When George Galloway won Bradford West for Respect from Labour in 2012 by a 10,140 majority, he announced his victory through a megaphone: “All praise to Allah!” For a Scottish Catholic, Galloway appears to be doing very well at speaking on issues affecting Muslims.
During that by-election campaign Galloway produced a leaflet that said, “I’m a better Pakistani than [Imran Hussain, the Labour candidate] will ever be. God knows who’s a Muslim and who is not. And a man that’s never out of the pub shouldn’t be going around telling people you should vote for him because he’s a Muslim.”
Galloway’s opponent at the general election is Naseem (Naz) Shah, a local to Bradford who is of Pakistani Muslim origin. Last month, I travelled to Bradford to join Shah on the campaign trail soon after she was catapulted into the race by the withdrawal of the original Labour candidate, Amina Ali, for “family reasons”.
Shah is full of energy when she joins me at my Bradford hotel. “I’m real, I’m from the grassroots. I am from Bradford, I am a part of Bradford. I am Bradford,” she tells me. With her warm, approachable manner and impeccable local credentials, she is certain to give Galloway a run for his money on May 7, although he remains favourite to retain his seat.
In contrast to Shah’s feminism, Galloway appears to consider women as inferior. Commenting in 2012 on the legal case against Julian Assange, who is accused of rapes, Galloway suggested that Assange was guilty only of “bad sexual etiquette”.
Galloway’s remarks caused widespread consternation even within his own party, Respect: Salma Yaqoob resigned as its leader. For his defence of Assange, Galloway was voted “Sexist of the Year” in a poll run by the End Violence Against Women Coalition: the prize was a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Galloway’s victory in Bradford West was, ironically, ascribed mainly to women, in particular those from religious backgrounds who had in the past been expected to vote the way male relatives voted. This was part of a baradari system that generally delivered block votes to Labour. Naz Shah says that those women, herself included, were let down. “What happened was that Galloway came and made a lot of false promises. He raised expectations. He took us to the top of the mountain and just left us there. He did not deliver. He promised Arab investments. He promised football investment. None of which materialised.What Galloway did was ask women to join the conversation but he didn’t actually converse with them.”
The Muslim population of Bradford West is just over half of the total number of residents, far higher than anywhere else in the UK. In the 2012 by-election Galloway managed to garner support from across the electorate irrespective of social class, ethnicity or religion.
But the honeymoon period for Respect and Galloway in Bradford West is, for many, over. “What this election is dragging out into the open,” says Fawzia, a resident and local activist in Bradford West, “is how Galloway has relied on his reputation as a defender of all things Islamic. But by denying the problems inherent to the culture for women, he is encouraging people to pick up the stones and to take a long, hard look underneath.”
When Islamists shot dead 12 journalists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Galloway stood outside Bradford City Hall and declared it a “racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag”.
Shah has seen the harsh side of the culture that Galloway appears to celebrate uncritically. When she was six years old her mother Zoora, an illiterate women from rural Pakistan, was left with two young children and pregnant with her third after her husband ran away with the 16-year-old daughter of a neighbour.
The family moved into one room with nothing but black bin-liners stuffed with clothes and a few possessions. Zoora eventually sold her wedding jewellery but was unable to get a mortgage, so the local drug dealer, Mohammed Azam, who had befriended her, offered to take out a mortgage on her behalf.
When Shah was 15, she was taken out of school and sent to Pakistan to enter into a forced marriage to her cousin. “He was violent and abusive,” she says, “using his fists to settle arguments.”
In similar fashion, Azam physically and sexually abused Zoora throughout their relationship, and she began to fear that he had designs on her daughters. In 1992 she killed him by putting poison in his food, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Shah, then only 18 years old, was forced to became a mother to her two siblings, who were 11 and 13 at the time.
I first met Naz Shah in 1997, when women’s groups from all over the UK came together to help her campaign for Zoora’s release from prison. By then, Shah had learned to lobby MPs, write campaign leaflets, speak to the media, and hound lawyers into helping put a case together to challenge her mother’s conviction.
When Shah told her extraordinary life story in a local newspaper, days after her selection as a parliamentary candidate, it quickly went viral. But at the first hustings of the election campaign, Galloway admitted he had ordered an intermediary in Pakistan to locate Shah’s marriage certificate (nikah) in order to try to prove she had been 16, not 15, when she was married.
