Dreams of my mother & dreams for my daughter.
Last week I was selected to stand as the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Bradford West, where I was born and raised, and where I live and am raising my own family.
In my first press interview, the reporter asked me what brought me into politics and referred to my own life story. Later on that evening on the journey back from London, my friend asked me how I felt. I responded I would know once I was in my mother’s arms. I also explained that I had many years ago read Barak Obama’s ‘Dreams of my father’ and for me to be where I am today were the dreams of my mother.
I was only 6 when my father abandoned my mother with two young children and pregnant with a third when he eloped with the neighbour’s 16-year-old daughter. I remember being thrown into the back of a taxi with black bin liners full of our belongings and packed off from the family home on Hartman Place to my granddads home in Kirkham Road. We never really saw the end of black bin liners over the next few years as we moved from squalor to squalor, 14 times in less than 2 years, from back-to-back houses where the toilet was outside to rat infested damp houses where we lived and slept in just one room.
We finally had a home, 251 Legrams Lane, purchased with the sale of my mother’s wedding jewellery but in someone else’s name, Azam’s name. My mother’s attempt to provide her children with the security of a home came at the expense of being abused by Azam over years. A man that she thought would save her children from an uncertain and insecure future, little did she know he would be the exact opposite. My mother had sent me to Pakistan at the age of 12 when she felt I was at risk of his abuse. When my younger sister was growing up and my mother felt she was now at risk, and following years of anti-depressants, failed suicide attempts and feeling desperate and destitute… she snapped.
She killed the man who abused her.
I remember how my days and nights became one, how my world was turned upside down, how I became a mother to my two siblings who were 11 and 13 at the time. Up until then, the worst I had known personally was my own forced marriage through emotional blackmail when I was just 15 years old whilst in Pakistan. I never went back to schooling and my first job was at Society Linen hire on Usher St, the laundry service for the local hospitals. I moved on to packing crisps at Seabrook’s which was a huge improvement in job and wages. By January 1992 I wanted to go back to college after leaving my own husband who used his fists to communicate and now this.
My life now revolved around solicitor and prison visits. I didn’t know how to run a house and I used to smoke ten Benson’s and read the Sun for crying out loud. I remember the first day I visited my mother at Newhall Prison, when I left it was like leaving a crying child at nursery for the first time, I now became a mother to my mother. We lost the house, we lost everything and the moving around started all over again.
We campaigned with the Southall Black Sisters and were supported by other women’s group across the country like Justice for Women. Together we managed to get my mother’s tariff reduced from 20 to 12 years but my mum still served 14 years before being released on parole as we had to work with the Parole board to satisfy them as she was no longer a risk. The 14 years is a story in itself, as is that of my own and my sibling’s survival, being homeless, desperate and alone with just each other and some friends who we made along the way. But that story is for another day.
I became a carer for children with disabilities as my mother had also been a carer. I then went on to become an advocate for women with disabilities and their carers. I felt my calling was to help people and I then joined the Samaritans. I didn’t realise how much anger I carried inside me towards the ‘systems’ that failed me and my family because I had turned it into this force to change people’s lives. I would get emotional about the families I was helping and angry if they weren’t getting the right services, until one day my mentor pulled me to one side and asked me why was I so upset when families didn’t get the services they needed, how much of this is really about the failure you experienced? That conversation was a game changer for me.
I quickly realised to effect change I must be able to influence decision making and that’s when I joined the NHS. To begin with, I managed giving out grants and ‘Patient and Public Involvement’ and we then started ‘commissioning services’. I found my niche when my manager recognised my talent and invested heavily in my leadership development. I fell in love with the idea of ‘Leadership’ and am still in love with the notion of it being the key to change society for the betterment of humanity.
Beyond my own career, I continued to fly the flag around violence against women through speaking at conferences and contributing to discussions. I didn’t really appreciate exactly how much I was using my own natural leadership and passion to influence policy and change.
