Poverty, Abuse and a Forced Marriage – Naz Shah Is Not Your Average Politician
Intimidation and bullying tactics are some of the practices taking place during the election campaign in Bradford West. Leaving dead animals on opponent’s doorsteps is the kind of fear that would terrify most people – but not Naz Shah. She has been through more ordeals in her lifetime than most people could imagine.
“I have no idea what the message they are trying to send or who is doing this. It could be anybody. The 41-year-old will be going up against George Galloway. “I want this to be a clean campaign, but I know it’s not clean,” she says. “I took a phone call from a friend saying they had seen pictures of me in my gym with other women wearing towels around us.
“They are trying to attack my character and make out I am a loose girl. My friend asked, ‘is it worth it?’ And I just said it has made it far more worth it.”
Naz’s harrowing life story, which recently went viral, stems from the overriding culture of izzat – the Asian code of honour that is instilled from birth and can dominate communities. As a child in the area, Naz says she saw her mother Zoora, 61, beaten by her father.
“One of my first memories was running to a neighbour’s house to tell them my daddy was hitting my mummy, can you come and help?” she says.
When Naz was six her 31-year-old father ran away with their 16-year-old neighbour, in an instant both families’ izzat was gone. They lived in fear of revenge and one night a burning material was put through their letterbox as they slept, setting fire to their home. No one was hurt.
Then Zoora married Mohammed Azam in 1983 and they began an affair after he promised to buy her a house. However, he regularly raped and abused her. “I only knew about the abuse afterwards because my mum protected us from it,” Naz says.
“She was a very marginalised and ostracised woman. It was common knowledge he was coming in and out of the house and that didn’t get her a good reputation because he was married.” To protect her from Azam, Naz was sent to Pakistan at the age of 12. Three years later, she was pushed into marriage when her family threatened to cut all ties with her mother back in Britain.
“They said, ‘you have to marry him’,” she says. “If you marry, it will put a man in the house and give you respect and honour.” When she turned 16 her husband came to live with her in Bradford, but she quickly found out he was abusive. She fled Bradford for Watford. However, came back when, in April 1992, Naz’s mother snapped. She poisoned Azam by putting arsenic in a sweet. She says, “It wasn’t about killing him. I don’t think she intended to kill. She was at a point where she actually snapped. She didn’t care whether he lived or died – that’s very different to premeditated murder.”
She was sentenced to 20 years.
Naz became a mum to her brother Amrahz, 13, and 11-year-old sister Fozia and had been persuaded to take back her husband to gain some respect and honour within the community. But the violence was still there. She says, “I finally left him was when he tied me up for two days. My cousin came up from Luton and couldn’t get in the door and was asking where I was, but he wouldn’t give a straight answer.
“He broke a chair on my back and he was very, very aggressive. He would put an iron close to my face and threaten me, saying if I can’t have you nobody else can.”
He was arrested after threatening to kill her. While her mother was in jail, Naz became a disability rights advocate, a Samaritans volunteer and now chairs a mental health charity.
She says, “Overnight I became a mum, big sister and friend. I did not know anything. One of the most difficult days was the day my mother was convicted.
“My brother had been up all night reading and praying. It was clear to them that my mum was innocent and I had promised my brother I was bringing my mum home. I walked through the door and he was looking behind me and there was no one there. He said, ‘Where’s Mum?’ I said she’s not coming home. That was the worst day of my life.”
Zoora served 14 years and now helps look after divorced Naz’s three children Leyana, 10, Aydan, seven, and three-year-old Raese, by her second husband.
She knows she is in for a tough battle against Respect MP Galloway, who has promised a clean and fair fight for the Bradford West seat he won from Labour in a by-election in 2012 following Marsha Singh’s resignation due to ill health.
The much-criticised biraderi – or clan politics – system in the city has traditionally delivered block votes to Labour. By standing, Naz has made herself a target to many people, with a range of agendas.
But, despite the early intimidation, she allows herself a little chuckle, “When you have been through what I have, there is not a lot you can do to me.”