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Defeat of Galloway

In the 2015 British elections, Respect Party leader George Galloway, previous MP for Bradford West, lost his seat to a newcomer on the scene, Labour Party member Naseem (Naz) Shah, by a majority of over 11,000 votes. Galloway’s sexist behaviour towards his opponent, a British woman of Pakistani origin, brought about his political defeat and highlights the difficulties that Pakistani women, even in Western countries, face when entering the political field.

Galloway counted on the support of the socially conservative British-Pakistanis in Bradford to win this race. To appeal to their emotions, Galloway ran a “sexist smear campaign” against Naz Shah, where he said she lied that she was forced into an unwanted marriage at the age of 15. This sordid episode illustrates all too well that women’s personal and private lives are still public property, to be used as grounds to reject a woman no matter how well-qualified for the job she might be.

Never one to shy away from controversy, Galloway was expelled in 2003 for bringing the Labour Party into ‘disrepute’ when he made statements against the British government about the lies Tony Blair told about Saddam Hussein and Iraq. He is the darling of many Muslims for his support of the Palestinian cause and opposition to the Gulf War. Yet his grandstanding is often seen as self-serving, rather than truly focused on achieving any concrete advances for his constituents.

For political advantage, Galloway represents himself as a champion of the Muslims within the British political scene, calling out Israel for its barbarity and Western countries for their hypocrisy in their dealings with Muslim countries. In 2013 he came to give a keynote speech at the Karachi Literature Festival; Karachi’s elite fell all over themselves to listen to him give his usual statements about the duplicity of the West and the moral superiority of the Muslim world.

A smear campaign against did not keep Naz Shah from winning. When Naz Shah, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants to Bradford, was chosen by the Labour Party to contest the Bradford West elections, she wrote an open letter about her difficult childhood. Her father walked out on the family when she was six, leaving her mother for a 16-year-old neighbour. Aban­doned and destitute, her mother fell under the influence of an abusive drug dealer, and then went to jail for his subsequent murder.

Shah herself was forced into marriage when she was not yet legally an adult, and suffered domestic violence too, finally taking her young children and leaving in order to carve out a life with some dignity and peace. She was inspired to stand for elections after becoming politically involved with women’s groups that campaigned for her mother’s release. With her first-hand knowledge of how women fall through the cracks of the government’s social service systems, she promised to bring change in an area where poverty, abuse and the ill-treatment of women are still grave issues.

Her life brings to mind the tales of immigrants in Nadeem Aslam’s epic novel Maps for Lost Lovers, where Pakistanis live along the margins of mainstream British life, steeped in cultural constraints and trapped by honour-based social conventions. Yet Galloway accused Naz Shah not just of lying about her age at marriage, but of “reinforcing every bad stereotype about Pakistanis”. At a public meeting, Galloway dramatically announced that Shah had lied about her age, and that she was actually 16 when the marriage took place, brandishing what he claimed to be her ‘real’ marriage certificate. Galloway was later accused of having sent someone to pose as Shah’s father in order to get the certificate from the authorities in Pakistan.

As Shah said, “What does my marriage have to do with Bradford West?” But Galloway clearly thought that this was enough ammunition to harm her chances of being elected. He thought that conservative British-Pakistanis would rather stand with him than support a divorced woman with so much ‘scandal’ in her life. He spoke about her in the most sexist terms possible, telling her to “stop barking”. Happily, Galloway’s calculations didn’t win out, and Naz Shah, in her post-election statement, told Galloway: “You have been sent on your way.”

The defeat of George Galloway shows that voters recognised dragging Naz Shah’s past out to be judged and criticised as nothing more than a dirty political trick which had no real merit in the election. Naz Shah’s courageous rejection of Galloway’s sexist political smears and her victory at the polls should encourage Pakistani women both at home and abroad who want to become more politically involved.

Finally, the episode tells us that Pakistani voters can be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to the democratic election of a well-qualified candidate, man or woman. Let’s hope the message reaches Pakistan, where women have such a long road to travel for adequate political representation.

The writer is the author of A Season For Martyrs. Twitter: @binashah

Bina Shah, "Defeat of Galloway," Dawn. 2015-05-19.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Literature festival-Karachi , Social services , Women-Pakistan , Society-Pakistan , Violence , Muslims , Democracy , Poverty , Naseem (Naz) Shah , Nadeem Aslam , Saddam Hussein , Tony Blair , Pakistan