Rabina Khan addresses BNP/Paribas Diversity Week
TOWER HAMLETS Councillor Rabina Khan was chosen to give a major speech at the BNP/Paribas Diversity Week – which this year has extended to nearly two weeks and four countries. The annual Diversity Week has helped this major European banking and finance company to refine the diversity policy it has been developing over the last 15 years.
This year the company was looking beyond the recognition of diversity to the next step: inclusion of its diverse workforce and clientele to foster mutual respect and ensure that all the company’s talents are working as a team to understand their clients and provide them with the best possible service.
This is where Cllr Khan fitted in. Already a successful novelist, film-maker and creative – and winner of a European Diversity Award as long ago as 2014 – Cllr Khan is also, of course, a successful Tower Hamlets politician. Standing in the by-election for Mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2015, she came within a whisker of beating the Labour candidate, who had the backing of a massive party machine.
Who is Cllr Khan? In her own words to the BNP Paribas event she is, and is proud to be, “a woman, Bangladeshi, Muslim – and British”. This complex identity has seen her meet more than her fair share of prejudice, as the organisations she has had to deal with, particularly as a councillor, have too often been dominated by white, middle-class men.
Cllr Khan finds that they bring their prejudices to the table – especially during the four years she spent as Tower Hamlets Cabinet Member for Housing and Regeneration/Development. “It must be hard or a Muslim woman to understand complex housing situations,” one told her – “do you learn everything by heart?” They must be shocked when they see this capable woman not only grasping complex situations but also harrying the men to do deliver something that will help her constituents.
Cllr Khan remains firmly rooted in the diverse communities that make up her home borough of Tower Hamlets. When she instigated a new approach to finding housing which would meet the individual needs of profoundly disabled people in Tower Hamlets, she was inspired by knowing the people themselves, not by an abstract desire to set up a paper scheme for officers to implement.
The new approach – Project 120, named after the number of severely disabled people in the borough who were languishing in unsuitable accommodation – was based on a simple idea. When a new development is being planned, allocate a proportion of the units to the profoundly disabled people in the Scheme – and the builder can construct the home, from scratch, to suit its eventual occupant.
The approach saved the Council and other local social landlords money, as building from scratch is cheaper than converting an older home. The saving became a “diversity dividend”, and Cllr Khan has extended that principle to other areas. She quoted an array of examples at the Diversity Week event, showing how the inclusion of women on boards and committees can improve performance and output. Diversity, when coupled with inclusion, can dramatically increase the talent pool available to an organisation.
Cllr Khan also addressed setback, which she sees as an opportunity to re-assess where you are going and to learn more about yourself and what you are doing. Again, sexist, racist and religious stereotyping can hold you back – but only if you let it. Despite opponents writing her off as the puppet of the former (male) Mayor, in whose Cabinet she had served, or dismissing her as “just a wife” (just? just?), Cllr Khan was able to challenge those stereotypes with humour.
When one man asked her what colour her hair was under her headscarf, she confided in him: “it’s pink!” He didn’t seem convinced. So she toned it down. “I meant green.” This chance conversation led to the title of one of her classic articles, My hair is pink under this veil, which she turned into a lecture at Cambridge University.
Her other critics were silenced, at least for a while, when they saw how close she had come to being the first woman Muslim directly elected Executive Mayor in the UK. The next mayoral elections in Tower Hamlets take place in May 2018. This dynamic and inspirational woman may surprise her opponents again.