The general elections in the UK which were held on 7th May proved to be disastrous for parties to the left of centre with the sole exception of the Scottish National Party (SNP). But for British Muslims it was a night of considerable satisfaction as they can now boast of 13 members in the House of Commons, up from eight in 2010. It is revealing here to note that out of the 13, as many as eight are women, most of them in their 30s or early 40s.
Out of the 13, as many as 10 are of Pakistani origin and almost all are from backgrounds that could not be described as privileged. Where they stand today is therefore a testimony to their hard work and the devotion with which they have pursued their goals in life.
Perhaps the most astounding story is that of Naseem Shah, popularly known as Naz Shah, who beat the formidable George Galloway of the Respect Party to gain the Bradford West seat for Labour by a thumping majority of 11,420 votes.
As a child, Naz saw her mother being horribly abused by her father. At the age of 15, Naz was packed off to Pakistan and had to undergo a forced marriage with another man who, she claimed, abused her too. She came back to the UK and gained a divorce. Cracking under the prolonged abuse she had suffered, one day her mother made samosas for her father which were laced with poison. The father died and her mother was sent to prison originally for 20 years but later reduced to 12 by the Lord Chief Justice in recognition of the horrific abuse she had suffered. Yet, it was 14 years before she was finally released.
While her mother was in prison, Naz did small jobs while at the same time campaigning for her mother’s release. One day, while visiting her in prison, her mother said how nice it would be if some day Naz could become a prison governor to help women like her. Naz decided then that without empowerment she would not be able to do anything. Years later, when she won the parliamentary nomination for Bradford West, she went straight home to her mother’s arms where both of them cried uncontrollably. She described her success as fulfilling ‘the dreams of my mother’ after Barack Obama’s book Dreams from My Father which she had read.
Her opponent George Galloway fought a campaign in which the gloves were never on. He first wanted her referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for allegedly lying at her mother’s trial. It was claimed that Naz had said that the samosas that killed her father were brought from a shop which was not true. Mr. Galloway also alleged that Naz had lied when she said that she was forcibly married at the age of 15 when she was actually over 16. Sixteen is the age for sexual consent in the UK and if she was 15 it was legally a crime to give her in marriage irrespective of her consent, but if she was over 16, the question of her consent came in. It did not work at all, for the huge amount of admiration and sympathy that Naz’s life story had evoked, swept Galloway away. There was, in fact, worse to come for Mr. Galloway who is now being investigated by police for allegedly tweeting results of the exit polls before the election was over, which is not permitted.
Then, there is Nusrat Ghani who won the Wealden constituency for the Tories after having been selected in what is known as an open primary, a sort of public meeting-cum-interview in which some 400 residents took part. Nusrat’s father, Abdul Ghani, was a schoolmaster in Azad Kashmir in the 1960s before the family migrated to the UK. Needless to say, her education was entirely in State schools and she was the first person from her family to go to a university.
Rather more colourful is the story of Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh who won the Perthshire constituency on behalf of the SNP. Born in Chelsea, she was raised in Edinburgh. Her mother is half Welsh and half Czech and her father was born in India but had migrated to Pakistan before migrating again to the UK. Ms. Sheikh, so clearly the most attractive female MP in the Commons that no one can even be described as a close second, had, apparently, also featured in Bollywood movies and started her political career with the Conservatives while very young. A lawyer by profession and a mother of four now, she is said to be fluent in English, French, Punjabi and Urdu. As a Conservative, she had savaged former SNP leader, Alex Salmond for his criticism of NATO’s involvement in the Kosovo war, saying his description of the intervention was “unpardonable folly” was “hopelessly naïve” and that he should “hang his head in shame”, going on to top it all by adding that Salmond was “hopelessly out of his depth in the arena of real politics, national and international”. There is no limit to what a beautiful woman can get away with!
Naz Shah, Nusrat Ghani and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh were three of the four new British Muslims to be elected on the 7th, the fourth being Imran Hussain from Bradford East on a Labour ticket. There were another six who were re-elected – Khalid Mahmood, Shabana Mahmood, Yasmin Qureshi, Sadiq Khan, Sajid Javed and Rehman Chisti – bringing the total tally to 10. Of those who were re-elected, most are well-known except perhaps Rehman Chisti who has done his work while keeping a low profile. He was born in Azad Kashmir in 1978. A barrister by profession, he had to work in Tesco to supplement his studies – a self-made man again.
The other three Muslims now in the Commons are all Bangladeshi women, including Tulip Siddiq who is the granddaughter of the former Bangladeshi leader, Shaikh Mujibur Rahman. Not very long ago, Mr. Sarwar, who later became Governor of Punjab, was the first British Muslim MP and the fact that there are now 13 shows that the community is progressing in the right direction, although in proportion to their numbers in the population, there should be many more. However, encouraging as this development is, its connotations are entirely for the British Muslim population here in the UK, not for Pakistan or Bangladesh and that is something that has to be understood clearly by both people and politicians in both countries. There was a time when what a British politician thought about issues like Kashmir, Palestine and immigration from the subcontinent was important to the British Muslim/Pakistani electorate. This is becoming increasingly less true, not only because second generation British Muslims from whose ranks the entire current crop of British Muslim MPs has come up, are less involved with these issues and more concerned about issues closer to home like the future of the NHS, tuition fees, Islamophobia, etc, but also because most people have understood that all the talk by British MPs about Kashmir and Palestine is just – talk. It means next to nothing for the British government take on these issues is governed by what it sees as its own interests and the talk matters for nothing.
This is a good trend for the future advancement of the British Pakistani/Muslim community. The problems of Kashmir and Palestine were never going to be solved by any political clout from this community, barely three per cent of the population, could bring to bear on British politics. In the effort, many of their own concerns were going unaddressed. This was to a large extent due to two factors; the proliferation of branches of Pakistani political parties here in the UK, serving no purpose other than providing taxi services for visiting leaders from Pakistan. Secondly, there has been the proliferation of Pakistani TV stations in the UK, most of them free to air. And while the second development is shared by the Bangladeshi and Indian communities in the UK, the first is not. The move to allow Pakistani expats to vote in Pakistani elections, a move one hopes will never materialise due to the practical difficulties involved, will only further alienate Pakistanis from British mainstream issues and divide the community, a community already divided along ethnic and ‘baradari’ lines. Fortunately, even these divisions are now becoming less important as a result of which for the first time Bradford, an area so predominantly Pakistani, has finally succeeded in electing MPs of Pakistani origin. The message therefore has to be that if British Pakistanis were left alone by politicians ‘back home’ they could be an even more potent political force in the UK and come much closer to realising their full political potential.•