Where are the Muslim Women in Bradford Politics?

Naveeda Ikram
I assume it was people like me that Yvette Cooper was referring to when she declared that Labour had failed to connect with Muslim women, in the wake of George Galloway’s incredible victory and Labour’s crushing defeat in the Bradford West by-election. Whilst I’m still undecided about the winner, I stand firm in my rejection of the Labour candidate.

I don’t believe Muslim women any longer fit the stereotype of voiceless beings that aren’t allowed to leave the house – if anything, I think it’s us women that are making the greatest progress within and beyond our own communities. That’s why I hope Yvette Cooper wasn’t assuming that as a fellow Muslim, Labour’s Imran Hussain was in a better position to represent women like me. Nothing could be further from the truth in fact – we might have faith and cultural heritage in common, but believe me, we don’t even speak the same language.

I have an issue with the very idea of Pakistani/Mirpuri politics being rooted in mosque culture. It’s well documented that Muslim women and mosques don’t generally mix; although I appreciate the exclusion isn’t deliberate. It’s just that men must attend mosque to earn extra merits for congregational prayers while women may earn the same reward by offering prayers in the home. But you see, the mosque for Muslim men is so much more than a prayer venue. It’s THE place for social interaction, and often where men pick up community news. For instance, an announcement of a death in the mosque after prayers constitutes our equivalent of an obituary!

The local imam is a trusted figure, often acting as a bridge between the western community and his own. So much so that agencies with a message to disseminate to the captive Friday prayer congregation now regard the imam as a key dissemination tool! It’s not difficult to appreciate then how the mosque can also become something of a political arena, but to me, this is more of a hindrance than a bonus. I’m not interested in measuring the morality of a candidate according to religious standards, so it doesn’t matter to me how often Imran Hussain frequents the mosque. That’s also why I don’t give a toss whether George Galloway chooses to drink alcohol or not. If anything, this sort of talk feels exclusory and counterproductive, which makes me uncomfortable.

In recent days, much has been made of the outdated concept of biraderi politics, particularly popular among the older generations, where voting on the basis of clan membership takes precedence over merit. When men like my father first found work in this country in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they imagined they’d eventually return to Pakistan with a few years’ worth of savings. They didn’t bother to invest in any other skills, let alone literacy, because they never imagined the mills would stop running, or that they’d still be in Bradford to live out their old age. And so, voting in someone from their own clan has become part of their coping strategy. It’s an informal, mutually beneficial arrangement, where the likes of Imran Hussain broadcast their family background on election literature as if it’s a university qualification, and in return, the voters get to hold him accountable through family or community connections.

I was at my mum’s yesterday when her Mirpuri neighbour popped round. “Did the white man win?” She asked, as it became evident that she knew nothing more about Galloway, not even his name. The only way she could relate to him was as a white man, the “gora”. She explained that her family had this time boycotted the “apna” (our own, referring to Imran Hussain, although she couldn’t name him either) because he’d stopped making time to attest her extended family’s passport photographs.

And here’s my point. This woman and her clan’s vote had nothing to do with policies or even an inkling of research – the only thing that seemed to matter was accessibility. They’d simply heard from the mosque that he was good for Muslims. In their world, the MP is the only professional they know, qualified enough to attest photographs. And as the woman reasoned, why pay attestation fees to a doctor or solicitor when her vote earns her the right to approach the local MP instead? As far as I’m concerned though, if my local representative is going to spend his time running a community advice centre to repay his biraderi for their votes, when will he find the time to engage with the real issues that concern the rest of us?

A number of Muslim women have successfully penetrated this antiquated system, even though they initially faced prejudice from within their own community. I know of a Muslim woman councillor who was advised to emphasise her Pakistani heritage on her election literature because of her deceptively light complexion, in case her own community mistook her for being English and didn’t give her their vote. In May last year, Labour’s Naveeda Ikram (pictured) became the UK’s first woman Muslim Lord Mayor. When she became a councillor in Bradford, her staunchest opponents were also the men in her own community. She won them over after successfully campaigning to prevent a local cemetery from charging excessive overtime for Muslim burials to be conducted after hours. [Islam decrees that Muslims must be buried as quickly as possible, so funerals are often organised within 24 to 48 hours.]

