George Galloway and his cohorts have signalled a new low in British politics by mounting what can only be described as a vicious and mean minded assault on Naz Shah, the Labour Party’s candidate for Bradford West in the coming general election. Galloway’s attempt at character assassination relies on selectively drawing upon Naz’s complex and difficult background, and it speaks volumes about political opportunism and the naked hunger for power by any means necessary.
SBS worked with Naz when she was a young and extremely vulnerable woman in the late 90s. We waged a campaign for justice for her mother, Zoora Shah, who had been jailed for life for killing a man who had physically, financially, sexually and emotionally abused her at a time in the 70s and 80s when services for all battered women (let alone those from BME backgrounds) were non-existent. Zoora had been deserted by her first husband when her children were very young, leaving her to cope with the ensuing isolation, hostility and destitution that followed the breakdown of her marriage. She lived in conditions of abject poverty and homelessness, and in these circumstances she was befriended by a married landlord who demanded sex in return for providing her and her children with a roof over their heads. He became increasingly controlling, abusive and hostile towards Zoora, whose attempts to free herself went unsupported by the Asian community. In an effort to protect her daughters from his sexually predatory behaviour, Zoora resorted to desperate measures (including the attempt to arrange Naz’s marriage in Pakistan), and eventually she killed him.
Zoora was unsuccessful in overturning her murder conviction, but her attempts to make the courts understand and reflect the reality of her difficult circumstances were vindicated in 2000, when Lord Justice Bingham, the then Lord Chief Justice, set her tariff at only 12 years. In doing so, he recognised and accepted that: ‘She was suffering from some kind of depressive illness and…that her social situation was of the most stressful kind imaginable. She suffered from some kind of abuse from the victim… this was the conduct of a desperate woman threatened with the loss of her home and with destitution in what remained for her a foreign country.’
Against this background, whatever her strengths and weaknesses, Galloway’s attack on Naz is to be deplored. Naz showed tremendous courage, maturity and resilience in the campaign that followed to free her mother. Barely out of childhood herself, she took on the role of parenting her much younger siblings while supporting her mother.
If parliamentary democracy is to be a living ideal, it needs to embrace voices and experiences borne out of survival in what is otherwise a largely white, elitist, boys’ own club. The qualities of courage and resilience that Naz brought to the ’Free Zoora Shah’ campaign are needed now more than ever to counter the cynicism that drives our political culture.
We applaud the initiative taken by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and George Grant to keep political culture free of unnecessary personal smears and attacks.