The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cherie’s sari salve on Blair bruises

London, May 9: This is one engagement that Cherie Blair keeps whatever the circumstances, and last night, for the fourth successive year, the Prime Minister’s wife turned up at the Asian Women of Achievement Awards in London.

“She has been very supportive from the beginning and it’s more than lip service,” said Pinky Lilani, the main organiser and chairman of the ceremony.

Mrs Blair’s presence — she doubled up last night as Cherie Booth, QC — will do something to compensate for her husband’s current poor standing among Asians in general and Muslim Asians in particular. By and large, they did not support his decision to go to war with Iraq and quite a few just cannot wait for the general election.

However, Cherie, dressed as she tends to be on these occasions by her favourite British Asian designer, Babs Mahil, was among friends last night.

She wore what looked like a cream organza sari with matching full-sleeve blouse, set off with a bindi and a dangling diamond drop on her forehead.

Mahil — she also made Tony Blair’s dark Nehru jacket for him when he last visited India — told The Telegraph today that it wasn’t really a sari “but a fishtail skirt, with a pallu attached to make it look like a sari”.

Presenting one of the awards, Cherie said: “Can I say how delighted I’m to be here yet again at these marvellous awards, (which are) getting bigger and bigger.”

Surveying the 700 guests in the packed Ball Room of the Hilton in Park Lane, she went on: “It’s absolutely fantastic. The reason why people are here tonight is because they, like I am, are so proud of what we do here in Britain to celebrate a multicultural community. The fact we can all get here together and celebrate these achievements of so many different Asian women from all sectors of society, celebrating their differences and their achievements, is absolutely fantastic.”

She added: “Of course, everyone knows that the one area that is so important to mothers and fathers are the professions.” Last night, there was an impressive collection of nominees and winners, indicating Asian women are rising to the top in banking, science, medicine, the media, the caring services and other fields.

Although not all the women were Muslim, there was a fair proportion of them, Lilani said. Lilani, who can probably count Cherie as something more than just a useful political contact, disclosed: “The first year, she came to the Asian Women of Achievement Awards as a guest. Then, I asked her to be a patron and she has come since. She gets so many requests and can accept only a small percentage. I think she really believes in women’s issues.”

This endorsement might come in handy. Come the general election, Cherie may prove more than useful to her husband. In the local elections on May 1, the “Brummie bounce” saw Labour lose control in cities such as Birmingham which have large Muslim electorates.

Muslim women, especially those highly placed in the professions, do have some influence, although Lilani complained their opinions are seldom canvassed.

Among last night’s nominees and winners — for example, Nabila Sadiq (Business Woman of the Year — Corporate), Roohi Hasan (Media Professional of the Year), Professor Faraneh Vargha-Khadem (Professional of the Year) — Muslim women were clearly more than well represented. “The stereotype of Muslim women as second-class citizens is not correct,” said Lilani.

“Women get on with life and are keen to put something back into Britain,” added Lilani, whose own expertise lies in teaching individuals and corporate clients how to cook Indian food properly. “The problem is that the media gives too much time to unrepresentative imams in the mosques,” she argued.

The Arts & Culture Award did not go to film director Gurinder Chadha — perhaps she has collected too many already after her worldwide triumph with Bend It Like Beckham — but to Tanika Gupta, a playwright known for contemporary British Asian works such as The Sanctuary.

Chadha did not leave empty handed — the film director received the chairman’s award.

In some respects, Lilani acknowledged a little sadly, Asian women were no different from their English counterparts. Many had given priority to their professional careers, which had meant in some cases marriages had suffered and in other cases remained a distant prospect.

“I have noticed over the years, few of the winners have ever thanked their husbands in their acceptance speeches,” observed Lilani, though she thanked her own husband for 25 years of loyal support.

“Quite a lot of Asian women now put off having children till late in life,” she said. “Others say they are so busy they have no time for relationships. Privately, though, when they get to 34 or 35, they tell me they would be very happy to meet a man.”

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