A more important story than the headscarf debate

Respect partyThe current European headlines are dominated by France and Belgium’s impending face-veil legislation, but there is another, more important, story that isn’t getting as much attention—that of a quiet revolution throughout Europe of Muslim women emerging onto the political scene.

One of the most prominent examples is that of Salma Yaqoob in the UK. Yaqoob, a prospective parliament candidate, is the most prominent Muslim woman in British public life today. She herself wears a headscarf, a powerful symbol of a faith she has accommodated with her passionate leftwing politics. She represents UK’s Respect party and has a pretty good chance of making history as one of the first British Muslim women MPs. There are other Muslim women running for seats in Birmingham, Bethnal Green, Bolton South and other cities.

Sadly, however, by virtue of being both Muslim and women, Yaqoob and others face opposition from all sides who don’t believe they belong in politics. They face resistance from conservative elements in their own Muslim communities, as well as more extremist elements. During Yaqoob’s campaign in 2005, she even faced harassment and death threats from al-Ghurabaa, an Islamic extremist group later banned under UK’s Terrorism Act.

On the other hand, many non-Muslim voters feel threatened by her as a Muslim. “I’m between a rock and a hard place,” she says. “I have to jump hurdles because of the way I look. Firstly, I have to make it clear that I don’t support terrorism, secondly, that I’m British, thirdly, that I don’t just lobby for Muslims and lastly, that I’m not a Trojan horse for sinister Islamist plots.”

But she has been winning even her fiercest critics. She says, “some people who made out fatwas against voting for a woman have now been saying that I’m the right candidate. I have been invited into mosques – some of which don’t even have facilities for women to pray – to give the Friday sermons.”

But the story isn’t that Yaqoob and others like her might bring the headscarf to Westminster, but that they are introducing to British electoral politics a constituency of Muslim women. She claims that her work in politics “challenges the old order, which treats our communities as silent voting fodder. And it was only possible because we united people around a progressive message of anti-racism and social justice”.

So as difficult as it might be, she isn’t giving up. And others like her throughout Europe aren’t giving up either. And THAT is the bigger story to tell.

© Marc Gopin