Sayeeda Warsi: the UK's new Iron Lady
According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I am talking to the most powerful Muslim woman in the UK. Baroness Warsi, the Conservative peer, is sitting in her office wearing a fashionable cowl neck jumper with pearls. Pictures of her family decorate her desk.
As you might expect from the woman who belittled the British National Party leader Nick Griffin during a televised debate and stood up to Islamic extremists who pelted her with eggs, she is unafraid of tackling difficult issues.
For example, France's impending burqa ban. For her, the issue is not a theological one but it is about freedom of choice. "Whether women choose to wear skirts, trousers, dresses or face veils then as long as it is done through choice, then they can do what they want," she says in her Yorkshire lilt. "It is not so long ago in this country that we were having huge debates about the length of women's skirts and whether they should be of a certain length.
"Now we are having a discussion about women's veils. We've had this discussion in Britain and we have overcome it and yet here we are sadly in Europe discussing issues around what women wear." She rejects the idea put forward by opponents of the niqab in Britain that women who wear it cannot fully participate in society. "If you listen to some of the women who wear the face veil, there are some extremely articulate, intelligent, university graduates who choose to do this," Warsi points out.
However, she says if the argument is that some women are wearing the niqab because that is the only way they will be allowed to leave the home, or they are forced to wear it and are disempowered, how is forcing her not to wear the veil going to empower her? "Because if she is being put in that position, the chances are she won't be allowed out of the house," she says. "So if this is some big crusade by some white, middle-class men to empower Muslim women then it ain't gonna happen as it will have the complete opposite effect."
Warsi, 39, has supported women's rights throughout her career, and campaigns against enforced marriage. She also set up the Savayra Foundation, which works to empower women in Pakistan. I am interviewing Baroness Warsi during an exciting time in British politics. Warsi was appointed co-chairman of the Conservative Party following the general election in May this year and became Minister without Portfolio in the first coalition government since the Second World War. The election campaign - most notable for its first live, televised debates by the three main party leaders - reinvigorated interest in politics following a period of public outrage triggered by the scandal over parliamentarians' expenses.
The formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition meant the end of 13 years of Labour rule, and our interview is taking place shortly after the Labour Party chose Ed Miliband as its new leader. Warsi has become a bit of a regular on television and radio, and following our meeting in her office at Conservative Central Office she rushes off to appear on the Daily Politics programme to comment on the vote. "I think sadly it is quite a difficult time for the Labour Party," she tells me. "I think it is a huge step backwards. They have abandoned the centre ground."
I ask whether Warsi's appointment to the Cabinet is indicative of how the Conservative Party, once perceived as the anti-immigration "nasty party" - has changed under the leadership of David Cameron, the British prime minister. "Ten years ago there were people in the Asian community who wouldn't even think of voting for the Conservative Party and here we are, 10 years on, where one of the co-chairmen of the Conservative Party is Asian, female, Muslim and from working-class roots and, in fact, everything which most people like to say isn't typical Tory."
Although there have been mutterings from disgruntled Tory backbenchers that she is there to make up the numbers, Warsi, who is clearly driven but also good fun, says she has always had a great time within the Conservative Party. "I use a lot of humour, I don't take myself too seriously," she says. "I am quite open in accepting new views and ideas." Extremist elements of the British Muslim community have seen her embracing of Conservative values as a betrayal.
But this is a minority, she says. After eggs were thrown at her by half a dozen extremists on a visit to Luton, Bedfordshire, last November, there was an outpouring of support from Muslims around the country. "A large percentage of my e-mails came from the British Muslim community and 99 per cent of them said: 'Thank God you stood up to them.' There was out-and-out condemnation for what they did. These people are more of a threat to British Muslims than to British non-Muslims because not only do they pose the same threat and create the same unrest as they do for everybody else in the community, but they also create a backlash against the community."
Warsi believes the British Muslim population is trying to find its identity at the moment. On the one hand, she says, it feels its loyalty is being questioned after "large sections of the community were stigmatised by the last government as extremists" while on the other, Muslims feel very loyal and integrated into Britain with many success stories. The peer believes faith can play an important role in the wider community and this is connected to the Conservative Party notion of the 'big society', or neighbourhood army to unite communities with social projects. The scheme was unveiled during the election campaign.
"I think there is a bit of a myth that faith is on the decline in Britain today," she says. "Attendance at church and faith institutions is on the up. "Whenever you talk about faith, people get very emotional, people of faith, people of no faith and the whole thing in between. Let's look at the good that comes out of faith and let's support that. "The Archbishop of Canterbury said the last government viewed faith as belonging to people who were seen as oddities, minorities or foreigners. We have got to move away from that."
