This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
The General Election is 57 days away—it's squeaky bum time for MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates up and down the country. But aside from heavy media debate over whether the UK's current Prime Minister will deign to argue with other party leaders on telly for an hour, it still feels strangely distant. Like it's not really happening. The disconnection between voters and politicians still feels, at this point, pretty absolute.
Something has happened over the last few days, though. A fire has been lit. Naz Shah, PPC for Bradford West (elected last week to stand against Respect MP George Galloway), shared her harrowing life story with Urban Echo on Sunday night, International Women's Day, in an open letter explaining why she wanted to become an MP.
Within hours, Shah's account of become politicized through a life of abject poverty, abuse, destitution, and fear went viral on social media. Every media outlet in the country seemed to pick up on it, and for good reason—her story is about as far away from the braying, men-standing-at-lecterns-in-suits Westminster politics as you can get. Here's a person who actually knows what change means and exactly why it is needed, who has fought incredibly hard against the odds from a very early age. It feels revelatory that a voice like hers might find a place in the Establishment.
To get more women to vote— 9.1 million of us didn't in 2010—we need politicians, women, who can speak authoritatively on day-to-day survival. Women who are proof that having a voice can make a difference. Women like Shah. "I know the struggles being faced by families across Bradford West because they are struggles I have had to experience myself too," she says.
Speaking to VICE from her home in Bradford this morning, Shah sounds frazzled but fired-up. "My sleeping pattern has gone out the window," she laughs. "The last couple of days have been completely overwhelming. I'm a 41-year-old woman with adult acne and it's all flared up—I looked in the mirror this morning and thought, 'Oh god.' My throat is sore because I haven't stopped talking, d'ya know what I mean? I'm supposed to be giving a conference in Cardiff tomorrow but I'm going to have to do it over Skype."
Bradford West is an important seat for Labour, and Shah has a fight on her hands. She's come in late after Amina Ali, the previous candidate, dropped out because she didn't want to relocate her family to Bradford from the London borough of Tower Hamlets, amid rumors of so-called "biraderi" interference [a hidden, traditional system of clans that seeks to limit the power of those not deemed worthy of it by the network]. Of course, everything that makes Shah a fantastic Labour candidate—politics of survival, her gender, her ethnicity, her history—will eventually be used against her, some way or another, because that's how the British political system works. Right now, though, at the beginning of her political climb, she's galvanized as hell. Her voice might be rasping, but she can't stop talking.
"When Galloway came into town he made a lot of false promises," she says. "He let people down. I actually believed he would do something here and my feminist friends were dead against me, but you know what, parliament is inherently patriarchal. It takes so much confidence to become politically active with our system, but everyone has to start somewhere."
Shah, now a mother of three, grew up in abject squalor in the area after her pregnant mother, Zoora Shah—who already had two small children—was abandoned by her father when Shah was six. Her mother struggled to support the family, and they moved 14 times in under two years—places infested with huge rats and toilets in the garden. Hope came in the form of a local man, Mohammed Azam, who offered Shah's mother a bigger, better home. Only, the caveat was forced sex. A decade-long cycle of relentless abuse began.
Azam was a married man, which, in Bradford's conservative Muslim community, meant Shah's mother immediately became a pariah. Over the next decade, she discovered that Azam was both a drug dealer and a gangster and, eventually, as well as the violent sexual abuse, he attempted to make her a drug mule. When his plans were thwarted, he took her to the cemetery where two of her children were buried and raped her.
At 12, Shah was sent by her mother to Pakistan to escape the abuse, where, at 15, she was forced into marriage. Meanwhile, her mother was desperate. After attempting to take her own life several times, she finally cracked and laced Azam's food with poison. It killed him, and she was subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Shah spent 12 long years campaigning, with the support of Southall Black Sisters, for the release of her mother—a woman imprisoned (she wound up serving 14 years) for murdering the man who beat, raped, and pimped her for over ten years. Shah survived because she didn't feel like she had a choice, but she did it through channeling her anger and upset into caring for children with disabilities, working for the Samaritans ("helping others took my pain away"), and, latterly, working in a major commissioning role in the NHS ("I chaired the NHS's black and minority ethnic staff network for NHS Bradford and Airedale and commissioned 88 projects—my delivery is second-to-none"). She is now a chair of the mental health charity Sharing Voices (the largest BME mental health charity in Bradford West) whose mission statement is: "Prejudice builds walls, care brings them down."
