When I received an invitation from the Bradford Muslim Women’s Council to attend a luncheon with Ed Miliband to discuss issues that affect Muslims in the UK, in particular Muslim women, I wasn’t surprised. In fact I was more surprised that it had taken him so long to come up.
You are all aware of the crushing defeat the Labour party suffered at the hands of the Respect party in the Bradford West by-election; a by election like few others, aptly dubbed by George Galloway himself as the ‘Bradford Spring,’ a slight exaggeration perhaps, but still it was a remarkable result. Many commented that the victory was a direct result of the empowerment of the youth and women in Bradford, including the Guardian which ran an article by Helen Pidd on 4 April entitled ‘How women won it for George Galloway.’
We were told of how women were galvanized and empowered, how they were motivated to exercise their democratic right to vote and encouraged others to do the same. Let me tell you something, all this credit is being laid on Galloway for coming to Bradford and emancipating Muslim women and demonstrating to them what they are capable of, but really anybody with half a brain and political strategy could have done the same.
Muslim women are capable of anything; they just need a little nudge and the rest will enfold right in front of you. The fact of the matter is, no one had bothered to nudge them before, be it the Labour Party, the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. No one had bothered to come and ask what they wanted for their city, what they wanted for their children and how they could help to achieve these goals.
Instead they were written off as a marginalized group within the Muslim community, and it was decided that the men would be targeted instead. The men would be approached at election time, and they would deliver the votes required through what has come to be known as the Biraderi or clan system.
The very nature of this corrupt system is sexist and demeaning to women, so it is no surprise that when suddenly George Galloway rides into town on his white horse and started meeting with the women, declaring an end to the Biraderi system, he had a powerful effect.
So now you can understand why it came as no surprise to me when Ed Miliband stood in front of us, Muslim women of all backrounds and said that he wanted to hear our thoughts. I guess it was his way of saying: I made a mistake, I was lazy and now I know what a powerful force you are and I need you on my side.
What really infuriated me was the fact that he admitted to relying on the Biraderi system to get his votes; he told us that he was informed that it would work. Ladies and gentleman is this what politics has become? What happened to equal rights and equal political participation, something the suffragettes and the political philosopher John Stuart Mill fought for so hard and tirelessly? If Ed Miliband thinks that admitting that he manipulated the Biraderi system and then realized it didn’t work and so has come to make amends, will make up for his chauvinism and disregard of political struggle, then I’m sorry Ed, you have a long way to go.
I wasn’t satisfied, with the luncheon and eventually left early. You see, although many issues were raised and many very valid concerns aired, I felt something was missing.
I am a passionate feminist and I believe strongly in the education and empowerment of women in the Muslim community. I voiced concerns about the hidden voice of the women who are at home, sometimes slaves to their husbands and/or in-laws, victims of domestic and sexual abuse, victims of mental slavery or effectively deprived of their basic human rights to education and political participation.
I asked Ed Miliband how he would access this sector of our community. His answer was: this is where I need people like you, become an MP and reach out to those people that I cant access. Really? That’s the best you can give me? What about telling me that you will help me and others who share my passion, educate and empower young Muslim girls disenfranchised and disillusioned by society, help them to realize their potential and to learn to dream. How about telling me, that these victims of a mysoginistic ideology deserve justice and their voices deserve to be heard?
George Galloway celebrates his byelection victory in Bradford West George Galloway. He sought out those who felt themselves disenfranchised. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA
You see, I know of Muslim women like my mum and grandma who are very strong , feisty, independent women who have a lot of influence in their community. There are plenty of women like my grandma, powerful matriarchs who survived the bloody partition of India and protected their family and property when their husbands left them to seek a better future in the UK. These women are capable of so much; they possess passion and drive and care about their community. It is women like my grandma that that the Respect campaigners targeted. They spoke to her in her mother tongue and sought her advice and counsel. Now my grandma is a member of the Respect Party. She is 85 and she tells every Muslim woman she meets to support Respect.
So Ed Miliband, if you really want to hear the voices of the Muslim women of Bradford, hear the ones that are not heard, the ones that attend English classes, the ones that are fighting a battle against a patriarchial society every day of their life. Because to me, it is those voices that matter the most. It is those women who I want to see politically active and empowered. It is those women I dedicate my life to emancipating. If you care, feel free to join me. Otherwise sit back in London and watch somebody else win them over.