Women Bringing About Change Without Hate

On the subject of women who lead by example, who bring about change, who break the status quo, who make people take notice…And she doesn’t even hate her religion or Muslims. Go figure!

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The women won it
Salma Yaqoob
May 13, 2006 08:28 AM

Last week a little piece of history was made in Sparkbrook as I was elected to serve as Respect’s first Birmingham city councillor. For Respect, it was an important breakthrough. But it was significant too that I became the only female Muslim councillor in the city.

This was a small step to the left in a city where too many people turned to the far right. Not for Nick Cohen, who sees only “…a slice of the electorate in a poor part of Britain that is so lost in identity politics and victimhood that it will vote for those who stoke their rage, no matter how worthless they are.” This bigoted perception of Muslims has nothing in common with the realities of our lives or our struggles.

When the ballots were counted, we had polled nearly 50% of the vote and won with the third highest vote in the city. It was a crushing defeat for my opponents. It was only possible because we challenged the traditional conservatism that denies leading public positions to women, and challenged the old order, which treats our communities as silent voting fodder. And it was only possible because we united people around a progressive message of anti-racism and social justice.

While Birmingham has a large and very politically engaged Muslim community, its representatives are exclusively male, largely convinced that this is the right and natural order of things, and very determined to maintain the status quo. Gender played an important role in my election victory.

For my opponents, it was a point of attack. Representatives of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats pandered to conservative attitudes within the Muslim community about the position of women. At election meetings and polling booths, Lib Dem and Labour activists urged Muslim men not to vote for a woman because it was “un-Islamic”. The fact that I had not adopted my husband’s surname was evidence of me being insufficiently subservient. Instead of serious engagement with the issues, smears about my commitment to my family as a mother, daughter and wife abounded. The “dishonour” of even being challenged by a woman, and the precedent that this might set, ensured that local Lib Dem and Tory supporters worked behind the scenes to support the sitting Labour councillor.

What became clear to me, however, was that while such views might find favour with some more elderly and religiously conservative layers in the community, the women were having none of it. Time after time, I knocked on households with “Vote Labour” posters to be told by the women of the house “our dad is Labour, but you’ve got our vote”. Groups of Muslim women, armed with clipboards and Respect rosettes, pounded the streets and canvassed their sisters. On polling day, Respect was the only party with a visible female presence at the polling stations.

And, it should be said, Respect had the only visible white presence at the polling stations as well. For ours was a campaign that placed unity in pursuit of progressive objectives above who you know, whose family you are close to, or which mainstream party you can sell your principles to for the greatest personal reward.

What I saw in our campaign was a new confidence, pride and unity from all sections of our community. This confidence was most pronounced among women. But Nick Cohen sees only “Islamists”, “victimhood”, “identity politics”, and “rage”. He purports to direct his fire against Respect. But his contempt for the 4,339 people who voted for me is obvious

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