• Women
  • April 24, 2010
  • 12 minutes read

Respect candidate spearheads quiet revolution to get Muslim women involved in politics

Respect candidate spearheads quiet revolution to get Muslim women involved in politics

Drums, loudhailers, chanting slogans. It is a very old-fashioned kind of politics that can be heard on the high street in Kings Heath, Birmingham.

But Salma Yaqoob, the prospective parliament candidate at the centre of the hubbub, represents a quiet revolution. “Bankers bailed out, people sold out,” she shouts into the loudhailer outside the banks. The passing cars sound their horns in support.

She is the most prominent Muslim woman in British public life. She wears a headscarf, a powerful symbol of a faith she has accommodated with her passionate leftwing politics. She is standing as a candidate for the tiny and fractured Respect party.

In some streets around the new constituency of Hall Green, her poster is on every window. Since her narrow defeat for Westminster in 2005, she has built up support through her work as a local councillor, as well as building a national profile through her appearances on BBC’s Question Time.

She might just topple Labour from a seat in an area which, in 1997, it counted as one of its safest. Boundary changes have brought much of the old Sparkbrook and Small Heath constituency (Labour majority: 19,526) into the new Hall Green.

Yaqoob is one of a small group who has a good chance of making history as one of the first British Muslim women MPs. Her result is looking close, while across Birmingham, Shabana Mahmood is fighting Clare Short’s old seat, Ladywood. In Bolton South, Yasmin Qureshi inherits a big Labour majority, and Rushanara Ali could well take the Bethnal Green seat back for Labour. Yaqoob’s headscarf at Westminster may prompt a few headlines – both here and abroad – but few will fully grasp the small revolution these women are spearheading in these communities, and how they are introducing to British electoral politics a constituency of Muslim women, many of whom don’t speak English and were in previous elections confined to the backroom, the private family areas of the house, whenever canvassers or candidates came to the doorstep.

Back on the high street in Kings Heath, the noisy protesters crowding around the diminutive figure of Yaqoob are furious. Gurt Singh has been running a steel and timber yard all his life, but he has had to put his 10 staff on a three-day week to avoid redundancies. “I reckon I have only a few months left. I can’t get credit from the bank.”

Essa Altaf is equally outraged. A property developer, he has had to lay off eight men. “I don’t want to lay off any more, I have morals. I know redundancy affects a whole family and then the whole community. Why do I have morals, and the banks don’t?”

By now I am surrounded by men who all run small businesses in the building industry all telling a bitter story of the recession. The boom in this area of Birmingham has always been fragile and the recession hit quickly and hard. Jobs are the biggest subject on the doorstep, says Yaqoob. She knows well that the issues, even at national elections, are local: jobs, schools, antisocial behaviour, police, housing. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars rarely come up, she says – the surge in anti-war sentiment, which helped her in 2005, is unlikely to feature this time round. Constituents’ economic security is far more pressing.

What will help Yaqoob is that her Labour opponent, Roger Godsiff, who has held the seat since 1992, has been badly damaged by the expenses scandal. His second-home claims were among the highest in England, and despite charging £163,885 to the taxpayer in 2007-08, last year he spoke in only five debates and voted in 56% of divisions.

Yaqoob was wooed by Labour after 2005.She acknowledges that “My values are traditional Labour, but New Labour has gone to the right”. She was even courted by the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, a tribute to her rare capacity for fair-minded plain speaking, most evident in her Question Time appearance earlier this year, at Wootton Bassett, when she earned respect for her handling of questions about British soldiers killed in Afghanistan, a war she opposes.

But she has stuck with Respect, despite its internal disputes, since 2005, and is probably now better known than her party. She is accused by prominent Labour and Liberal Democrat Muslims of “leading the community into a “cul-de-sac” but defends her politics vigorously.

“I couldn’t speak like I do if I was in Labour. I’m not here as a career politician, but because I want to offer an alternative to the neo-liberal model, which is patently failing. I now punch above my weight, working with other parties and influencing them. I want to try and open the space for discussion and debate, which is crucial right now, and nudge Labour into a more principled position.”

She says she won’t “make a tactic into a principle”, clearly indicating that she would come back to Labour on the right terms. In the meantime, her gamble to be her own woman and to speak her mind without having to submit to party discipline is surviving against all the odds. A recent independent assessment argued that she is among Birmingham’s three most influential councillors.

