Struggle, celebration, and inspiration

20 November 2023

Ashurst PR Manager Varsha Patel leads a discussion about the past, present and future for people of South Asian Heritage in the United Kingdom.

As the episode unfolds, Sunita Harley from Collective Insight and Ashurst colleagues Rabinder Sokhi and Aisha Azim, each share the stories of how their families came to be in the UK.

Together, the women marvel at their parents’ struggles and triumphs; reflect on their own upbringings and careers; and consider the life and career prospects for the next generation coming up behind them.

Their conversation also explores the ongoing challenges of racism, the importance of education, and the need for representation and equality in the workplace. Finally, the group picks out some of their favourite South Asian role models – from famous trailblazers to close family members.


Andy McLean:

Hello and welcome to ESG Matters @ Ashurst.

My name is Andy McLean and, as a longtime producer of Ashurst podcasts, I can promise you this is one of the most enlightening, entertaining, and moving episodes we’ve produced to date.

You’re about to hear a discussion sharing the stories of professionals of South Asian heritage in the UK.

Our four speakers reflect on their South Asian heritage, including their family histories and personal journeys. They explain how they’ve managed the balancing act of existing within two cultures. And they speak with candour about formative experiences growing up in the UK as well as their encounters with racism – not just in the past but in the present day as well.

Together, they talk about embracing their South Asian heritage and celebrating their points of difference in their work life, family life and social life. And they speak passionately about the life and career prospects for the next generation of females of South Asian heritage.

It’s a genuinely fascinating discussion and we can’t wait to share it with you.

To kick off the conversation, host Varsha Patel introduced herself and invited her four guests to do likewise. Let’s hear what they all had to say.

Varsha Patel:

Hi everyone. I'm Varsha. My background is British Indian and I'm a PR manager here at Ashurst. Prior to Ashurst, I was a legal journalist.

Sunita Harley:

Hi everyone. I'm Sunita from Collective Insights. I'm a professional development and inclusion consultant as well as a coach, and I've been working in law firms and with law firms for over 17 years now. And on the Census I tick “British, Asian, other” but I describe myself as a British Mauritian Indian and I'm also happy to be described as a brown woman.

I'm really pleased to be collaborating closely with Ashurst in the UK, designing and delivering a bespoke career development programme. And I'm also delivering the accompanying inclusive leadership programme for partners and managers who lead diverse teams. These programmes are in place to support the retention and the progression of ethnically diverse people. And they were implemented following lots of discussions with Ashurst Ethnicity Network.

Rabinder Sokhi:

Hi everyone, I'm Ravinder. I'm a senior associate transactional lawyer in the Real Estate team in London at Ashurst. Proud to say I've been with Ashurst for 22 years; a long time as everybody says. I identify as British Indian, Sikh by religious background, and I'm second generation in that my parents came to the UK and I'm born and brought up here, as is the rest of my family. I've also been very involved with the coaching programme that Sunita has alluded to. I’m really excited that that's coming to us as I'll be participating and I've helped with the design on that. And over the past few years, I’ve been very engaged and really enjoyed helping to raise awareness of ethnically diverse talent.

Aisha Azim:

Hi everyone. I'm Aisha. I’m a senior business development executive in the corporate practice at Ashurst. I've been at Ashurst for nearly four years now. Previously I worked for other professional services firms, generally in a similar role. My background on paper is “British, Pakistani, Muslim”. My parents were born in Pakistan and have been here for many years, but me and my siblings were all born here and raised here.


Thanks so much for the great introductions and that sounds like a great programme for all of us to be getting involved in later this year. So, as you all know, South Asian Heritage Month was celebrated earlier this year and the theme this time around was “stories to tell”. So, on that note, I'd love to hear a little bit about your stories. So Radinder, I'll come to you first because I know that you've mentioned previously that you recently shared your story with your teammates.


Yeah myself and Dave, a partner in our team, told our stories very much off the cuff one Monday morning to our own colleagues in our team. I'm really glad he encouraged me to do that. I don't forget that. And it was a story about really where I come from, how my parents came to the UK. I am proud to say that I'm from a very strong set of role model parents and much of my story that I told the team that defines me is that it was the legacy of my father, a very strong professional role model. He was the first ethnic minority consultant surgeon in this country at the time in the 1960s. He landed in Scotland, did medicine as many of our community did at the time, qualified in 1963 wearing a turban and a kilt. I love that. That's my fun fact of how, back in the day, our parents broke boundaries to an extent that I really don't think that any of us have had to do.

