Next week’s election promises a swathe of new faces in the House of Commons. Not only are we witnessing the largest number of MPs to retire in 60 years but, with a record number of Asian women also standing, Britain could have its first female Muslim MP.
This breakthrough moment in politics has already happened for Muslim men with Mohammad Sarwar voted in Glasgow Central in 1997. Khalid Mahmood was the first in England when he won the Birmingham Perry Barr seat in 2001 and the race to be among the first female Muslim MPs could also be played out in the second city.
Salma Yaqoob, according to one newspaper the most prominent Muslim woman in British politics, is the Respect Party prospective parliamentary candidate for the Birmingham Hall Green constituency. Labour’s Shabana Mahmood is fighting Clare Short’s seat in Ladywood along with Nusrat Ghani, who is standing for the Conservatives.
Sparkbrook – within the Hall Green constituency – and Small Heath now broken up between different wards – has the largest percentage of Muslim voters of any UK constituency at 48.8%, according to the 2001 census.
Salma Yaqoob is one of the most prominent Muslim woman in British public life. She wears a headscarf, a powerful symbol of a faith she has accommodated with her passionate left-wing politics. She is standing as a candidate for the tiny and fractured Respect Party.
In some streets around the new constituency of Hall Green in Birmingham, her poster is on every window. Since her narrow defeat for Westminster in 2005, she has built up support through her work as a local councilor, as well as building a national profile through her appearances on BBC’s Question Time.
Yaqoob was wooed by Labour after 2005. She acknowledges that “My values are traditional Labour, but New Labour has gone to the right”. She was even courted by the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, a tribute to her rare capacity for fair-minded plain speaking, most evident in her Question Time appearance earlier this year, at Wootton Bassett, when she earned respect for her handling of questions about British soldiers killed in Afghanistan, a war she opposes.
Yaqoob is well aware that she is a challenge to traditional Muslim political culture – not just because she is a woman, but because she is not afraid to speak her mind.