UK: 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.
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.
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.
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.
Source: Guardian (English)