So they did a lot of hard work and that's really where I come from.


Sunita, how about you?


Well, I definitely resonate with that cultural upbringing of “work hard” ethic, like Radinder and her family. So my parents came over to the UK in the 1970s (as part of a NHS recruitment drive) from Mauritius. Our heritage is around, say, 200 years ago we would've been from India and I believe around South India. So they came over here when they were in their early twenties and basically made their way up into different positions at the NHS. So I'd had semi kind of professional role models, but I've had a real mix of aunties and uncles as well who definitely inspired me.

And I think sometimes I do feel like still the odd one out, even when I'm with my community of South Asian friends because I have that Mauritian heritage, and so it always feels like a bit of a rarity when I come across someone else who's Mauritian. My parents came here quite a long time ago, but they came for, it wasn't as a result of anything, but it was more my, as you'll see in our culture, my dad and my mother got married and they wanted to move over here. So yeah, they got married, they came here. So me and my three other siblings, we were born here, we were raised here. So yeah, there's been lots of, I guess, challenges within that of our generation and then tackling the British culture with it.


I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what were some of the challenges and what are some of your present challenges when you are grappling with two cultures in that way?


When I look back, I definitely had phases where I had white, predominantly white friends, and then I'd go through phase where I had more those in the ethnic minority box. So I think that was probably one of the biggest challenges adjusting to that. When I think about it now, I think one of the biggest challenges I find is the acceptance from society to be able to take both elements from each culture and also ditch some of the elements that you don't like from each culture like we all have without being judged. I'm sure there's lots of things in the British culture, but there are stigmas within the South Asian culture that are there and there might be parts that you don't like, but it's the ability to be able to ditch those parts as well and that be okay within that culture.

So I think as well as you've got the British culture, you're tackling your own culture as well, and the norms within that and the generations within that and them actually judging you as well. So you've got the judgement from both elements. It's not just one.


We're living our lives totally differently to what our parents would've thought even when they came over to Britain. My mum got married very young, and then sometimes she looks at me and she said, you're not married, but yeah, I know, but that's okay. It's totally fine.:

Sunita, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about of the challenges that you faced and are facing?


I think the big challenge growing up was that my school was not ethnically diverse. And actually a couple of months ago I got my long photo out from secondary school, which had literally everyone in the whole secondary school, this is from the 1990s, and my two daughters who were eight and 10, I actually asked them, can you see where mummy is?

And the first thing they said was like, “Wow!” They basically made a comment about it not being very ethnically diverse and they actually started feeling sad for me. Interestingly, yesterday evening my 10-year-old started talking about my school days. She said, “What did you like? What was your favourite school, primary school or secondary school?” And I said, “A bit of both actually”. And then she actually said, “Was anyone racist to you at school?” So again, it makes you realise, gosh, that I, hopefully my daughters will have different experiences to me

But the challenge of experiencing racism in the school at a young age, in the primary school I went to. Luckily I did have a teacher who dealt with it; who dealt with the comment and was an ally and made me feel safe and supported.

But I think it's an ongoing challenge. And I think growing up what really did help was that I had a lot of contact with my cousin who is also Mauritian descent. And so I always had contact with my aunties and uncles. We would have little kind of discos at our house with lots of Mauritian music. But I still don't ever remember coming across anyone who was of my particular heritage, like Mauritian and South Asian, in our area. So I think, yeah, lots of challenges. And I think for me, a word that comes up is like “Learning”. I'm constantly learning about my culture, which I absolutely love.


Thank you. It's fascinating listening to your stories and I've just found myself nodding and smiling. What were the challenges [for me] looking back?

Very similar to Sunita and Aisha. I think as described back in the day, navigating two cultures trying to fit in. I think being very proud of my own cultural heritage. We heard a lot at home: “Remember who you are, remember where you come from, you look different, you'll have to work harder”. All of the messages that our parents at the time gave, “Educate yourselves. No one can take that away from you”. I know that you all resonate with that as well, but it was retaining that, dealing with, again, “What will people think?” Particularly as a female of the South Asian cultures. [It’s] progressing now, but there are still some traditional deep-rooted, stereotypical roles expected, particularly of our mothers’ generations.

