Sayeeda Warsi: Evening Standard Interview

Published in the Evening Standard, Friday 18th May 2012 by Joe Murphy

Baroness Warsi: Father asked me ‘why be a leader if you don’t take the lead?’

Baroness Warsi may be a Cabinet minister with all the finely-honed minds of the civil service to call upon, but sometimes the adviser she trusts most is simply her dad.

So it was when the horrific details of the Rochdale sexual grooming scandal poured out in a shocking court case this month.

Five white girls, aged 13 to 15, were plied with alcohol, food and money and subjected to multiple sex attacks. The guilty men were Muslims of mainly Pakistani origin, some regarded as pillars of their community.

Shortly after nine men were convicted, Lady Warsi sat down to dinner at her parents’ house and her father asked what the Government was going to do about it. She did not know. The baroness recalled: “Dad then said, ‘Well, what are you doing about it?’ I said, ‘Oh, it’s not me, it’s a Home Office issue’.” At this her father, Safdar, gave her a remarkable lecture.

“He said to me: ‘Sayeeda, what is the point in being in a position of leadership if you don’t lead on issues that are so fundamental? This is so stomach churningly sick that you should have been out there condemning it as loudly as you could. Uniquely, you are in a position to show leadership on this.’

“I thought to myself, he’s absolutely right.” Today she has decided to use an interview with the Evening Standard to do as her father advised.

Until now, Lady Warsi — Britain’s most senior Muslim politician and the first Muslim woman to reach the Cabinet — has declined media requests for comment on the case. But in fact, the 41-year-old former solicitor has strong views of what went so badly wrong in a community just like the one in which she was raised.

“There is a small minority of Pakistani men who believe that white girls are fair game,” she said — choosing her words with care but not mincing them. “And we have to be prepared to say that. You can only start solving a problem if you acknowledge it first.”

She is clear that the colour of the victims’ skin, as well as their vulnerability, helped to make them a target. “This small minority who see women as second class citizens, and white women probably as third class citizens, are to be spoken out against,” she said.

This puts her at odds with some commentators who argue that the racial element was coincidental and that sex abuse occurs in white gangs. She says the Rochdale case was “even more disgusting” than cases of girls being passed around street gangs. “These were grown men, some of them religious teachers or running businesses, with young families of their own,” she said. Whether or not these girls were easy prey, they knew it was wrong.”

Her second challenge is to British Muslim leaders and preachers who have been equally appalled but nervous of speaking out.

“In mosque after mosque, this should be raised as an issue so that anybody remotely involved should start to feel that the community is turning on them,” she said. “Communities have a responsibility to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong, this will not be tolerated’.”

So far, she added, the response from organisations like the British Muslim Forum and the Muslim Council of Britain has been “fantastic”.

Her third plea is for the authorities to stop being squeamish about investigating allegations involving minorities. “Cultural sensitivity should never be a bar to applying the law,” she said.

Failure to be “open and front-footed” would “create a gap for extremists to fill, a gap where hate can be peddled”. The leader of the racist BNP, Nick Griffin, has already gloated about “Muslim paedophile rapists”.

Nobody could accuse Lady Warsi of what she calls “pussyfooting” around political minefields. In her five years as a top-level Tory she has hit out at voting fraud, attacked “militant secularisation”, been pelted by eggs and gone eyeball to eyeball against Mr Griffin.

But she says her aim is to resolve this issue, not pick a fight. “Leadership is about moving people with you, not just pissing them off,” she said.

Her passion is catching. She talks non-stop in a broad Yorkshire accent, acquired in her childhood in Dewsbury where she went to a state school.

Fluent in English, Urdu and Punjabi, she is a comfortable mix of cultures. Her mum, Hafeeza, arranged her first marriage, which lasted 17 years. In 2009 she married ”my rock”, Iftikhar Azam, in a ceremony at her parents’ house in Dewsbury. Although a practicing Muslim, who eschews alcohol and fasts at Ramadan, she hints at bending some rules. “Strictly, I should be doing my prayers five times a day. But I hate answering that: If I answer it truthfully my mum won’t be best pleased. If I said I was perfect, I would be lying.”

THE key to her confidence and success was a father whom she describes as “an amazing feminist” as well as a remarkable success story. Safdar Hussain came to Britain from a rural village in the Punjab with £2.50 to his name and worked double-shifts in a rag mill to make ends meet.

He became a bus conductor, bus driver, taxi driver and driving instructor before co-founding a firm manufacturing hand-made beds that now turns over £5 million a year.

Safdar encouraged his wife to have driving lessons in the Seventies, put his five daughters through university and into professional careers — and told them all to embrace the best of their Pakistani heritage as well as British culture.

When travelling abroad, she urges Muslim parents to give their girls the same chances, arguing that the Koran clearly exhorts followers to acquire knowledge. “Nowhere does it say, ‘Only if you are a bloke’.”

It’s hard to imagine any bloke telling Lady Warsi what to do. Except, of course, her dad.