When politics met personality and prowess

When politics met personality and prowess

When politics met personality and prowess

Brouhaha there may be in India over the women’s bill, but one lady in Leicester has been quietly carving a niche for herself in the world of politics. Meet Indian-born Manjula Sood, who became Britain’s first Asian woman mayor when she took up the post in Leicester city almost two years ago.

Sood was born in Ludhiana and she received her education there at Jain High School and Government College. She graduated in English and Politics and obtained an MA (with distinction) in sociology. She also began a PhD project in association with John Hopkins University in the United States, but marriage and the move to Leicester prevented its completion.

Sood arrived in a cold and snowy Leicester in December 1970. The change was so dramatic that she wanted to return home. She telephoned her grandfather and he told her, “Leicester is your home. I have given you education, go and get some training and find a job.” This she did. From January 1971, she trained as a primary schoolteacher at Leicester University. In January 1973, she joined East Park Primary School, teaching there for 12 years before moving to Spinney Hills Primary School.
She was a pioneer in multi-cultural education in the city and county, but was forced to retire from teaching due to ill-health in 1991.

When politics beckoned
In 1996, Sood’s life changed again. Her husband Paul died suddenly. Paul Sood had served as a City Councillor since 1982 and his widow, who had long been active in the local Labour party, was asked to succeed him. At the by-election, she was duly elected as Councillor for the Abbey Ward, representing it until 2003. In that year, she was elected Councillor for the Latimer Ward, which includes Belgrave Road and Leicester’s Golden Mile.

As a long-serving City Councillor, Sood has served on many major Council Committees. She was Vice-Chair of the committees on education, health and social services and later Chair of the Health Commission. She was voted the Leicestershire and Rutland Woman of the Year in 2006 and she also chaired the women’s project Naari LETS, which inspires women to exchange skills. Sood was also Britain’s first Asian woman high bailiff.
In May 2008, Councillor Sood was installed as Mayor of Leicester. Sood became Leicester’s 550th Mayor. She hopes fervently that she is not the last Asian woman Lord Mayor in the country.

Sood is proud of her Indian identity and values. When she arrived in Leicester in the seventies, it was not as multi-cultural as it is today. Sood recounts an incident that occurred when she moved with her family to a predominantly white part of Leicester in 1975. Her four-year-old son was taunted about his colour by his nursery classmates, one of whom was a boy who lived next door. Sood immediately took her son to see the boy and his mother. In a measured tone, Sood explained to the boy’s mother that she and her Hindu family did not present a challenge to the neighbourhood, adding “We’re neighbours — wouldn’t it be nice to live together?” A few minutes later, the boys were playing in the back garden.

Although that incident took place more than three decades ago, it is etched on Sood’s memory as a crucial chapter in the story of how her family settled into life in Leicester. She explains her pragmatic approach “The way to solve problems is through communication, tolerance and treating people how you’d like to be treated. The mother said it was fear of the unknown that had stopped her letting her son play with mine. Someone had to take the first step.” 

Sood’s one-year term as Lord Mayor ended in 2009. Not one to rest on her laurels, she played a key role in organising the Special Olympic games in Leicester last July. Currently, the MBE awardee is helping to lead a campaign to increase organ donation in ethnic communities. There’s no stopping this lady.