And I come from a very patriarchal family, so it was for me, “How can I do the right thing and gain the approval of the elders?” Much of it was the respect of the elders for me and be the “good girl” for my parents and my culture. But at the same time, how can I navigate being part of the British culture? And as you both described, having white friends at school and wanting to be part of the British culture at a time where it just wasn't [as common]. As things now are.I think one gets more comfortable as one gets older.

What am I dealing with now? I have a seven-year-old boy and I like to think I've been on a journey. I like to think we've all been on a journey. Now it's about combining the best of both worlds. How can I raise a seven-year-old to know who he is?

That's hard for the second, third generation little boy being brought up here and how can he also take the good of British culture? And I asked him on his way to school today, “What do you think about being British and Indian? Is it good?” And he said, “It's great. It is great”. He can't articulate why it's great right now, but I thought, that's nice. That's how it should be.

He'll have things that he has to challenge. But for me it's about, it's my responsibility to try to retain the good of our culture for him, try to reflect back on my journey and see how he goes.


That's so encouraging to hear as well. If my mum asked me on the way to school, I probably would've shied away like, “Oh no, I don't want to be Indian”, or “I don't like that” because even though I grew up in an area where it was predominantly South Asian families, I still wasn't totally comfortable with it until well past university, I think. So it's such a difference. It’s really just heartwarming to hear.


Can I just add as well, Varsha, before you move on, because I think it's important as well with people thinking about who's going to listen to this, about the amount of maybe racism that there was at that time and how brutal it was not just in our time, but also our parents’ time.

I've had instances, I actually mean this is more religious. I chose to wear a head scarf, at one point in school, and I got to ripped off me in front of everyone. So that's just an example.

I think now we're still very much battling that, but I think because of things like this podcast and we're teaching children, there's lots of the diversity now; and networks throughout companies, etc. So the education piece is a lot better, but I think it's just important to flag how difficult it was then to combine the cultures because of the racial hate we would get.

And I'm sure we could sit here for hours, people share their stories, but even if we were to look back at our other generations, how even more difficult it was for them.


Yeah, I think it's so important just to be honest about that as well, because I think when people think of South Asian culture and all the positive, vibrant things that we have, there'll be certain things that people think of. People will connect with the food or the films or the influence on fashion worldwide that I think it's so important, Aisha, that you've talked about this.

I think it's really important to use this podcast as an opportunity to remind people that racism is very real and it's very now. Even just last Sunday, the “P word” was used with me as I walked down a street in a very well-to-do affluent area in London. And interestingly, my husband, when I told my husband, he said, “Did anyone stop and see if you're okay?” I said, “Actually, no. But I knew that I had to just remove myself from that person as soon as possible”. So I think it's an opportunity for people to reflect that racism is real and it still turns up in lots of different kind of shapes and sizes and forms.


Yeah, I think our parents didn't have to stay here and they were facing all of that at the very start of their journey in this country. The fact that you sort of know they did that for us and for us to have the lives that we have now. So it's such a crucial point to underline there. And yeah, I think it's harder nowadays to explain the racism than we have. So it's not always as outward as maybe our parents and family would've experienced. It's a bit more difficult to explain it to someone. When you feel like you are being looked at in a particular way or something was said to you in a certain tone. And I know people from all cultures and all backgrounds can relate to this. But yeah, it’s definitely still a tough one for everybody, I think.

So we obviously spoke about some of the harder aspects of our culture and they’re really important to underline. Now I'd love to switch a little bit to see when did we start celebrating that culture? And we'll start with you, Rabinder. When did you start embracing your South Asian heritage and is it something you think that you get better at as time goes on?


My immediate answer to that would've been, “I've always celebrated my cultural heritage. I'm so proud of who I am, the background I have, what my mum and dad taught me”. But actually particularly since the dialogue has started over the past few years, I talk about when I spoke about my story to the team, perhaps it was, I tell myself now – it was only really about three years ago, partly because of telling the story in the workplace, partly because friends started talking to myself and my husband a little bit more about who we are.

Friends used to say, “But we don't see you as different”. And we found ourselves saying, “But there is a difference and it's a good thing that you need to see it”. So I think actually for me, I think it was only about three years ago when the world started talking more. I think that now I look back it made me without realising, feel more comfortable talking as we are today.

I can't imagine doing what we’re doing today 10 years ago. So it’s really very recent for me. I look back now again. I'm a Brummie. I had a big fat Asian wedding – everything that everybody imagines – nearly 20 years ago. We all should celebrate who we are. In our culture comes chaos and [we should] embrace it, see it and enjoy it.


