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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 July 2005, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
Can Ms Warsi change the Tories?
Feature
by Jackie Storer
BBC News, political reporter

She was Michael Howard's advisor on race issues and is now the Conservative's vice chairman with a mission to bring the party's message into the inner cities.

As a teenager British-born Muslim Sayeeda Warsi's ambition was to work backstage in a theatre - but that was vetoed by her mother.

"She said you've got to be a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant or an engineer," says the British-born Muslim, without a hint of resentment.

Sayeeda Warsi
Ms Wardi says her parents saved her from a broken heart
"I couldn't be a doctor - I would rather die of an illness overseas than have an injection ... so I went to law school instead."

Ms Warsi, 34, qualified as a solicitor and set up her own legal practice in her 20s. She says she has never had a problem with accepting her parents' guidance.

At the age of 15 she was taken to Pakistan and introduced to her future husband Naeem. "I thought he looked just like Sanjay in EastEnders," she says, with a smile. By 19 the couple were married.

"It was an arranged marriage. My parents recommended a series of boys and he was the one that I chose.

"They weeded out all the no-hopers so at least I didn't have to go through all the trial and error and end up nursing a broken heart.

I live round the corner from the mother-in-law of the alleged bomber in Dewsbury - I have known the family most of my life - and that's why I am worried about Blair's stance
Sayeeda Warsi

"It was probably a very naive decision, but at the time I was very comfortable with the proposal being put forward and I was lucky that it worked out.

"It just felt right - he was my type. He came over here and spent six months with my family before we got married - during that period we fell in love.

"He was my first relationship and I ended up marrying him.

"I have seen a lot of marriages based on over-whelming love go horribly wrong.

"But what exactly is love? How do you define it? Is it all about being excited, thinking 'Oh my God this man is wonderful?'

"Is it mutual respect or flashing lights and fireworks?" I suppose I have quite a practical approach to life."

Women's empowerment

She sees little difference between her parents choosing her husband than say, going on a blind date, where the introduction is made by friends.

Yet talk to Ms Warsi about forced marriages and you can hear the anger in her voice.

My own view on forced marriage is there is no place for it - one forced marriage is one too many

As a solicitor she has represented many women who have needed help to divorce partners they never chose in the first place.

She is also chairman of the women's empowerment charity, the Savayra Foundation.

"One forced marriage is one too many," she says.

"There has been a terrible myth created that it's an Asian issue, worse still, a Muslim issue. There is no place for it certainly in Islam.

"Consent is the real issue here - whether it is your choice or whether it is your parents arranging a marriage out of love.

"There are a lot of elders in the Asian community who generally believe what they are doing for their family is the right thing.

One Asian man asked me 'why isn't your husband standing?'
"They think 'we want our daughter to be married to our cousin's son' - it keeps up links with the family back in Pakistan.

"The fact that the daughter doesn't feel he is a very nice chap doesn't come into it."

Ms Warsi says her own situation could not be more different. Naeem, MD of his own manufacturing firm and with whom she has a seven year old daughter Aamna, is fully behind her pursuing her dreams, and so are her family.

By the end of 2004 she stepped down from her legal firm - and a 130,000-a-year salary - to stand as prospective MP for her home town of Dewsbury in West Yorkshire.

Despite a spirited campaign she lost out to fellow Muslim and Labour man Shahid Malik.

Personal choice

She says while she was well received on the canvassing trail - using her language skills in Punjabi, Urdu and Gujarati to full effect - she did experience the odd strange comment.

BIOGRAPHY
Age - 34
Town of birth - Dewsbury
Education - Birkdale High School, Dewsbury College, University of Leeds - Law; York College of Law
Profession - solicitor
Parliamentary background - Tory candidate for Dewsbury in 2005

"One Asian man asked me 'why isn't your husband standing?' It was as if 'your husband should be doing this, not you'," she says ruefully.

But Ms Warsi's reasons for being a Tory cheerleader since her college days are simple - she believes in choice, personal responsibility and opportunity.

It was the latter that inspired her economic migrant father to move his family over from Pakistan in the 1950s, she says.

"He went from the mills to become a bus driver, then a driving instructor to setting up a small bed manufacturing firm. When he retired it had a 2m turnover," she says.

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly
Ms Wardi says Ruth Kelly's wrap-around care idea is 'bizarre'
"He saw opportunity in the Conservatives - it wasn't about being a worker all your life. If you worked hard and wanted to go into business you could."

Ms Warsi and her four sisters attended the local comprehensive school, but her daughter is educated privately.

She finds state schools "too politically correct", offering little parental choice in the curriculum being studied, particularly in areas such as sex education, religious studies and after school activities.

Dwindling support

She is very much against all-women shortlists for the selection of parliamentary candidates, saying she finds them "insulting".

She also believes Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's plans for "wrap-around care" for school children from 8am to 6pm "absolutely bizarre".

She would rather have the financial freedom to pay a relative to care for her children than leave them to spend more time at school.

I really admire the way the Conservative Party picked a Northern, working class roots, urban working mum

As well as working as a legal locum, specialising in crime, mental health, asylum and immigration issues, Ms Warsi's challenge as Conservative vice chairman is to bring the party message into the cities where support has dwindled since the early 1990s.

Her brief is to look at community based projects that would be practical and workable in the cities.

She also plans to set up a task force of activists who can feed back to her the real issues that affect their communities.

"I really admire the way the Conservative Party picked a Northern, working class roots, urban working mum and said we think you should be leading the debate into the cities," she says.

"How refreshing, how mainstream. It shows real commitment from the party that they want to engage with real people."


SEE ALSO:
Tory urges talks with extremists
19 Jul 05 |  UK Politics
Kelly seeks more extended schools
13 Jun 05 |  Education
Howard pitches for UK ethnic vote
07 Dec 04 |  UK Politics


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