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Stylist’s Women of the Year 2017: The protester whose stand against the far-right went viral

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Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
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An image of Saffiyah Khan, 19, confronting a member of far-right group the English Defence League went viral in April. Picturing Saffiyah smiling with her hands casually in her pockets – amused and unafraid in the angry, red face of Ian Crossland – it became a symbol of defiance against intolerance.

“We knew the EDL were coming to Birmingham, and they have a long history of targeting locals. A group of mates and I went down. I am politically active and have been going on protests since I was quite young.

We were at the rally for 45 minutes before anything happened. Then a lady came over – Saira Zafar – and started calling the EDL xenophobes and bigots. They surrounded her. We thought, we’re going to have to get involved now.

Soon after we pulled her out, that picture was taken of me. It was taken by Joe Giddens from the Press Association. There was a lot of press there, because last time the EDL came, there were riots. I was way too young to get involved then.”

“It was just a moment. Our general rationale was, ‘Keep your hands in your pockets’, because the far-righters will take any excuse to say, ‘She did this’. We should be very wary of the increase in far-right politics in this country. More needs to be done. It’s becoming mainstream.

After the protest, I saw the photo. I thought, ‘That’s a decent picture’, and sent it to a friend. Then it went crazy, there were loads of things popping up on Facebook. All the newspapers were getting in touch. 

I didn’t have a mobile at the time because I’d lost it and decided to stay ‘off grid’, so my dad took on the role of PA. A couple of years ago he said I wasn’t allowed to go to any more protests because he had to pick me up from the police station once, but with this he couldn’t be angry at me. Tommy Robinson, who co-founded the EDL, tweeted that it had embarrassed them. I’ll take that.”

To celebrate the best in people, Stylist photographed and interviewed 10 heroic women – just a few of the many who served to inspire us all in 2017. To see the rest of our Women of the Year 2017, click here.

Photography: Mark Harrison.