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Page last updated at 03:51 GMT, Friday, 30 April 2010 04:51 UK

Birmingham could see Britain's first female Muslim MP

By Caroline Gall
BBC Birmingham

Nusrat Ghani and Salma Yacoob
Ms Ghani and Ms Yaqoob say championing causes is most important

Next week's election promises a swathe of new faces in the House of Commons.

Not only are we witnessing the largest number of MPs to retire in 60 years but, with a record number of Asian women also standing, Britain could have its first female Muslim MP.

This breakthrough moment in politics has already happened for Muslim men with Mohammad Sarwar voted in in Glasgow Central in 1997.

Khalid Mahmood was the first in England when he won the Birmingham Perry Barr seat in 2001 and the race to be among the first female Muslim MPs could also be played out in the second city.

Salma Yaqoob, according to one newspaper the most prominent Muslim woman in British politics, is the Respect Party parliamentary candidate for the Birmingham Hall Green constituency.

Labour's Shabana Mahmood is fighting Clare Short's seat in Ladywood along with Nusrat Ghani, who is standing for the Conservatives.

Sparkbrook - within the Hall Green constituency - and Small Heath now broken up between different wards - has the largest percentage of Muslim voters of any UK constituency at 48.8%, according to the 2001 census.

So is there a reason why has it taken so long for Muslim women to play such an active role?

ASIAN FEMALE CANDIDATES
CONSERVATIVE
Bristol East - Adeela Shafi
Witham - Priti Patel
Stoke on Trent Central - Norsheen Bhatti
Leigh - Shazia Awaan
Makerfield - Itrat Ali
Birmingham Ladywood - Nusrat Ghani
Glasgow East -Hamira Khan
LABOUR
Bethnal Green and Bow - Rushanara Ali
Ilford North - Sonia Klein
Bolton South East - Yasmin Qureshi
Bury North - Maryam Khan
Wigan - Lisa Nandy
East Worthing and Shoreham - Emily Benn
Birmingham Ladywood - Shabana Mahmood
Walsall South - Valerie Vaz
Scarborough and Whitby - Annajoy David Da-Bora
Central Suffolk and North Ipswich - Bhavna Joshi
LIB DEM
Hayes & Harlington - Satnam Khalsa
Feltham & Heston - Munira Wilson
Glasgow South - Shabnam Mustapha
Wimbledon - Shas Sheehan
Leeds North East - Aqila Choudhry
Harrow East - Nahid Boethe

The candidates agree there are certain cultural issues and stereotypes they have had to overcome but their potential success will make more women want to take part.

Not only are Muslim women under represented in Parliament, but they believe women generally are lacking a role inside the political hub.

Shas Sheehan, Liberal Democrat candidate for Wimbledon, said: "There's family pressures and barriers and women being primary carers for their elderly relatives, particularly for Muslims, cultural expectations differ quite a lot.

"Those born in Britain have more self confidence to release ourselves from those expectations, unlike our mothers."

Ms Yaqoob, who has become a familiar face in the press talking about multiculturalism and speaking out against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, said she received death threats after announcing her intentions.

"There has been a more visible presence (of Muslim women) in the public eye in the last few years and I don't want to take the credit for it but...perhaps more women have felt they are now able to do this.

"I've had death threats and been accused of collaborating with non-Muslims and many other obstructions - there are a lot of cultural difficulties to overcome."

But each candidate said although they are proud of their identities, being the best candidate for their constituencies was most important.

"I happen to be a woman, I happen to be Asian and I happen to be Muslim," Ms Mahmood said.

"In my role, people talk about opening the door but I talk about removing that door entirely."

Ms Ghani said: "I am a woman and a Muslim but I'm standing as a Conservative - it's about being the best candidate and the message that you have that's important.

"Being Asian, I can access Asian women who may have language difficulties so yes, that can help...but being Asian and female, I'm here to represent the diverse constituency."

Ms Yacoob, who if elected would be the first MP to wear a headscarf or hijab, said: "The main thing I want to get across is, I know I wear a headscarf and I am proud of who I am and my various identities but, it's about being proactive and championing issues not about being tribalistic."

Shabana Mahmood and Shas Sheehan
Ms Mahmood and Ms Sheehan say women are under represented

For Ms Sheehan, taking a stance against how she felt the British National Party portray Muslim women was also important for her.

"I feel it almost a duty to show I am not caricature of the Muslim women you portray."

But how has the environment Muslim women operate in changed from when they first started to venture into politics?

Ms Yaqoob was seen as one who led the way, helping to found the Respect party in 2004, and Sayeeda Warsi who became the first Muslim woman to sit on the front bench of a British political party in 2007.

"The men that were sceptical shall we say or, hostile and begrudgingly accepting are now warm," Ms Yaqoob said.

"There has been a genuine shift and hopefully a shift in contributing in every field not just to talk about Muslim women being oppressed."

Ms Mahmood added: "The image of the voiceless Muslim woman who cannot leave the house is just not true, they are interested in politics."

So, almost 120 years after the first Asian male MP was elected for the Liberals in Finsbury, another historical milestone could be reached in the 2010 election.

As Ms Mahmood pointed out: "Parliament is for the people - all of the people and the ethnic minority population should claim it."



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