Sayeeda Hussain Warsi – Baroness Warsi – is an impressive woman. One of five daughters, born in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, to immigrant parents from Pakistan, she practised as a solicitor before working her way up through the ranks of the Conservative Party, all the way to the House of Lords.
In her life she has achieved a number of firsts. She was the first Muslim woman to be selected to stand for Parliament by the Conservatives, unsuccessfully contesting Dewsbury in 2005. She was the first Muslim woman to enter Cabinet, appointed by David Cameron as minister without portfolio. When she was raised to the Lords, in 2007, she became its youngest member. She’s not yet 50 years old.
She is also the first Muslim woman to resign from the Government – in 2014, over Conservative policy on Israel-Palestine, and particularly attacks on Gaza. Warsi is also a familiar figure in the media. She’s a busy, focused woman, and she has fitted me in, at a café near the Palace of Westminster, to talk about her Radio 4 programme How to Be a (Muslim) Woman. Warsi, beautifully groomed, exquisitely friendly, leaps to the task of filling me in on what it’s all about.
“I spoke ages ago to producers who wanted to do something and I said, ‘I’m a Muslim and female and I just feel that the narrative around my skin is so one-dimensional.’ When we started this programme, Bodyguard hadn’t come out. Then it did, and everybody said: ‘Oh, it was such an amazing series’. I thought, ‘Well, it was, except for the Muslim woman, who’s painted in exactly the same stereotypical way that we always paint Muslim women – either she’s downtrodden and needs to be saved, or she’s a terrorist and we need to be saved from her. In Bodyguard, we think she’s one and she turns out to be the other.”
Nadia in Bodyguard (BBC)
Warsi’s programme is an attempt to move beyond that stereotype. She expresses regret that it’s just one programme, not a series, but adds that “there’s still time”. She would like to create a series of podcasts, in which all of the programme’s interviews with the women can be heard in full. “I come across so many amazing women – complex, funny, emotional, intelligent women,” she says. “I ended up speaking to some wonderful, wonderful women, you know – an army cadet, a grandmother who’s campaigning to build a women-led mosque…
“Every day I’m reminded that the real powerhouses in this community are all women. They’re the ones who are setting the agenda, and yet this narrative of ‘We’re so downtrodden’ prevails.”
There are challenges, she says. “All women face challenges. Two women are killed in this country every single week at the hands of their partners. But it’s women who are pushing back against those challenges. So, stop speaking for us. Let us speak for ourselves. Stop trying to save us, or be saved from us. Just let us be.”
Does she think that Islam has proved better at protecting women from violence than western Christianity has?
Warsi makes various points, describing how the Prophet himself married a wealthier older woman, 1,400 years ago in Saudi Arabia; she says that Islam “didn’t need to invent feminism, because it was built into it from the start”. But she does concede that “like most religions over time, Islam has been interpreted by men to their advantage. But that’s no different from any other religion, really. Men will always find a way to use the scriptures to make it look like they need to be seen as superior.
“The fact that I go to is that women and men are different – different but equal. For Muslim women there are additional rights, which I have always felt that I had. I have the right to go out and get a job. But if I choose not to, I have a right to be kept. The other big message that I heard was: ‘Don’t just listen to me only when I fit your narrative of empowerment and feminism,’ you know? Don’t just listen to me when I’m talking about forced marriages or the misogynist men in my community.”
Since Warsi is from Dewsbury, stood for Parliament in Dewsbury, and since Muslim men from Dewsbury have indeed been convicted of the grooming and sexual abuse of girls, as have Muslim men in a number of other northern towns, and since Warsi brought up the matter of misogynist men in her community, I say to her that I haven’t actually heard many of these vibrant, outspoken Muslim women saying a great deal about such men. Why is that?
Her response is forthright, and the interview takes a very different turn. “You can’t ask me that question,” she says. “Why would you ask me that question? You think that you can, because they happen to belong to the faith I belong to?”
I stand my ground. These crimes seemed systematic and continued for a long time. It would be strange, to me, for strong women not to have strong views on them. After all, what’s left of feminism if it doesn’t challenge abusive patriarchy?
“If we’re going to have an interview about a positive programme, I’m happy to do that,” Warsi says. “But I find it appalling that you would even ask me the question the way you framed it, as if somehow these amazing women should have known or should somehow be held to account for it. I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to leave the interview at that.” She leaves.
I like Warsi, and I’d have thought that – not as a Muslim woman, but as a Muslim woman politician who comes from Dewsbury – she might have had lots of interesting points to make about what has gone on in these communities. But no. Which is a shame, because her programme – still being put together at the time RT went to press – sounds like a breath of fresh air.
How to Be a (Muslim) Woman airs Friday 16th November at 11.00am on Radio 4