Aisha, you've also come to embrace the chaos that comes with your culture, haven’t you.


So I think that's definitely happened over time and yeah, I've just learned to embrace it all, including the chaos as Rabinder said. But I also think, looking back, it's a natural progression, there's a number of things that happen with that. As I said, you become more confident and you find your voice. And I'm almost feel now, in the place I am at, I feel very much that I should be a voice of the voiceless. And because we are very privileged. We have maybe a British privilege of being in this country [albeit with those challenges and complaints we have], there's also lots of benefits. We have to be able to use our voice where, in other places, they can't. And we need to be a voice for them.


And Sunita we’ve not come to you yet but I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this too.


So thinking about when I started to become proud, I think I always loved the Indian clothes that I had access to growing up, but I think you definitely would've felt self-conscious when you went out into even just into the car to go off to your family gathering in Bristol or Wood Green.

But I think now I'm absolutely embracing it. So even in my work life, I actually find any opportunity to wear Indian clothes. So I took it upon myself to always be proud of my culture and always find opportunities to be doing things that are very Mauritian or known for being Mauritian. And then interestingly, for my dissertation at university, I actually studied the influence of Black music on the identities of young South Asian women because I was a big fan and champion of Black music at the time.

I was one of the few South Asian female DJs at the time. And I think again, it just made me realise that I had the benefit of tapping into lots of different things growing up here.

I think the opportunity to celebrate my culture through my kids is amazing. I actually keep magazines which have a South Asian woman on the front of them. So whether it's Anita Rani and any of the new South Asian models, because I want [my kids] to have that connection. And when we are out and about, they often spot, “Oh look, mommy, there's someone who looks like you” because I my skin is darker than theirs. And I actually want them to be quite open about that. I want them to be comfortable about skin tone and that people look different.

And [my kids] also know that I used to work in fashion. I was one of the few South Asian models in fashion in the late nineties, early two thousands. And thinking about what you said, Aisha, actually I felt a massive responsibility to represent. So I never felt like a token. And even to this day when I'm on executive teams and you might be one of the few with regards to your heritage or your gender, I always feel actually I've got responsibility to represent. I don't see it as tokenism. I actually see it as representing.


I always say, “I think I did my law degree 90% for my parents and maybe 10% for myself”. And that's probably reflected now in the fact that I'm not a lawyer! So I’m glad I went against it a little bit. But I'd love to hear a little bit more about how you navigated those career choices as South Asian women and how you feel the working world is better or not better for South Asian women coming up behind you. Aisha, what do you think?


Obviously there's been lots of changes, there's no doubt about that, but it still baffles me to be honest, that still till this day we are still fighting pay gaps or to have fair promotions, whether it be through gender or ethnicity. We're still fighting for there to be enough representation.

We work for Ashurst and it's great and doing all these things and we know they've got a lot of objectives to have certain goals and certain amount of people of ethnic minorities within the firm, which is great. But it's the fact that as a firm, they're not the only one, but they're still tackling this till this day. So there's obviously still something wrong.

There's enough people out there that are educated, but we're still in this rut. And that does worry me sometimes: Will it ever change? Will it be something that will always be there? Will we always have to fight? I think “Yes” is my honest answer. Will it become a bit easier? Yeah, but I think we will always fight for that. So I think that is an obstacle.

We just have to prepare ourselves to continue to be, like I said, a voice and continue to battle this of being from a South Asian heritage. And on top of that, a female.


What’s your take, Rabinder?


I know that I am one of the few South Asian senior lawyers at Ashurst. I'm visibly different, as we've all said. For the generations to follow us, it’s something we need to embrace. There will be a difference. It's a career where you slowly have to realise that you need to showcase your own skills and your own talent. It's not good enough to work really hard and do really good work, but people around you have to know that. That's a tricky one. When you're growing up in a dual culture as we've described, you don't even realise that the voice is always there.

Perhaps it gets suppressed. I don't really know, but that's where I'm heading towards now. Needless to say, we have some great programmes coming up. I hope that will help those that need it to find their voice. For me where I am now, I feel a huge responsibility and that I know I can represent. I know I can be the role model, the female, the South Asian senior lawyer at Ashurst – and a mum – and I'm proud of all of that. How can I encourage and inspire those coming up behind me the way I do it now, the way I've always done it? Now, like I say, I'm proud to say that I'm surrounded by some really strong relationships at all levels in the firm.


