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. 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. Inspired, she got involved in the Conservative Party and it was there that she became Vice Chairman and advisor to the leader, Michael Howard, in 2004.
In 2005, she stood as a Parliamentary candidate in Dewsbury.
In 2007 she was elevated to the House of Lords aged 36, making her the youngest peer in Parliament. Later that year she travelled 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 took 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 as a Cabinet Minister. 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 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.
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 spearheaded the party’s Social Action agenda both domestically and internationally, setting up Project Maja, which has brought politicians and volunteers together to deliver projects in the poorest parts of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Bangladesh, and Turkey
Her business background and her passion for manufacturing have made her a champion for British business both at home and abroad. Sayeeda has been a major driver of four start-up businesses; two in the service sector and two in manufacturing, all of which developed into vibrant and successful SME’s. In Government she led the campaign to ensure that Britain became the first western country to issue a Sukuk (Islamic bond), which was issued in 2014. She also Chaired the Global Islamic Finance & Investment Group.
Sayeeda is a Trustee of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and Chair of the Baroness Warsi Foundation. The Foundation focuses on three programme areas; social mobility, gender equality and freedom of religious belief. She is also a Trustee of the Savayra Foundation, a UK registered charity which works in Pakistan to empower widows, divorcees and orphan girls through skills, education and other poverty relief programmes.
Sayeeda is passionate that education is the opportunity that makes anything possible. She is committed to widening access to Higher Education for all. Sayeeda is an International Advisor to Australia Catholic University, a Visiting Professor at St Marys – the oldest Catholic university in the UK, an Advisor to Georgetown University, Washington D.C, and Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Bolton. She has also been awarded Honorary Doctorates from Aston, Birmingham City, and Bolton universities, as well as from the University of Law.
A keen cook, an addict of home improvement programmes, and a cricket fan, Sayeeda has consistently been voted one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world. Sayeeda lives in Wakefield with her husband Iftikhar and their children.
Sayeeda 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”
“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, PM 2010-16
“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
“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” – Total Politics