You know, it can sometimes feel tough being a Muslim, just as being a Bradfordian sometimes can. We cringe and cower every time the media spews out another skewed story. And with every shift in the global political climate, we watch as our species is reconfigured along the continuum of ever narrowing definitions. So we’ve gone from being simply Asians to British-Muslims, and from phobic fundamentalists to irrational Islamists. Is it any wonder the Muslim nerve rattles whenever the media descends on Bradford! What will they blame us for this time? And believe me, the lack of robust representation does little to lessen this sense of insecurity.

As Muslim women, we don’t expect to be pandered to, but realistically, what faith can we have in a system that alienates us on so many levels? It’s not paper pushers we need, it’s articulate, passionate, committed candidates with fresh ideas, who respect diversity and equality, and who value our contribution. And believe it or not, just like the rest of Bradford, we also want jobs, investment, self-esteem and a city to be proud of.

Irna Qureshi blogs about being British, Pakistani, Muslim and female in Bradford, against a backdrop of classic Indian films.


  1. Whilst this post makes many valid and correct arguments relating to Pakistani Muslim women, there was very little analysis regarding George Galloway’s remarkable victory. There was explanation of the biraderi system but not a mention that this corrupt practice had been so decisively swept away by local Muslim youth and sworn that they will make sure it will not return. It also didn’t draw attention to the fact that it was the vote and active campaigning of young Muslim women that had been one of the key factors for the Respect victory. And, it didn’t say that Yvette Cooper’s flawed analysis of Labour’s defeat was also decisively rejected by the same women that Irna is referring to.

  2. Must be tough being a muslim. Seems like there is so much segregation, prejudice and discrimination in the community.

  3. One observation I do have is that the crowds that gathered outside Chambers solicitors & in Infirmiry Fields were overwhelmingly male. I didn’t see many women let alone Asian women at those meetings. Sad that that hasn’t really changed

  4. I personally thought this was a much needed commentary on the voting situation in Bradford, and this sort of discussion is really necessary if Bradford is to bloom again in the future. It once was a leading city and can be again, but only from the inside.

    Go back fifty years and it was a very different story. The Asian community as a whole back in the 50’s and 60’s had no voice and was treated pretty badly by employers and Bradford council. My father was a union rep for the transport and general workers union. He was appalled that the Asian workers (Muslim and Sikh) were getting less pay than him, and had many problems navigating the social system with Bradford council in housing etc. So he cut loose all his free time and became a councillor to make changes. And he did. He fought for equal pay, proper representation etc and when people came to Bradford and had no money or housing, be they Pakistani, Indian, Irish or Romany, he put his hand in his own pocket to house and feed people until the system worked for them.

    His idea was simple. Where there was a need, it is the whole communities responsibility to take action, regardless of where people came from, what their religion was or what their social standing was. he never just looked after his ‘own’, who were Irish immigrant mill workers, he fought long and hard for everyone. One side result of that was that as a kid, I was running with children from the gypsy camps, the Muslim community and the Sikh community. That melting pot bred a generation of mixed people who clung together, regardless of culture.

    That is what we need to get back to. It is not a matter of ex pat communities closing ranks, or only using representatives for your own personal need. It is about looking around and seeing what is wrong, what needs fixing, and not discriminating against any sector of the community because they are not what you think they should be.

    It will take some very special people to act to represent the wide variety of people in the Bradford community, to not judge, but to see need and to act upon that need where ever it is. Then we may actually get some politicians who are true community heroes, not career power chasers.

  5. It shows how much progress is needed when people are still voting on the colour of skin or religious grounds. Bradford sounds like it needs all the help it can get. Not sure if Galloway is the man to modernise this worldview that seems to be held in the asian community. The Respect party has nothing to say other than shallow anti war rhetoric, which I fear is the only reason young muslims have turned out in droves.

  6. Reply to Rick – I think it may have escaped your notice that George Galloway, a white non-Muslim won in every single ward in Bradford West, and therefore large numbers of Asian Muslims voted for him as opposed to the Labour candidate, a Pakistani Muslim. By the way, most people in Bradford West are not Asian or Muslim.