There is a natural idealism that comes with any exciting new parliamentary candidate (Shah says she's been "assigned an MP who is going to help me run a very different kind of campaign"), and the flip-side to that is cynicism, the question: "What does this person have to back it up?"
In Shah's case, years of proven leadership, activism and fearlessness on issues of gender, race, disability, and mental health.
"I fell in love with leadership when I attended the Transformative Leadership Programme (TLP) in 2008," she says. "I didn't realize that I'd been leading until that point, but I had." Shah then became a regional director for a leadership director program with Local Government Yorkshire and Humber. After two weeks though, she "realized things weren't clear," and wound up whistleblowing.
"We will only change things if we have frank discussions about violence against women on a day-to-day basis, and if that's at the expense of my own emotional response, that's the reality."
"The press haven't reported on that yet, but I lost my career," she says, avoiding going into specific details other than that the union didn't support her when she had to take on the regional government in a tribunal. "At that point I had a pregnancy, too. My marriage broke up. It all really messed up."
Today, Shah says she "owns" her experience—even her darkest years as a child—"in an objective fashion." She shares her story frequently at women's groups and as a keynote speaker in seminars, but, as she says, it's all been "thrust into the limelight" overnight, and will continue to be reported on the closer we get to May 7. She tells me that she's going to be visited by several TV crews over the course of the week, but that she's completely ready for the circus. "It's good, because it raises the issues I want to raise immediately. There's nowhere to hide."
"We will only change things if we have frank discussions about violence against women on a day-to-day basis, and if that's at the expense of my own emotional response, that's the reality. Of course I am an emotional being, and it can be upsetting re-visiting stuff that's happened, but I had to own my own narrative. That's why I wrote the article for Urban Echo—I was on my way back from London on the night I was selected and my friend turned to me and said, 'How do you feel?' I got emotional, because it's about my mom's dreams more than anything else."
So you wanted to get in there before anyone else could?
"Exactly. Like my friend said at the time, everybody is going to write about it. I had just been selected as a candidate, needed to think of a way to address it, and just thought: 'Why not?' I wrote it while the kids were asleep on Saturday night—I think there's still at least four grammatical errors in there."
Since her story has gone viral there has, naturally, been some backlash. "I have had a lot of people posting things about there being another family—the victim's—involved, and I have to think about that. Us three kids weren't the only victims—his [Azam's] three kids were victims, too. Regardless of who the perpetrator is or isn't, these kids have also lost a father, and I must keep that in consideration."
"I am not a polished politician by any means, and may say things that aren't on the party line."
At this point in our conversation, her doorbell goes. It's someone from the Daily Mail, doorstepping her. I can make out her saying, "That headline was a bit much, wasn't it? Even for a right-wing newspaper like you. Did you have to go with murder?" (Their headline yesterday read: "The murderer's daughter bidding to become a Labour MP: Candidate tells extraordinary upbringing after mother served 14 years".)
She appears to close the door abruptly, without much of a goodbye.
Further backlash has come from people suggesting Shah was "the third choice, the bridesmaid," but she's very keen to point out how incorrect this is. "I went through a proper interview process to get a proper job—because that's what this is. It's a job. You have to deliver. I have to make targets and try and achieve them."
Unlike Galloway, then, who has been widely accused of absenteeism, along with inciting racial hatred.
"You know what," she says, her voice rising slightly, "I know the guy spins it, but yesterday, when I saw him stand in front of a television camera and say, 'I've never heard of Naz Shah,' it was the first time I've ever seen someone lie as blatantly as that. He does know who I am—I lead the biggest mental health charity for the constituency he is MP for. He's also retweeted several articles I've posted to Twitter. Bit baffling, really. Maybe if I got into a pussycat dress and ask him to pretend to lick milk out of my hands, I'll get the fame and fortune I really deserve, eh?"
What is your biggest fear currently? Because it's obviously not saying the "wrong" thing.
"I am not a polished politician by any means, and may say things that aren't on the party line," she says. "But I am going to raise the bar in Bradford. I'm not scared that I can't do the job—I can, I know I can put my money where my mouth is—but I am scared of letting people down. I never want to be that person. You can't please everyone but you can have absolute conviction.
"Politics can provide a platform to say, look, I am living proof that change can happen. I am that endorsement. People—women—feel let down, marginalized, and disenfranchised and they need tangible proof that a corner can be turned, that the system can be trusted. Because right now, it can't."
Follow Eleanor on Twitter.