says — even as the progressive Labour Party spearheaded helping out with the American invasion, the SNP strongly opposed it. “The SNP is very much able to establish its credentials as a civic national left-wing party,” says Bond. “That’s not to be confused with the right-wing nationalism in other parts of Europe.” And it doesn’t mean that the SNP’s mission is to disconnect from the rest of the world: 62 percent of Scotland voted “Remain” in the Brexit referendum, and many Scots still see their future in Europe, as evidenced by First Minister Sturgeon’s recent announcement that she’ll seek a new referendum on Scottish independence in a bid to stay within the European Union.

By all appearances, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh will be right there with her. “I think many people in the community expect her to reach greater heights,” Anwar says. “I expect her to be at the forefront of the political campaigns and the independence campaigns — and in the Scottish government if Scotland becomes independent.” As Scotland, once again, considers the dangers of striking forward on its own, Ahmed-Sheikh has chosen her team.