I have seen a copy of Shah’s nikah, which clearly states she was 15. Shah explained that a second nikah was issued when her husband was applying to come to the UK to live, because it is illegal in both Pakistan and Britain to marry below the age of 16. Galloway rejected Shah’s explanation at the hustings, and described Shah as a “big loser” and a “liar”. Abid McKay, Galloway’s spokesman, said that because Shah’s mother attended the marriage it could not have been forced. “Forced marriage is a crime, whatever age the victim is,” says Shah, “and it is common knowledge that it is usually one or both parents who pressurise their children into such unions.”
I go to a food bank with Shah and the Labour team, where I speak to Bradford West constituents. I ask whether they would ever vote for Galloway. They all say “no”. Reasons given include that Galloway is rarely in Bradford; that he has a poor attendance record in parliament; and that he promotes himself more than he does his constituency. “Parliamentary records show in 2014 he earned well over £200,000 on top of his MP’s salary, working for Russian, Iranian and Lebanese TV,” says Shah. “He’s a one-man band, and more a celebrity than a politician. If your MP has the second-worst record for attendance, and that’s not because of his ill health, I’m sorry, that doesn’t resonate.”
The previous day Shah had addressed the Muslim Leadership conference in Bradford, and was not surprised to find that every question directed to the panel from the audience was about women. “Lots of Muslim women are telling me they support me, and that they are sick of Galloway saying he speaks for them,” says Shah.
She has been invited to a local women’s centre to address a group of Muslim women who meet there on a regular basis. Fifteen women of all ages turn up. Some say, in response to questions from Shah, that Galloway is a good voice for Muslims, but others are not so sure, with one younger woman saying she has “felt used” by him. “Galloway refuses to engage with people that do not wholeheartedly agree with him, or vice versa,” says Shah, “so nothing ever gets sorted out when there is a problem.”
Shah speaks for half an hour, without notes and with warmth and passion. Many of the women say that Galloway has the best interests of the Muslim community at heart, but Shah gently challenges them, asking what he has actually done for Bradford West. The women fall silent, struggling to come up with a response.
Leaving Shah to make a speech at a mental health charity that she chairs, I go for lunch to My Lahore, a modern curry house in the centre of Bradford. I had heard that Galloway is a regular there, and the manager confirms this. After I speak to several customers, it becomes clear that few know anything about Galloway or the Respect party’s politics, although one elderly white couple remember him dressed as a cat, resplendent in a red Lycra body suit, on the reality TV programme Big Brother in 2006.
The battle for Bradford West rages on, often in the unlikeliest of places. In the first week of the campaign, Galloway got into a spat with a small local brewery. Matthew Halliday, owner of the Bradford Brewery, sent Galloway what he described as a “cheeky” tweet asking if he was “still a thing”. Halliday says he had noticed that Galloway, who does not drink alcohol, was the only parliamentary candidate who had not visited the new business to wish it well. Galloway threatened to “return to the matter” after the general election, and blocked the brewery and anyone associated with it from accessing his tweets. The brewery is now planning on bringing out a special beer named “Galloway” which will be “weak and bitter with a frothy head”.
Whilst Galloway argues on Twitter, Shah is spending her time knocking on doors and listening to constituents. “We’ve been getting a fantastic reception on the doorsteps,” says one member of the her campaign team. “People here feel deeply let down by George Galloway and his broken promises. They’ve told us that Shah and her team being on their doorsteps listening to them is a huge contrast with the absenteeism of Galloway. Many people who voted for Respect in 2012 are telling us they are backing Shah this time.”
As we get closer to the election, Galloway’s tweets become more combative. One, with a photograph of triumphant Israelis waving the Israeli flag as a backdrop, reads, “I think Netanyahu and the entire Zionist movement wants me to lose; don’t you? Thank you for electing Naz Shah.” Directly below is another photograph, depicting a crowd of Palestinians waving their flag, and the words “Thank you for electing George Galloway.”
I ask Shah if she believes she can overturn Galloway’s five-figure majority. She says, confidently and firmly, “Yes. I am the biggest threat to Bradford patriarchal politics ever, and this whole male protection racket needs exposing.”