Anum Qaisar: The women in my household have made so many sacrifices
What is your earliest memory?
I was born with a ventricular septal defect, which is a hole in my heart, and instead of getting smaller it got bigger. At around four years old cardiologists and paediatricians informed my parents that I would have to have open heart surgery, which back then in 1996 was a fairly long procedure. And then within one year I also had my appendix removed.
So, I was very unwell as a child and my very first memory is quite vivid, and I don’t know after which operation it was, but it is me getting out of bed and trying to walk over to the toilet, but I was struggling to walk and struggling to get my bearings right.
When did your health start to improve?
After I had my operation I pretty much got better then. As a child up until 16 I had to see a cardiologist every year, and now I see one every couple of years.
One of the things that I have is a slow heart rate. If people don’t know that I have had my open-heart surgery and they take my heart rate they’ll ask, ‘are you an athlete?’
What were you like at school?
I come from an immigrant family and education was placed very highly in our household and we all had to work very hard at school. My dad always would talk about the importance of education and how that was a route out of poverty.
With other kids, if they were naughty, they would get different types of punishment. We had this dreaded blue book from WHSmith, which I still have, it was a spelling book. Every time we were naughty my parents would make us sit down with the book and write down how to spell words, and if we didn’t know the word, we would have a dictionary in front of us to read up what it meant.
It was very clever of my parents because it was punishment but also it was increasing their children’s vocabulary. My siblings and I always laugh and say whenever we have kids, we’ll make sure that we use this blue book.
Who is your dream dinner date?
I have two. The former prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. I think it is just fascinating the way that she has done, shaped, and changed politics over the last few years. And I think for me she has really showcased that you can be kind and compassionate, but also incredibly articulate in politics. One of my favourite videos is the one of her with Sanna Marin, Finland’s former prime minister. They were both at a press call and someone asks, ‘so, do you think you are meeting because you are a similar age’ and she says she didn’t think anyone ever asked Barack Obama if he was meeting John Key because they were a similar age. It is fantastic the way she is able to call people out in a very kind way. Obviously, as a young parliamentarian who is a woman and a person of colour, I feel like we would have a lot of shared experiences.
The other person is Martin Compston. I’m a big Martin Compston fangirl and I am currently watching The Rig, and I loved him in Line of Duty as well.
What is your greatest fear?
I want to caveat this by saying I can deal with rollercoasters. Put me on the fastest one, I love them. However, I am terrified of Ferris wheels. I think it is because it is just so slow, like, rollercoasters are really high but they’re really fast and over and done within seconds. A Ferris wheel takes forever.
You’re down in London every week, have you managed to avoid the London Eye?
I think I went on it once years ago, but I try to avoid a Ferris wheel where possible.
If you could go back in time, where would you go?
My dad immigrated to the UK in 1981. But before that the family lived in Pakistan, and before that my grandad was born in British India, and that is the Indian side now, it’s called Jalandhar, which is in the Punjab region of India.
My grandad moved in 1947, just after partition, to Pakistan. So, I would love to meet my great grandfather, who would have lived in British India around the time of the First World War, to learn a little bit more about our family history. Because my family immigrated from different places we don’t really have that lineage that we can trace so easily in comparison to my friends whose families have lived in Scotland or the UK for generations. My brother got one of those DNA tests and it came back with Pakistani, South Asian and before that we seem to have come from Turkey and Afghanistan, which is interesting.
What is the best piece of advice that you have had?
From my mum, and that is to just keep going. It is not something that she has just said to me as a parliamentarian, it was also as a young child. My mum is my biggest champion.
You seem to have quite a good relationship with her.
In that kind of traditional South Asian household there weren’t very many opportunities for young girls, so my mum got married relatively young, my aunty didn’t go to secondary school even though she lived in the UK, my other aunty got married when I think she was 17 or 18.
My grandad had moved to Rochdale in the 60s, and in the late 60s my granny got a one-way ticket from Pakistan to Rochdale to join my grandfather with five kids in tow. The women in my household have made so many sacrifices, and very often when I walk around the parliamentary estate I remind myself that I am not just doing this for me, but I am doing this for them because they didn’t get those opportunities whatsoever. And because they didn’t get those opportunities, they pushed me even more.
When it does get difficult, they are the ones that are there saying you can do this, we believe in you.
Are they your main political inspiration?
My birthday is 11 September, I was nine when 9/11 happened and I went to school the next day and was asked if my family were terrorists, they said my skin colour was dirty like poo, and my mum and dad had to sit me down at quite a young age and explain terms like Islamophobia and racism. And I just never understood why I was different to anyone else. Yes, I knew that I had Quran lessons in the evening and my friends would have Sunday school, but I didn’t really see anything different between any of us.
That got me angry at a young age, and I think a lot of South Asian Muslims got angry and upset about it. Most people, when I speak to them when they are South Asian Muslims in Scotland, say that they were politicised after 9/11 and the Iraq War. For me, I just never shut up about it, and again, my parents and my family were there pushing and encouraging me.