Why everyone's talking about Naz Shah, the new MP candidate with an incredible life story

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Anna Brech
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The problem with politics is that it can be a little dull and lacking in dynamic role models.

We've lost count of the amount of times we've had the conversation that goes "I don't know who I'm going to vote for in the election. I'm just not drawn to anyone" in recent months.

We've been held captive to a lingering sense of political apathy, made worse by all the bickering and point-scoring.

We needed someone to shake us out of our stupor. And that someone came in the form of Naz Shah, a politician who shared her real, complicated - and at times, desperately sad - life story this week. 

Shah took what some might dub a huge political risk when she laid out the facts of her personal history in a gripping, no-holds-barred letter for her local newspaper, the Urban Echo

The Labour candidate for Bradford West had only just been elected by the party's National Executive Committee and could be forgiven for keeping her head down for a while.

After all, we expect our MPs (or prospective MPs) to spin the facts, not lay them bare. We don't tend to hear about their personal lives unless they're splattered over the newspapers in the form of some sordid scandal. 

Any glimmer of emotion or vulnerability is somehow not quite au fait in the power-heavy echelons of Whitehall, especially coming from a woman. 

All of which makes Shah's sincere, upfront letter about her tough childhood quite extraordinary. 

"My world was turned upside down"

Shah - who is looking to oust Respect’s George Galloway at the general election in May - begins her story in Bradford aged six, when her father ran off with a teenage neighbour, leaving her and her pregnant mother destitute.

"I remember been thrown into the back of a taxi with black bin liners full of our belongings and packed off from the family home on Hartman Place to my granddads home in Kirkham Road," she writes. "We never really saw the end of black bin liners over the next few years as we moved from squalor to squalor, 14 times in less than 2 years, from back to back houses where the toilet was outside to rat infested damp houses where we lived and slept in just one room."

The family eventually found a home, but only at the cost of Shah's mother living with a violent man. Shah was sent to Pakistan aged 12 to escape him, but was later forced into an unhappy and abusive marriage herself. Her mother, meanwhile, cracked under the pressure. 

"The following years of anti- depressants, failed suicide attempts and feeling desperate and destitute she snapped," explains Shah. "She killed the man who abused her."

Shah's life was quickly plunged into further turmoil when her mother was sentenced to 20 years in jail for murder.

"I remember how my days and nights became one, how my world was turned upside down, how I became a mother to my two siblings who were 11 and 13 at the time," she writes. "... When my mother didn’t tell her story of abuse at her trail due to the fear of 'izzat' (honour/shame) it was my mother who was not believed. Every chapter of her life following her marriage is a book in itself, how her husband refused to pick up her first child because she was a girl, how she was battered by her husband, how she lost children due to beatings. How she lost all her 'izzat' when she was on the front page of the local rag as a murderer and sentenced to 20 years." 

In 1992, Shah left her abusive husband but she still struggled. "I visited my mother at Newhall Prison, when I left it was like leaving a crying child at nursery for the first time, I now became a mother to my mother. We lost the house, we lost everything and the moving around started all over again," she recalls. 

With the help of the Southall Black Sisters and other women's justice groups, Shah eventually managed to get her mother's sentence reduced to 14 years, on the basis that she was driven to kill. 

Her experience gave her a thirst for campaigning and she managed to turn her life around. She worked for the Samaritans and as a carer for children with disabilities before landing a role with the NHS, giving out grants. It helped her to develop her leadership qualities, as she continued to "fly the flag around violence against women through speaking at conferences and contributing to discussions".

Shah's mother - whom she describes as "my rock" - is now 63 and and out of jail. Shah has a family of her own; her 10-year-old daughter Leyana, and two sons Aydan (seven) and Raese (three). 

How have people reacted? 

One of the first people to pick up the letter was Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore

"Her story is about as far away as you can get from men at lecterns in a TV studio scoring points off each other," she wrote. 

"To get more women to vote we need a politics that speaks of the everyday experience of survival, of the difficulty of feeling you have a voice or a choice, never mind a vote. Of feeling that someone in politics gets it."

Shah's story has since provoked widespread coverage, with Twitter adding its voice to the fray: 

Not all of the reception has been positive. 

Depressingly - but unsurprisingly - Shah has been trolled on social media for her unapologetic feminist stance. 

"Already my 'character' has been attacked and desecrated through social media and trolling," she says. "The smear campaign that has started has been some of the most vicious and disgusting I have seen. But it does not scare me, will not change me, and it in fact fuels my passion for change more."

The Labour party has also come under fire for not recognising and electing Shah sooner (she only got the post after her predecessor, Amina Ali, stepped down). 

But can she make a difference? 

While many commentators have hailed Shah's honesty and courageousness in talking about her background, others have pointed out that this does not prove her ability to have a real, lasting impact on policy.

Shah's argument is that she's been there; she knows what its like to be broke or have your home taken away from you, or be the victim of domestic abuse. Her experiences have fuelled her on, convincing her that the only way to "change society for the betterment of humanity" is to influence policy and decision-making at the highest levels.

"My selection isn’t about me, it’s about the recognition of inequality in society," she says. "It’s an understanding that we still have many changes to make. It’s my way of making things right because if I’ve learnt anything I have learnt that through compassion we can change the world, we cannot change things through just complaining we must be part of the solutions and we must have conversations, real meaningful and honest conversations not only with ourselves but with our families, our communities and beyond."

The bottom line

We still don't know who we will vote for come May.

We don't know whether, if elected, Shah will follow through on her promises to bring about real and meaningful change. 

There will probably be a thousand voices that will make themselves heard between now and the General Election.

But in the meantime, Shah's narrative represents a glimmer of hope in a sea of political inertia. 

Amid the chorus of incessant babbling, she's carved a different path. She's shown that there can be a warm, beating pulse at the heart of politics; a hint of integrity and passion that cuts through the bluff.

And no matter who the politician or what the party, that can only be a good thing in the jaded world of Westminster. 

What do you think? Would you vote for Naz Shah? Do we need more politicians to talk about their backgrounds and what motivates them, as she has? Or should policy-makers stick to the issues at hand? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Twitter/Labour Party

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.