Shabnam Nasimi is a Third Sector Consultant. She is the founder and Chairman of the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan. She currently serves as the Deputy Chairman (Political) for the Lewisham Deptford Conservative Association.
Growing up in a family that fled the Taliban in Afghanistan for the UK in 1999, I learned the harsh reality of inequality that existed at a very young age, particularly for women. Had my parents not decided to leave the country, I’m certain that I would have been forced into marriage – and would not have had an education, or the chance to work and now involve myself in politics, as I do today.
My parents’ biggest hope was that their four children could live in a society in which there was opportunity – in which your colour, race or identity did not matter, and where there was equality for all. I was raised in a family that truly appreciated the freedoms we have in the UK – freedoms that people die fighting for around the world today.
Looking back, I feel enormously blessed to have a purposeful father, who taught me the most valuable lesson in life: do not be defined by your gender, your identity or your surroundings, but take responsibility for your own destiny. He made me realise that I could hope for something different and better: a life defined by personal choice and rewarded by hard work. Little did I realise that this counter-cultural value system would pave the way for my journey to becoming a Conservative.
A few years after arriving here, my father set up a charity (the Afghanistan & Central Asian Association) to support people from refugee background integrate into British society, after realising how difficult it can be to navigate a new environment and society. He believed in the shared obligation of all communities to play an active role in tackling disadvantage and promoting equality of opportunities. He comes from one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world but, with the opportunities available to him in the UK, he was able to change the life of not only himself and his family, but thousands of other British citizens, giving something back to the country that welcomed him and gave him a home.
As a result of being brought up in a hard-working family that is proud to be British, I found that I instinctively agreed with the Conservatives and their emphasis on hard work, enterprise, their belief in the One Nation, and their willingness to promote aspiration – just as my father has done all these years. I stand proudly knowing that, as a woman from a refugee background, I am welcomed in a Britain that is tolerant, respectful and a liberal democracy.
My first involvement with politics was through my grassroots community work with ethnic minorities in West London, and realising that, despite the large population of Afghan diaspora and other ethnic minorities, council and local political representation was very disconnected and out of touch with local people.
If they wanted to raise issues about hate crime, housing, safety, parking or any other concern, they found it very difficult to reach out to councillors or other representatives. It spurred me to get involved, so that I could make a difference – because I am firmly of the belief that the only way to cause change to happen is by being on the inside.
Furthermore, identifying as a British Muslim, I can confidently say that colour and religion has politicised me. However, many would ask: why Conservative? – because, they would say, if you look at voting trends for the Tories, they don’t do well with ethnic minorities. People who aren’t white don’t tend to turn to the Conservative Party, as recent new research and polling by Onward has found.
But I believe in a small state, in a low tax economy, in the state getting out of the way and letting people get on with your lives, I am conservative in my values: all of those views chimed with the centre right’s approach, irrespective of what the British Conservative Party had done or was doing at the time.
And then I got involved with the local Association – and the local party had some really amazing and inspirational people in it. It felt very inclusive and an exciting space to be in; whereas, for me, the Labour Party wasn’t in touch and in tune with what British Asians wanted. And the migrant experience of coming to the UK, working hard, not relying upon the state, wanting to improve yourself, and staying within the law – all of those actions that my parents took chimed with what Conservatives would consider to be responsible citizenship.
Originating from a country that has been ranked as the worst place to be a woman, women’s rights and equality has always been close to my heart. A fundamental principle of feminism is the belief in equality of opportunity, something that is very strongly emphasised in conservatism – a belief in everyone having the chance to fulfil their potential, irrespective of where you come from or who you are – including your gender.
And it is the Conservative Party that has provided, over time, the first female MP and two women Prime Ministers. Labour is still waiting for its first one. Furthermore, it has created a bubble for communities they claim to represent, in which practical discussion about improving the lives of ethnic minorities can be seen as offensive, insulting and discriminatory. I am strongly of the belief that for change to happen, we need to actively take part in decision-making processes and, as a British Afghan Conservative campaigner and activist, I believe that change can only happen on the inside: we urgently need more diverse voices in Parliament.
Now I know that some people will wonder why the daughter of parents who come from a refugee background, from Afghanistan, supports the Conservative Party. But I know that ethnic minority voters have the individual agency and aspiration to seek to change their circumstances – as my parents did and as I do. If they believe that hard work, employment, and enterprise leads to prosperity; and if they reject the notion of narrow identity politics that keeps people confined to stereotype and expectation, then any ethnic minority voter can confidently support the Conservative Party.
I know I am involved in a Party that has done so much for women and is committed to doing more. That’s why I am proud to be one of the youngest campaigners from a refugee background and one of the first British Afghan Conservatives.