Naz Shah wept the first time she spoke in front of an audience. It was 1995 and she was a teenager, giving a talk to a group of students at Bradford College about the campaign to free her mother, Zoora Shah, who was serving a life sentence for murder. “I cried all the way through,” she said.
That harrowing experience of trying to secure her mother’s release helped prepare Shah for her entry into politics. On 7 May this year she ousted George Galloway and became the new Labour MP for Bradford West, the constituency where she grew up. Now 41, she had no background in politics, and secured the nomination in early March only after the local party’s first choice, Amina Ali, abruptly withdrew, citing family reasons. Although Galloway was favoured to retain the seat for the Respect Party, Shah won with a majority of 11,420 votes.
Her campaign came to national attention days after she secured the nomination when she published an article in the Urban Echo, a Yorkshire newspaper, to mark 8 March, International Women’s Day. The piece described her life story, and quickly went viral.
In 1980, when Shah was six, her father abandoned her mother by eloping with a neighbour’s teenage daughter. Zoora had two children and was pregnant with a third, and didn’t speak much English. In the conservative Pakistani community in Bradford, her husband’s departure was a source of shame. Destitute and shunned, she and her children moved 14 times in two years.
Eventually, a local drug dealer named Mohammed Azam offered to buy them a house. In return, he forced Zoora to have sex with him. She believed that he would protect her family, but Azam was sexually and physically abusive. Terrified that he was going to start sexually abusing her elder daughter, Zoora sent Naz to Pakistan when she was 12. There, at the age of 15, she was forced into marriage with a much older cousin.
Back in Bradford, Zoora feared that Azam would abuse her youngest daughter, who was now approaching puberty. In an act of desperation, Zoora poisoned Azam with arsenic. She stood trial for murder in 1993. Afraid of bringing further shame on her family, she scarcely spoke at the hearings.
There were no legal defences for battered women at the time and Zoora received a 20-year sentence. Naz had returned to the UK before the trial together with her husband, who, she said, “used his fists to communicate”. (They soon separated, although the divorce did not become official until 1999.)
Still a teenager, Shah had responsibility for her two younger siblings. She was also working tirelessly for her mother’s early release through the women’s organisation Southall Black Sisters (SBS).
“Naz visited her mother in prison, coped with the vilification of her mother, and tried to protect her siblings and survive, with no support,” says Pragna Patel, the main caseworker for Zoora Shah at SBS. “She showed incredible courage, bravery and resilience. We are so proud that she’s representing Bradford now, a community that once vilified her family.”
In 2000 the then home secretary, Jack Straw, reduced Zoora’s tariff to 12 years. She was finally released in 2006, after serving 14.
Shah’s formal schooling had ended at 12 when she was sent to Pakistan but she took GCSEs as a mature student and found work as a carer for children with disabilities. She later joined the NHS as a manager.
We met on a sunny day in June at a café in central Bradford. Shah told me that after she published her article in March, the journalists who contacted her invariably asked: “Who on earth advised you to do that?”
She recalled: “It was very clear that either I own my own narrative, or let George Galloway do it, and I’ll be damned if I let a man own my narrative. It’s mine and it’s up to me what I do with it.”
Galloway fought an intensely personal campaign, questioning the veracity of Shah’s claims and alleging she had lied at the time of her mother’s trial that she was 15 when she first married.
He accused her of perpetuating stereotypes of Pakistanis. Today, Respect, which Galloway leads, still denies that it went too far. “Naz Shah made her personal story the central thrust of her campaign,” a spokesman told me. “The whole election was bogged down in that, which is not how we wanted it to be. In terms of George’s comments on it, it all rests on our contention that her personal story was not what she said it was.”
Shah dismissed this. “I launched my campaign on policy. Even when [Galloway] attacked me, I attacked him only on his policy, his attendance, his record,” she said. “I knew it would get personal, but where he stooped to was a new low. It backfired because the people of Bradford are not stupid. Credit where credit’s due: there are pockets of patriarchy, but the men in this community have come a long way and I got a lot of support from them.”
Shah’s election victory is the latest chapter in the story of Bradford’s changing political landscape. Biraderi, meaning “patrilineage” in Urdu, is used by Pakistanis to refer to extended family networks. These are an important form of social organisation among members of the Pakistani diaspora, particularly in Bradford, where much of the community comes from the same northern part of Pakistan: Mirpur.
Biraderi politics in the British context refers to the practice of political parties using bloc votes from community leaders in constituencies with significant numbers of Pakistani voters. When the system developed in the 1960s, it was a useful way for minority communities to gain representation. However, as it is inherently patriarchal, it risks marginalising women, as well as the young.
“Biraderi politics is no different to the old boy network,” Shah told me. “We need to work with those patriarchal structures of elitism and power to reform them. It’s my job to convince people of the empowerment that real democracy and honest politics brings.”
In an attempt to “clean up” local politics, Labour introduced an all-women shortlist in Bradford West for this year’s election.
Parveen Akhtar, an academic at the University of Bradford and the author of British Muslim Politics, said: “What Galloway did in 2012 [when he won the seat in a by-election] was show people there was the possibility of engaging and participating in mainstream politics outside biraderi.
“People had never had that before. People thought: ‘I can go to the voting booth and nobody will know who I’m voting for.’ It really enfranchised them. In 2015, they were able to then say: ‘Who do I think is going to represent my best interest?’”
Part of the attraction of Shah in Bradford, where stories of forced marriage are common, was her promise to work hard on local issues. Galloway reminded voters of his fame during the election campaign. A post on his Facebook page rejected the accusation of absenteeism: “Where’s George? . . . he’s campaigning with Hugo Chávez on the streets of Venezuela, he’s known around the world. Can anybody who’s standing against me in this election say that?”
Ultimately, it seems that the voters were more concerned with day-to-day matters of life in Bradford.
Sitting in the city-centre café, Naz Shah seemed bemused by the continued interest in her life story: she wants to move on and concentrate on being a good MP for her con-
stituency. She was most animated when talking about her policy ideas, such as setting up a special task force for Bradford to look at ways to stimulate the local economy and attract business. In 2020, Bradford will be the city with the highest proportion of young people in Europe. Shah is already planning for this, looking at ways to increase youth employment. “I want to make Bradford a tech city,” she said. “A lot of energy is going into that at the moment.”
She has no interest in climbing the party ranks. “I’m very focused on Bradford West. I’ve got a lot of work to do here in terms of bringing investment in. I need the story to change in Bradford, from being negative and downtrodden to [being] a powerhouse. It has to be.”
Shah wants to do “a few things really well”, and has signed up to the parliamentary groups on Palestine, Islamophobia and forced marriage.
With her election win came a sense of redemption for her and her family. “At the end of the day, it’s about respect, isn’t it? And being an MP is a very respectable thing to do. For my mum, that’s a great source of pride. The tables have turned from years ago, when she was ridiculed, persecuted and marginalised. Today she’s the mother of the first woman to be an MP in this seat.
“She made that daughter. I couldn’t have got here without her. My victory is not just mine, it’s my mother’s, too, so she can hold her head up high.”
After an intense first month in parliament, Naz Shah was planning to spend Friday evening at the mosque, followed by a quiet weekend at home. As we left the café, she met a group of people she knew. They congratulated her on her win. She is a very local MP indeed.
She has travelled a long way from that first speaking engagement. “I came back to Bradford after the election,” she said. “The Muslim Women’s Network held a women-only dinner in my honour. I spoke there, and it was the first time my mum was in the room. I ended up shedding a few tears.”