Naz Shah, who is running for Labour against Respect’s George Galloway in Bradford West, is used to succeeding against the odds. It runs in the family: her mother Zoora was abandoned by her husband for a 16-year-old neighbour while she was pregnant with the couple’s third child, and brought her young family up in grinding poverty.
Zoora Shah eventually secured a stable home through a relationship with a man who became abusive and posed a severe danger to her family. After he threatened her second daughter, Zoora snapped and killed him. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison, a punishment which failed to take into account her circumstances. It demonstrates how easily South Asian women are marginalised by the state, lacking access to the basic rights and advocacy due to British citizens, both through the failure of state systems and isolation imposed from within their own cultural traditions.
That is why Naz Shah’s candidacy is so important to Bradford West. If the region’s South Asian women are to gain the power and independence to which they are entitled, they must be encouraged to voice their experiences. The only way to escape the continuum of violence and oppression is to challenge the patriarchal biraderi (clan) politics on which Galloway has been capitalising in his efforts to discredit Naz Shah.
Earlier this month, Galloway verbally attacked Shah, accusing her of lying about enduring a forced marriage at the age of 15. Shah produced documentation to refute the claim, proving she was indeed 15 at the time the forced marriage took place. Because the British government would not recognise a marriage under the age of 16, a second marriage certificate was drawn up to maintain validity in Britain when Shah was 16 and a half. Attacks on Shah’s character fail to recognise that whether 15 or 16, Shah did not provide full consent to the marriage, meaning she was in effect forced. Mud-slinging, smear campaigns and use of bullying tactics on social media all illustrate the unsavoury nature of electoral processes in this constituency, which remains dominated by patriarchal clan-based biraderi politics.
Research by the Political Studies Association on the success of Respect in the 2012 Bradford by-election highlighted that while Respect claimed to be undermining biraderi politics, it was in fact “not averse to receiving bloc votes. Its success was, in fact, due to the skillful manner in which it simultaneously circumvented and harnessed the traditional South Asian community structures.”
Despite George Galloway’s success in courting female Muslim voters in Bradford in the 2012 election, he has failed to grasp the context and complexities of forced marriage, and has proven insensitive to Shah’s own history of abuse. His spokesman claimed the marriage could not be forced because “her mother attended the marriage in 1990 as well as other family members and many witnesses did also, signing and giving fingerprints, so if it was forced presumably her mother and the others were part of that coercion?” Shah was not intimidated, saying: “We do not need a one-man Messiah to tell us how to come and fix up Bradford. We as a community have our own solutions.”
With one of the highest concentrations of Muslim populations in Britain living in Bradford West (51.3 per cent), its newly elected MP must acknowledge and address the socioeconomic disadvantages immigrant communities face. Fifty-seven percent of Pakistani and 46 per cent Bangladeshi households in the UK live in poverty, compared to 16 per cent of white British households. In Bradford, the Muslim community is particularly disadvantaged: according to the 2001 Census, more than half (50.7 per cent) of all Muslim adults possessed no educational or vocational qualifications, and nearly a third (30.3 per cent) had either never worked or were long-term unemployed.
The 2001 inquiry into the urban riots also highlighted the low level of qualifications in the local Muslim community and concluded that the educational opportunities in Bradford had been far from equal. Data released by the Muslim Council of Britain in 2015 reveal that Muslims are overrepresented in unemployment figures, with nearly half of the British Muslim population residing in the bottom 10 per cent local authority districts for deprivation.
According to Shah: “There is still so much more to do in order to break down the barriers which still face people from ethnic backgrounds in Bradford and across our country.” As well as pledging to improve support services for women and address the deficit of specialist units dealing with violence against women in the city, Shah says she is running for office because, “if I’ve learnt anything, I have learnt that through compassion we can change the world.”
In many ways, the stories of Naz and Zoora Shah are reflected in the experiences of Muslim women in Britain, especially in terms of domestic violence and castigation of the victim rather than the perpetrator. I hope that the people of Bradford, including the women, will challenge the patriarchal structures deeply embedded in Bradford West and come out in droves to vote on 7 May.