A lawyer, a businesswoman, a campaigner and a cabinet minister, Sayeeda Warsi has had many roles, but she is best known for being the first Muslim to serve in a British cabinet and the foremost Muslim politician in the Western world. In August 2014 she resigned from Government citing the Government’s “morally indefensible” policy on Gaza.
One of five girls born to immigrants of Pakistani origin in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, Sayeeda studied law at Leeds University, going on to work for the Crown Prosecution Service before setting up her own legal practice.
Her father, a former mill-worker and bus driver who set up his own business, instilled in her values of freedom, responsibility and aspiration. These are the values that inspired her to get involved in the Conservative Party and it was there that she became Vice Chairman and adviser to the leader, Michael Howard, in 2004.
She stood as a Parliamentary candidate in her home town the following year. In 2007 she was elevated to the House of Lords aged 36, making her the youngest peer in Parliament. Later that year she traveled to Sudan and famously helped to secure the release of the British teacher Gillian Gibbons who was on trial for blasphemy.
A racial justice campaigner for many years, instrumental in the launch of Operation Black Vote and serving six years at the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Sayeeda was chosen to take on Nick Griffin on Question Time in 2009. It was the first time the British National Party leader appeared on a flagship BBC political show. Her performance singled her out as ‘sharp, articulate, unhysterical and warmly engaging’ (Observer).
In 2010 she was appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron as Minister without Portfolio, becoming the first Muslim to serve in a British Cabinet. The iconic images of her on the steps of No 10 Downing Street in a shalwar kameez (a traditional ethnic outfit) were beamed around the world. She was also appointed as Chairman of the Conservative Party – the first Asian to chair a major British political party. In 2012, Sayeeda was made Senior Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Minister for Faith and Communities.
In government she has devoted herself to making the case for faith, declaring in a 2010 address to the Anglican Bishops’ Conference that governments should ‘do God’. In 2011 she provoked support and controversy when she famously declared that Islamophobia had ‘passed the dinner table test’. In 2012 she led the UK’s largest ever ministerial delegation to the Vatican, gaining global coverage for a speech which called on Europe to strengthen its Christian identity.
Outspoken and challenging on the issues that many people seek to avoid, she has become an interesting and distinct voice on topics previously considered taboo. She led the government’s campaign to criminalise forced marriage and spoke out on the sexual grooming of children by gangs.
Her business background and her passion for manufacturing have made her a champion for British business both at home and abroad, and as a result she has played a key role this government’s foreign policy priorities. Her campaign to ensure that Britain became the first western country to issue a Sukuk (Islamic bond) succeeded when Prime Minister Cameron announced the UK’s intention to implement this in 2014.
A fierce political campaigner, Sayeeda drove the campaign against adopting the Alternative Vote system ahead of the May 2011 referendum, winning what she called ‘the mother of all elections’ by a ratio of two to one. She also spearheads the party’s Social Action agenda both domestically and internationally, setting up Project Maja, which has brought politicians and volunteers together in the poorest parts of Bosnia Herzegovina and Bangladesh.
A keen cook, an addict of home improvement programmes, and a cricket fan, she lives in Wakefield with her husband Iftikhar and their five children.
“I think there is something of a Christian fight-back going on in Britain…you could see it in the reception to Sayeeda’s superb speeches about standing up for faith” – David Cameron, Downing Street Easter Reception, April 2012
“Northern, working-class and Muslim, Sayeeda Warsi has evolved a language of diplomacy that is all her own. She takes people with her, rather than dictates. She represents modern multicultural Britain in all its complexity, and she’s a Conservative. She is on her way to inventing a new type of politics for the looming age of authenticity” – The Daily Telegraph, January 2012
“The best speakers position themselves just outside, not inside, the political mainstream. Therein also lies the secret of Baroness Warsi’s success… she’s the closest they have to a modern-day Margaret Thatcher” – Simon Lancaster, “Who are the best and worst government speechmakers?” – Total Politics, May 2012
“I’ll never forget when Sayeeda took me to a Muslim centre in Bradford…I thought this is an extraordinary British talent and I’m proud to be the first British Prime Minister to have a Muslim woman as a full member of the Cabinet” – David Cameron, Conservative Friends of Pakistan launch, May 2012