  7. Thanks for this article.

    There is still a long way to go in helping white British people understand and welcome those from other cultures and countries, so every little helps. Even though I have lived in Pakistan (Gujranwala, in Punjab) and live in Burley in Leeds where the community is very diverse, it was many years before I realised how many British Pakistanis were from Mirpur and started to understand the unique history that has shaped the British ‘Pakistani’ community.

    The result in West Bradford makes one wonder how we build a common value system: to me George Galloway is a comedy character, disgraced by his Big Brother ‘performance’, and I struggle to understand how he could garner such support. Yet he knows how to engage with this community and it is not unpatriotic to think that our army – or more correctly, our government – is not always on the side of the angels.

    When communities that seem insular come under the spotlight someone will eventually say that they should try harder to integrate. As white Brits we have to ask ourselves why the community still doesn’t feel welcome. Perhaps Brits living in Spain could help us with that one! 😉

    But when it comes to the question in the title of this post, maybe we do have to push back and say ‘celebrating difference’ is not enough and liberal values have to prevail. But how? Someone I know was involved in making Muslim Driving School, which was largely made in Bradford, and was a subtle attempt at celebrating Pakistani women’s growing freedoms. But some of the Bradford women were forced to withdraw from the program; not because of pressure from their menfolk, but because of gossip from other women in their community. Sometimes women can become complicit in their own oppression, slapping down anyone who ‘gets above their station.’ How do you deal with that?

  8. <<<>>>>>

    Interesting comments. Simon, I wonder if it less that one or two communities ‘don’t feel welcome’, but more a matter of all the different communities have backed into insular corners over recent years, probably fuelled by very clever twists and turns in social engineering over the last few years, stoked up by various government scare tactics. I lived outside of the UK for 11 years and was truly shocked to see the massive difference in attitude when I returned. When you are in the ‘slow boil’, you do not see it as much, but coming back in from years on the ‘outside’, you really see it.

    I was beginning to see the start of this when I worked in schools in Bradford during the mid to late eighties. I am from a very mixed family, and saw subtle changes starting in all areas of the community around the late eighties. Divide and rule is a well proven path and if it is pitched well, people will jump on board without thinking the long term consequences.

    I left Bradford in 1992 and when I returned in 2008, I was really shocked and sad to see what has happened. Every corner of my family, be they Irish, Roma or Panjabi had become mildly hostile and intolerant of the other.

    This is why whoever gains political power has to approach it from a sense of service where there is need, regardless of their own background, sex, religion, and the background of those in need.

    When people stop worrying about what someone is,and focus on what someone does, we might all move forward a step.

    For Muslim women, it can be a massive hurdle, but not impossible. As some other comments have said, when other women stop being sanctimonious and instead have pride that a woman can achieve thanks to her community, rather in spite of her community, it will be a great day. Irna, time to be a political candidate? 😀

  9. Tales from Bradistan – do you have the breakdown of the votes ward-by-ward? I have followed Bradford politics for a long, long time, and Salma Yaqoob’s quote of 40 Labour votes in the whole of Clayton ward as opposed to Respect’s 900 just does not ring true.

  10. Irna, thanks for such an honest – if depressing – insider view of the recent election.

    Two questions come to mind:

    – it’s unclear but did you vote for Galloway?

    – I don’t live in Brafodrd West but I’m assuming Galloway published a detailed plan to tackle youth unemployment and more specifically the higher than average rate for young Asian people. I wonder if you can share with us that detailed plan.


  11. On a personal note, I must just add that Mayor Naveeda Ikram, mentioned above, is a wonderful example of women in politics and has been fantastic every time I have worked with her. Funny, empathetic, enthusiastic, incredibly hardworking, and knowledgable, I have seen young people, white and Asian, clamour to spend time and talk with her (and it is ‘with’ rather than ‘at or to’). She is the kind of individual who will make anyone feel that politicians are people who are there to listen, respond and act, regardless of whether they are male or female, white, Asian, Muslim etc. She may just be 1 woman, but her enthusiasm has certainly been infectious and encouraged engagement amongst the people I’ve seen her work with.

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