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The British MP who overcame family abuse, childhood poverty

Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West, talks about her new life in parliament

Nabila Pathan

Published: Updated:

As the dust settles following last month’s UK elections, a certain politician continues to be referred to as having “an extraordinary life,” as well as being touted as an antidote to the phenomenon of career politicians. In an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya News, Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West, talks about her new life in parliament, her desire to champion social equality, and that memorable win against George Galloway.

Shah, who was born in Bradford and is of Pakistani heritage, says she has “hit the ground running” since becoming an MP, adding that she has “found her natural home.” However, the 41-year-old says she misses some of her home comforts: “I miss my curries, I miss my cooking, and most of all I miss my kids.

“The challenge is keeping everyone with you while you’re in Westminster,” she said, referring to not losing touch with friends and contacts she has known throughout her life. She has a deep sense of “respect” for the position she has been given, and views herself as a “voice for women.”

Shah was brought up in grinding poverty after her father abandoned her mum for a 16-year-old neighbor. Shah’s mother Zoora was then befriended by a man who offered her and her three children a stable home. The arrangement became abusive, and Zoora killed him after he threatened to sexually abuse her second daughter. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

During Zoora’s 14 years in jail, Shah took on the responsibility of being a parent not only to her two younger siblings but also to her mother, who she would regularly witness breaking down in prison.

“When you’re on your own it’s traumatic, but when you talk to others, at conferences or to journalists, I... step into a comfortable place so I can manage my emotional response,” said Shah. “Being able to do this has enabled me to go from being the victim to the survivor, to the advocate, to a speaker and then policy adviser... to now being in government.”

Shah reflects on the challenges of living in poverty during the early days of her mum’s imprisonment: “Poverty for me included living off pot noodles and a brother sleeping on the floor.”

Election campaign

Unlike her parliamentary colleagues, her political career is relatively new. Her campaign to win the seat for Bradford West attracted national media interest. She defeated the incumbent Respect MP George Galloway with more than double the number of votes, following what many described as a nasty smear campaign against her.

Despite what she described as Galloway’s track record of “picking fights,” she said her own record of working in the National Health Service (NHS) and other services sectors "spoke for themselves.”

She added: “I had a fantastic team, and what we’ve done in Bradford is a milestone. What existed were patriarchal structures... It took a lot of hard work to engage with people, especially as people didn’t know me and I’m known as a feminist. I had to work twice as hard to gain the trust of individuals... but I did it.”

She said what differentiated her campaign from Galloway’s was that she was “surrounded by people of different races and backgrounds, different genders... It was a very inclusive campaign, and that was visible. I ran a clean campaign. A lot of Galloway’s enemies tried to befriend me, but I didn’t want get into that as I’m a woman of principle.”

Shah’s experiences growing up makes her determined to tackle violence against women and social inequality. “My struggles aren’t my own, but belong to all women.” She concludes: “Having heard about the people my story has inspired... it’s a different level of emotion. You’re not just working for Bradford West, but giving hope to lots of people. That’s a huge responsibility.”