In Conversation with Rakhia Ismail, the UK’s first Somali-born Mayor

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Friday June 28, 2019 (RBB NEWS) – Councillor Rakhia Mohammed Ismail has been chosen as Islington’s Mayor for 2019-20 at Islington’s Annual Council meeting on May 16. The Holloway Ward Councillor is the first Somali-born woman to hold the position of Lord Mayor in the UK. Rakhia was born in Somalia and came to the UK as a refugee in the 1980s. She has lived in the borough since 1993 and was first elected to Islington Council in 2012, serving as Deputy Mayor last year.

For over two decades Rakhia has worked in the voluntary sector, first engaging Somali and BAME local people with children’s services and then in schools across London. She is also the founder of Back 2 Basics Create, a charity supporting hard to reach women and mothers. Rakhia is among first British Somali female politicians in the UK. She is also the first Muslim and BAME cabinet member in Islington.

A champion of diversity, Rakhia is a founding member of Islington Stand Up Racism, where she campaigns against Islamophobia. In 2017, she famously led the protest outside McDonald’s after a young student was asked to remove her hijab. Before becoming a local Councillor, Rakhia worked as a freelance surface pattern designer and teacher. She also led numerous art projects placed at venues across London, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Crafts Council, the October Gallery, Islington Museum. Rakhia took time off her busy schedule to speak to The Muslim News about her new post as Mayor, being a role model as well as the underrepresentation of Muslim women in local politics.

Congratulations on your new post as the Mayor of Islington how does it feel like to make history as Britain’s first Somali-born female mayor?

Thank you for asking. It feels like having a special privilege, making history as Britain’s first Somali born female Mayor, but with it comes huge responsibility.

You’re also thought to be the first mayor to wear a hijab. How significant is that for Muslim women across the country? 

I am not sure but I have been told I am the first to wear a hijab. It’s significant for Muslim women across the country because there are so many sisters who feel if they wear the hijab, they may be unelectable or find a job. To be honest so many sisters have called me since I was elected who want to be in public office, but worry because they wear the hijab. I am only too happy to help. And I tell them the majority of people are not interested in the headgear, hijabs, or other items of clothing you wear, but people are more interested in the persons’ views, ideas, fairness, commitments and professionalism to serve local people and make a difference.

According to research by The Muslim News, only 29 per cent of newly elected Muslim councillors last month were women. What steps do you think need to be taken to encourage Muslim women to enter the world of politics?

I think its a shame that only 29 per cent of newly elected Muslim councillors last month were women. I think first Muslim women need to participate in civic duties. They are their own best representative for their opinion, desires and wishes. Muslims (or anyone underrepresented) do not need a degree to be a councillor. Also, they need to join any political party they share similar views with. They need to know about local issues, such as housing, schools, under-five centres, community groups or activities, contact direct schools or register local educations, become school governors, also join the local tenant residents association. Be helpful and respectful with local people.

How did you become interested in politics? 
I become interested in local politics first because I was not happy with the people representing me, my views or that of Muslim women/community. I felt left out. So I became a school governor. There are issues that matter not only to the Muslim community but to other local communities too, and as someone who worked locally for a long time, I realised my views matter. So I joined the Labour Party and realised it’s very important for people like me to be in politics to make the difference.

What does your role as Mayor actually entail? 
As Mayor, I am the first citizen of London Borough of Islington. I chair full Council meetings, represent the Council officially in civic duty, as well welcome officials to the London Borough of Islington, including the royal family.

Finally, what local issues will you be championing? 
I will be championing mental health and autism.