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Outspoken Muslim women are an endangered species
This week, it emerged that an outspoken, fiery local councillor Amina Lone had been deselected by her political party from the forthcoming local elections in Manchester. For some this would not have come as a surprise. For the past year or so, Ms Lone has been outspoken campaigner on a variety of issues such as gender inequality, abuse that woman receive in politics, especially women from a Black, Minority Ethnic (BME) background, political correctness when dealing with CSE and much more besides. Most recently, she was seen defending her colleague Sarah Champion from having to step down from her position as Shadow Equalities Minister after Ms Champion wrote that Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping white girls. It is absolutely fair to say that Ms Lone is not afraid to put her head above the parapet and say what needs to be said even whilst others shrink in fear.
Perhaps it is precisely because of her activism and no nonsense approach that she has been singled out by the local members of her party for deselection, on the basis of a ‘poor attendance and campaigning record’, allegations that Ms Lone has denied vigorously.
Muslim women who enter politics broadly fall into two camps according to community elders: either they are compliant, homely and happy to agree with everything that the men agree on or they outspoken, critical and want to change the status quo. It is the latter of the two women that do not last long in community based politics. A Keighley based local councillor complained she was forced to attend meetings with her brother, her husband or another male member until it was established that she was capable of being alone with men without a chaperone.
The men in these types of predominantly Pakistani political circles prefers to see women as the toys from the Churchill advert; nodding their heads repeatedly while not saying a single word while expected to dress modestly and wear a scarf at all times during political meetings.
The timings of meetings always seem to take place after business hours; not surprising if the men are local businessmen or professionals that have a 9-5 job. But often this is very difficult for Muslim women, who have caring duties of their own families or elderly parents. Henna Rai, a Birmingham based activist who is also a single mother, was told to ‘stay at home and look after (her) child’ when she tried to enter local politics.
Those who do attend late night meetings are often questioned over their character. A Muslim woman was told to go home at 10:30pm after attending a political event in Bradford because ‘only loose women were seen out of the home at that time’ and ‘didn’t she care about her reputation?’
Another Muslim woman, having won the selection to stand as a local councillor in Bradford, was harassed repeatedly and told to step down in order to make way for another, male candidate by members of her own party. On the night of the elections in 2008, she lost the election by 8 votes. Rumours emerged that members of her own party were responsible for disallowing many votes that would have helped her win to teach her a lesson for defying them.
Sadly the truth is that politics in Britain have been overrun by elements that have integrated a feudal way of thinking and believing into mainstream politics; certain men have an automatic right to stand for public office or to select those they wish to see stand. No thought is spent on the abilities or the merit of the person that has been selected; it is enough that the person is either a relative from the same village in rural Pakistan or at least a man. A Dewsbury based councillor, asked for his thoughts during a public meeting between the community and senior police officers following the 7/7 terror attacks, could not even speak or read a single word of English, and a member of the public had to step in and translate for him.
Even when the local councillors are British born or can speak English, their mind set can only be described as regressive or ‘village-like’.
Gina Khan, an activist based in Birmingham, has spoken out about this many times. Her recent campaigning has included highlighting the conduct of a local councillor Waseem Zaffar, who demanded a local primary school change their policy to allow his four year old niece to wear a headscarf to school. A headscarf or hijab, is usually worn by girls who have reached puberty, to prevent unwanted sexual advances from men. Ms Khan pointed out that Cllr Zaffar was ‘sexualising his four year old niece by insisting she wear a headscarf, something that is not even required of children in Islam. His conduct was another example of how some Pakistani men use patriarchy to control and subjugate women’.
For many years, women from my community were told that the world of ‘politics is just for men’, ‘politics are dirty’, ‘a woman cannot survive without a man besides her to vouch for her honour’ and so on.
Muslim women from minority sects are at an even further disadvantage. Zehra Zaidi, a former parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party who adheres to the Shia sect found that she did not ‘fall into the usual stereotype’ and faced an uphill struggle to be considered a viable candidate.
Whichever way you describe it; biradari, patriarchy or misogyny, these systems and structures are there to control women and to silence dissent. This is not healthy for our communities. Having such men in positions of power gives them legitimacy to go back to their communities and implement strict patriarchal control mechanisms which then silence women’s voices further. Nothing will change until we start to dismantle the same platforms that some men have used to their advantage.
Whenever a woman decides to stand up for herself and refuses to comply with the expectations or demands of the local elders of the community she is singled out ostracised, and eventually her powerbase is taken from her. This is exactly what is happening to Ms Lone right now.
Of course, we do have some amazing Muslim women politics already. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Nusrat Ghani MP and Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh being very good examples but there are simply not enough. Ms Lone’s deselection is not going to silence her, and the outpouring of support she has received shows that she was doing something right. Last night she vowed to ‘continue to fight for justice’ and to ‘march on’.
Muslim women will never be valued or heard if they are treated as disposable commodities by mainstream political parties. Yes, we are an endangered species, but we have a burning desire to be heard, and are not afraid to burn our bridges with repressive cultures and traditions to do so.
Aisha Ali-Khan is a teacher and human rights campaigner based in the UK. She won a settlement and public apology in a libel case last year against her former employer George Galloway after he made untrue and baseless allegations against her in order to try and damage her reputation and honour. Aisha now campaigns on issues around honour based violence and abuse, gender equality, and equal representation of women in politics.