A photograph showing a young British woman smiling in the face of a furious far-right protester has gone viral, with thousands of people around the world praising Saffiyah Khan’s courage and composure in the face of religious and racial hatred.
Infamous far-right organisation the English Defence League (EDL) organised a march in Birmingham on Saturday, in response to last month’s terror attack on Westminster. The attacker, Khalid Masood, is believed to have lived in Birmingham with his wife and children.
Khan had gone down to the city’s Centenary Square in solidarity with those opposing the EDL, and said that she had not intended to get involved in the protest. However, she came face to face with Ian Crossland – the leader of the EDL – after she intervened to help a Muslim woman who was being physically intimidated by members of his organisation.
A photographer from the Press Association captured Khan and Crossland’s interaction in a series of pictures, which have since been shared thousands of time on social media.
In the photos, Khan is smiling serenely, her hands in her pockets and her expression both calm and defiant – in stark contrast to the enraged Crossland, who appears to be being held back from the young woman by a police officer.
Khan, who lives in Birmingham, told the BBC: “I don’t like seeing people getting ganged up on in my town.”
She explained that she went down to the protest “because I am a Brummie.
“This was happening in Birmingham and it felt right,” Khan told the Mirror. “I am not a political activist. I wasn’t in a confrontational role; I wanted to keep a low profile.”
She continued: “I was there with a few friends to look after people – because Muslims and people of colour are often abused.”
Khan, who was born in the UK and comes from a Muslim background – she is half-Bosnian and half-Pakistani – said that she was surrounded by members of the EDL after stepping in to support a woman in a headscarf.
The woman, who was wearing a hijab, had shouted “racists” at the protesters, Khan explained. As a result, “about 20 to 25 EDL people ran over and surrounded her,” she said. “She looked absolutely terrified.”
Khan initially waited for the police to help the woman, but eventually decided she would have to intervene herself. “I stepped forward and identified myself as someone who supported her and contradicted them,” she said.
The woman was able to escape as a result of Khan’s intervention. However, this meant that the EDL – including Crossland, the group’s leader – now turned on Khan instead.
But despite Crossland aggressively jabbing his finger in her face, Khan said that she “wasn’t intimidated”.
“I just stood there. I didn't do anything, I wasn’t interested, that wasn’t my intention,” she said. “I couldn't understand what was being said though to be honest, it was all very mumbled.”
Khan continued: “I wasn’t scared in the slightest. I stay pretty calm in these situations. I knew they were trying to provoke me, but I wasn’t going to be provoked.”
She was eventually led away from the situation by police, without being arrested or charged.
The images of Khan and Crossland had been shared thousands of time on social media by Monday morning, with many praising Khan’s bravery and dignity (and her brilliant The Specials t-shirt).
Others highlighted the contrast between the photos of Khan and the much-mocked Pepsi advert, in which Kendall Jenner dissipated tension at a protest by handing out cans of Pepsi.
The Guardian reports that only around 100 people were estimated to have marched at the EDL protest in Birmingham. Three times as many guests attended a counter-event organised by Birmingham central mosque at the same time: a “Best of British” tea party, complete with tea, cake and Union Jack bunting.
Addressing the estimated 300 people who attended, local MP Liam Byrne said the event celebrated “the quiet miracle of a normal life and the things that we love most about our city and our country”.
“Getting together as friends, getting together as neighbours, breaking a bit of Victoria sponge and having a cup of tea,” he added. “That is a potent, powerful message that we will send to those who seek to divide us.”
Main image: Members of the EDL photographed in Birmingham in 2011, Rex Features.