'˜You shouldn't hold back because you're female and Asian' - The youngest politician at Chorley Council caught up with the Guardian to talk NHS cuts, Muslim women in the public eye and how she's been inspired by her mother
By day she works at the coalface of the NHS, and in her spare time Zara Khan is a passionate campaigner for '¨our health service and it's importance.
This fierce campaigning spirit was what took Zara into politics, to become the youngest councillor on Chorley Council.
The 22-year-old has now graduated with a BSE in Adult Nursing at The University of Central Lancashire and has started work at Royal Preston Hospital.
Zara now works in obstetrics helping deal with the more complicated situations arising at childbirth.
She said: “I’m responsible for the equipment being used during procedures.
“Until I’m fully aware of what I’m doing I’ll do that. They give you months, so you feel well supported before you start.
“Its been intense, especially because of the shifts, they’re quite long - 8am-6pm.
“Depending what the complication is you can be up on your feet in that theatre until you’ve got baby out safely and mum’s ready to go back or sometimes you have nothing. Its like they say, feast or famine.”
But despite the long hours on her feet Zara says she is happy in her new role.
“I really do enjoy it and the team’s great as well. I feel so well looked after, you spend more time with your colleagues than you do with your family.”
Being based at home with her parents has been a huge help for Zara both while working towards her qualification and in helping her to manage her long working hours.
“I’m really well supported at home, I’m so lucky,” she says.
“When I started my training I used to hear it a lot – the NHS works off goodwill and I do believe it.
“If people weren’t passionate about what they did they just wouldn’t do it. It’s hard work and you’re constantly fighting against less money and less staff while trying to deliver a better service.”
Asked what less money and fewer staff looks like in practice Zara says that staffing has a direct impact on patient care.
She cites the declining funding for adult social care as something that she has particularly noticed.
“There’s no capacity, the budget for adult social care is dropping so fast that when people come to hospital they don’t leave for months.
“I used to have a patient who had been in for eight months – he wasn’t waiting for treatment, everything had been sorted neurosurgically within weeks.
“He was just waiting for someone to go so that he could move into a home because he wouldn’t have been able to manage alone. That’s happening everywhere, for instance at New Year’s Eve when 85 people were waiting at Preston A&E – you can’t just magic up beds.”
It’s campaigning to protect the NHS that is one of the things Zara is so keen to do. Elected in May 2016 as a Labour councillor for Chorley East and as Young People’s Champion at Chorley Council she is also keen to see more youngsters engage in politics.
Reflecting back to canvassing for local elections Zara says: “When I started I just thought it was the most embarrassing thing in the world – knocking on doors and saying, ‘have you got a minute’?
But Zara says she got over her sense of self-consciousness by actively changing her mindset.
“Literally I just changed my attitude towards it, I just thought I’ve got to do it,” she says.
Zara also stresses that voting locally is key in affecting the day by day decisions that make a difference.
“I didn’t know how politics worked locally but now I know how it has an effect when people don’t vote. For instance we’re getting new bins in Chorley, people don’t realise that if they don’t vote they don’t have a say where the council’s money goes so really small day to day things such as how often bins are emptied or how good the street lighting is or how clean the streets are, this is all taxpayers’ money.”
It was her mum who got Zara into politics. Coun Hasina Khan represents Chorley East for Labour on the borough’s authority.
“My mum did the coolest thing ever,” says Zara.
“In our community women are the home makers so if you go on and work it can be a bit of a taboo.
“She’s a big source of inspiration to me because she always told me ‘you can do whatever you want, there’s no pressure.’ Had my mum not done it I think it would be a lot more difficult for me.
“She was the first Asian woman around here who had done that. The family was really good, really supportive but some people thought ‘that’s not a woman’s place’ and what’s the need for her to go out and earn when she’s got a husband that earns but I think my mum wanted to do something for herself and I’m so proud of her.”
Zara told the Guardian that there is a certain order that her friends are expected to follow in life. After school it’s collage and maybe university to get a degree. But after that the next stage is to get married and most of her friends will live with their parents until they enter into wedlock.
In fact one of her friends who is 24 is really feeling the pressure to find a husband.
Zara says: “How do you explain to a best friend that you are valued and you are enough and you are whole without being married or in a relationship?
“There’s so much to do and see there’s so much to work on within yourself before any of that. Marriage doesn’t necessarily make you happy you have to be happy before you meet someone otherwise what can you bring to that relationship.”
Although Zara concedes that her mother has helped make the path smoother for her to enter into politics she still wants to challenge other young Muslim women to chase their aspirations in life.
“Go out and do what makes them happy,” she says.
“If it means getting a bit of cultural backlash, don’t worry because the thing is people can speak either way.
“Sometimes it is hard to get up and take the first step.
“But if you don’t try you won’t know how successful you’re going to be but you should never hold back because you’re female or certainly not because you’re Asian because I think we’ve moved past that.
“You don’t know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.”