Warsi was privileged to have a one-on-one audience with the Pope during his recent visit to the UK which was "an amazing experience". "It was quite a divine week because I celebrated Eid at the beginning of that week, then I had dinner with the Chief Rabbi for Jewish New Year, then I went on to do a big speech at the Bishop's conference in Oxford where I talked about the role of the state and its interaction with faith communities, and then I greeted his Holiness the Pope."
However, important as her faith is to her, Warsi does not wish to be defined solely because of her religion. Understandably, she says it is a small part of what she brings to her role. "I am very proud to be a Muslim. I am very clear about my religious and cultural background but what I find sometimes is that the media in Britain has wanted to focus only on that. There are so many other parts that define me whether it is my strong working class roots or whether it is the fact I am a lawyer. Of course, at a time when so much is written about how disempowered Muslim women are, then it is a good news story to be able to say: 'Look I am British, I am Muslim and I am in politics and in public life.' "
Warsi has enjoyed a meteoric rise from her roots to the very heights of the British political establishment. Her father came to England from Pakistan in the 1960s with just £2.50 in his pocket. He settled in Dewsbury, a mill town in West Yorkshire, and worked in a mill and as a bus driver. He went on to set up a successful bed manufacturing company that had an annual turnover of £2 million (Dh11.6m) when he retired.
However, it was her mother who chose the career that put her on the path to Westminster. Growing up, Warsi had wanted to work in the theatre and had thought of "interpreting the great British classics and taking them to the stage in a modern way". Her mother vetoed this and told her and her four sisters they must choose from traditional careers such as law, medicine, accounting or engineering. "She made those decisions for us, which in retrospect was great as I think having a good, solid, legal career taught me the skills that I am now using but I think there was always a sense that there had to be more to life," she says, adding she did not do the usual rebellious things with "hair, makeup and boys" and instead was "always wanting to get involved in groups and activities" to try to have an impact on the community.
Following a state education, Warsi studied law at Leeds University and then qualified as a solicitor. She set up her own practice but gave up it up to stand for Parliament in Dewsbury in 2004. Although she lost to the Labour candidate Shahid Malik, she had previously been talent-spotted at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in 2003. Consequently, the party offered her a seat in the House of Lords that enabled her to enter the shadow cabinet. She held a number of posts including Community Relations adviser before becoming vice-chairman of the Conservative Party in 2005.
One of the highlights of her career to date was helping to secure the release of Gillian Gibbons, a British teacher who was jailed in Sudan for allowing her class of seven-year-olds to name a teddy bear Mohammed. Warsi travelled to Khartoum with Lord Ahmed, a Muslim Labour peer, to try to resolve the situation. Now, as Minister without Portfolio, which means she has no official brief, she is involved in a range of issues "around community cohesion and around extremism".
With so many responsibilities, I ask how she finds time to achieve any kind of work-life balance. She has a daughter aged 12 from her first marriage, which was an arranged marriage that ended in divorce after 17 years, and four stepchildren from her second marriage to Iftikhar Azam, a food scientist. "You constantly have to make compromises but as long as you are open and honest, your children accept it.
"Occasionally you have great days like Sunday when all we did was fix squeaky doors and re-tighten hooks. I cooked and we watched The X Factor. It's constantly about striking that balance. Yes, we might be away for my daughter's birthday, there are always moments like that, but it's whether or not you are open with your kids and you tell them what you are trying to achieve. The good things is that my kids understand that and spend a lot of time with me working."
Her husband tells her she "does not have the ability to do nothing". "I feel terribly guilty doing nothing, but cooking relaxes me. I love just being in the kitchen throwing things in. If I had more time I would read. I miss reading what I want instead of always for a briefing." When asked what she would like to achieve during her time in office, she says she defines success as inspiring other people to follow the same path.
"I am pleased that positions of leadership for Muslim women have now become aspirational and a respectable thing to do. When I first set out in politics not that long ago, there were debates still being had in this country about whether Muslim women should have leadership positions. Certain mosques thought it was an inappropriate choice of profession. "I was born and raised in Yorkshire, I am a lawyer and my parents originated from Pakistan. There are so many bits that are part of you that make you the kind of person you are.
"Would I say that makes me a role model? I would say all of those things could, I hope, inspire somebody. I would hope that some young woman who comes from a working- class background in Yorkshire will look up and say I can do that because she did it."
Published: October 9, 2010 04:00 AM