I had a very quick final question for you all. So I'll go to Sunita first. Do you have any South Asian role models yourself?


Oh, brilliant. I think one of my first one that comes to mind is my Aunty Betty who lives in Mauritius. She shared her story with me when her and my uncle came over here and she's navigated lots of different things, but I also see her as a bit of a fashion icon. And I do feel that one of her sari she'd have been in the exhibition on Friday.

And then I think someone a bit more well-known is Mira Sethi because she was definitely the first British South Asian author that I came across. I just remember the feeling of just getting hold of her book – it was just that incredible. I couldn't believe it. It was the first time I actually had access to a book written by someone who's British South Asian that wasn't about Gandhi for example, or history.

And I also remember when she first appeared on BBC. And [the TV comedy] Goodness Gracious Me – one of my cousins still does that “Check please” joke!

Or even I'd say it to myself, Indian, which represents actually anything that can be South Asian. I still do that. So when I think the spaceship went up on the moon recently, again, there was that joke about, “Oh, Indians on the moon”. And I think, yeah, it’s just such a great legend.

But I think there's so many more people that I could mention. I think we've got amazing role models in the legal industry as well at all different levels, whether it's the apprentices, the trainees, the associates, business services experts. We are really showing how actually we can be in lots of different careers, which is amazing.


Oh, [my role model] is going to be really corny, but it has to be my mum, for many reasons. As I explained before, my mum and dad got married, they’re both educated. Dad came here and worked in education and he's still working now. My mum came here, she had I think a BA in economics and something else. She came here, became a teacher. And at that time it was very much “the women run the household” as well. So my mum was working and raising four children.

I feel like she broke a bit of the barriers in the sense she was always very much about not just keeping us tight within the community. Even small things like going on holiday, taking us out, wearing different clothes, having parties, birthday parties with your friends that are outside of your community. All these little things that maybe seem small that I'm sure you'll understand that at that time it was very closed.

So my mom was very much being out in the community. I think probably education did help with that because of the language barrier. Again, why probably education is so big for our families. So yeah, it has to be. My mom, she's always tried to embrace both cultures and not keep us so tightly knit into one that's made probably our life a bit easier in terms of being able to adjust. It's actually brought a few other challenges about where the challenges actually within our own culture because I'm not seen to be doing the norm, but in the boundaries of what our culture were seen as normal.

So yeah, I think she's always battled through to ensure we have the benefit of both cultures and a good life and has worked hard and really persevered to make sure we're in a good school, in a good area, which they are now. And then she really fought for that. My dad of course as well, he is where she came here, that AC company. But I think just at that time women were very much more involved in bringing the children. So she really persevered to make sure we have all these things in our place. So I think I am where I am because of her.


That's a hard act to follow! I feel quite emotional. Our mothers; we're everything because of them. I am who I am because of my role model parents. I lost my dad 20 years ago, but my mum is still with us and she is sort of like Aisha described. She's been carrying out her traditional role in the generation before us. And also now I look at it trying to be the more progressive voice on how to balance both cultures. I see her more now. Again, going back to my little boy to try to balance the culture. She's very much the guiding light on that. She's amazing.

As Sunita said, there are so many people that you could pick now. It's so good to be able to say that. For me, when I really thought about it, my answer here, it goes to education again, it's everything I am. It's everything that my family is, it's the key to our communities. Something that can't be taken away and it's the key to progression of particularly South Asian females I think.

And so I picked Malala Yousafzai. This is a younger role model for me. So it does show that you can look at those, the younger, not just those older as role models, which is great for me. I don't know her personally. I do have friends who do know her, but she came from extreme trauma. She actually landed and ended up at my school in Birmingham, maybe I feel an affinity that way. And now we see her in the public eye just advocating for education and retaining her visible cultural identity. I was always brought up, keep your character, remember who you are. Much of that is visible for me. I think that embodies everything that I've heard growing up.


Well, I think that's a really lovely note to end on, guys. So thank you so much and thanks for joining the podcast.


Thank you.


Thank you.


Thanks so much. That was brilliant, by the way. Oh my gosh.


I’m getting a bit emotional, everyone.


Yeah, that was really interesting talking about our moms. It's made me emotional too!

Andy McLean:

Thank you for listening to this episode of ESG Matters @ Ashurst.

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Thanks again for listening, and goodbye for now.

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