Ironically, her toughest battles are probably within the Muslim community. Contrary to assumptions that this is where the core of her support lies, she has had to pick her way very carefully through the sensitivities of conservatives within her community. The old Sparkbrook and Small Heath had the highest number of Muslim votes of any constituency in the country, and many of them are now in Yaqoob’s patch.

“I’ve had death threats and criticism that I support gays – because I have a clear anti-discrimination position – and there have been claims that it is haram [forbidden in Islam] to vote for women. People say to me, ‘Have you no shame?’ and they accuse me of immodesty and ask my husband why he lets me speak in public. It’s still an uphill struggle.”

But she has been winning even her fiercest critics round. “Some people who made out fatwas against voting for a woman have now been saying that I’m the right candidate. I have been invited into mosques – some of which don’t even have facilities for women to pray – to give the Friday sermons.”

Yaqoob is well aware that she is a challenge to traditional Muslim political culture – not just because she is a woman, but because she is not afraid to speak her mind. She has openly criticised the way the postal vote has been misused in Birmingham to strengthen the traditional biraderi – clan affiliations. In practice, what this means is that a community fixer will offer a party hundreds of votes in return for favours.

She recognises that many non-Muslim voters can feel threatened by her as a Muslim. “I’m between a rock and a hard place,” she says. “I have to jump hurdles because of the way I look. Firstly, I have to make it clear that I don’t support terrorism, secondly, that I’m British, thirdly, that I don’t just lobby for Muslims and lastly, that I’m not a Trojan horse for sinister Islamist plots.

“People still question me about the hijab as a symbol of oppression. I try to stay patient and build a relationship of trust. For a real discussion, people have to be able to hear each other: someone has to pull the barriers down. People have a genuine fear, and you need to deal with it or you are dehumanising them – it won’t just go away.”

Her training as a psychotherapist clearly influences how she understands political conflict and how she is still able to deal patiently with questions faced since she first went to university more than 20 years ago. It makes her voice distinctive in public life – and it’s easy to see why she’s clocked up five appearances on Question Time, the showcase for aspiring politicians.

The key factor benefiting Yaqoob is the decline of the close bond between Muslims and Labour, which has defined the politics of the Muslim community for two generations. Disillusion with foreign policy, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on domestic economic issues, is likely to slash the Muslim votes in Birmingham.

While Labour’s successes in Birmingham in the past 13 years are evident in the city centre – the newly redeveloped Bullring shopping centre with its iconic architecture, for example – it’s a model of urban regeneration, which hasn’t percolated through to the neighbouring Victorian terraced streets, where shops and businesses are closing down.

A younger generation of educated Muslims no longer demonstrates the expected deference to the “village elders”, who once directed the family and delivered a bloc vote for Labour. Some are impressed by the Conservatives’ emphasis on family values, hard work and responsibility – it is a message that has appealed to successful immigrant communities in the past. This election will almost certainly see the arrival of the first Conservative Muslim MPs: men have been selected for Bromsgrove and Stratford-upon-Avon, two safe Conservative seats in the West Midlands.

Even in Ladywood, the Conservatives smell the possibility of giving Labour a run for their money. David Cameron made an appearance in the constituency last weekend. The Conservative candidate, Nusrat Ghani, also a Muslim, and Mahmood both grew up in this area of Birmingham. Both can call on the family connections vital to winning votes. Mahmood’s father is the chair of the Birmingham Labour party.

Both are able to get beyond the “front room campaigning” of previous elections; candidates and canvassers sit in family sitting rooms and are served delicious tea spiced with green cardamom, while the conversations run on in Urdu or Mirpuri. The questions here are about family and which village the candidate is “from” back in Pakistan. There is no mistaking the pride and delight among these women to see a female candidate.

“My generation had a much more traditional life and you listened to your husband on who to vote for, but my daughters have a completely different outlook,” says Maqsood Bibi through a translator. “It’s a good thing for women to come forward so that it is not just men in politics. As a Muslim, I believe God gives you, as a woman, the same rights as he gives to the men. So why shouldn’t you become an MP?”

Along the street, Gulshan Begum was even more forthright. “My generation of women are often illiterate and we need women in power to support us.”

Their generation has waited a long time for the moment when this may finally come true.