Now where does this fit in with the dreams of my mother?
When my father left my mother it was my mother that was ostracized and persecuted. It was my mother who became the ‘fallen one’. When my mother didn’t tell her story of abuse at her trail due to the fear of ‘izzat (honour/shame) it was my mother who was not believed. Every chapter of her life following her marriage is a book in itself, how her husband refused to pick up her first child because she was a girl, how she was battered by her husband and how she lost children due to beatings.
How she lost all her ‘izzat’ when she was on the front page of the local rag as a murderer and sentenced to 20 years. She laid bare for the whole world to see her wounds of sexual exploitation at an appeal only to be dismissed as incapable of belief and then once again before the Lord Chief Justice who finally accepted she was driven to kill and he reduced her tariff.
So you see for me, to be selected as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate is not really about me, it’s the dream of my mother. I remember my mum saying, “Naseem I would be so happy if you became a prison governor as you could help women like me.” When I expressed my interest last year for politics as it’s where I can influence change, my mother understood that her story from 22 years ago would resurface. It would open up wounds but she blessed me as she knew it’s what made me this way. My siblings struggled but they knew it is who I am.
My selection isn’t about me, it’s about the recognition of inequality in society. It’s an understanding that we still have many changes to make. It’s my way of making things right because if I’ve learnt anything, I have learnt that through compassion we can change the world. We cannot change things through just complaining. We must be part of the solutions and we must have conversations, real meaningful and honest conversations, not only with ourselves but with our families, our communities and beyond.
It’s been 6 days since I was selected and an amazing 6 days by anybody’s standards. I have been on a learning curve second to none. I’ve always campaigned against violence against women and I have a deep understanding of the role of ‘power and control’, but even I have been taken aback by the ‘power dynamics’ of politics. I had not reached home following my selection and I had at least two new fake twitter accounts set up in my name. Already my ‘character’ has been attacked and desecrated through social media and trolling. The smear campaign that has started has been some of the most vicious and disgusting I have seen. But it does not scare me and it will not change me. In fact, it fuels my passion for change even more.
In a short space of just 6 days, this tells me clearly that unfortunately 22 years later it is still a woman’s character that is attacked. Why is it that men’s characters are not questioned in this city when they stand for elections? For me personally, every attack is a further indictment of why I must stand and challenge the status quo. It gives me more strength and resilience to ensure I win the trust and belief of the people in Bradford West and then this election to bring change in my community.
Today is also International Women’s Day and I will be speaking at a conference as well as my first hustings. Each bit of my story and the celebration of women across the world, overwhelms me that little bit more today.
My mother is 63 now. She is my rock, as are my siblings, but the future isn’t about her anymore. My drivers are now different as I have children of my own. My daughter Leyana is ten years old. Last year Leyana learnt of her ‘nanis’ (grandmother) life experience. Leyana said now she understood what I meant when I say ‘I work so hard so you don’t have to.’ My daughter had £34 pounds in her savings box which she gave to her nani as she had been poor. How beautiful is the innocence of our children, our future. How can this not feed my passion to achieve equality in society?
I have also been blessed with two sons, Aydan and Raese, seven and three years old as well as a niece and a nephew. I don’t want for them what I went through. I don’t want for any child to miss out on a good education. Having experienced poverty first hand, I understand how it impacts. I was the first ‘compulsory redundancy’ in NHS Bradford & Airedale in 2009 following the cuts/austerity measures. The fact that I am where I am illustrates how even against the odds we can create a better future for the next generation.
When I did finally get home that night I was selected, my mother sat up in her bed and held me close whilst I cried. We cried together knowing that whilst my past and my present are the dreams of my mother and her inspiration for me, my future is about the dreams I have for my own daughter. She is my inspiration to bring change and equality for the world in which she is growing up in, the community we live in and the wider society.
Happy International Womens Day.
Prospective Parliamentary Candidate
A daughter, a sister and a mother.