She was born in to an average working class family from Manchester, known for their radical activist interests in politics. She grew to match them in their pursuits for justice and in their socialist endeavours. She was strong, ambitious, educated and was noted for her innate humour and sharp beauty. It wasn’t long before suitors came calling, and in her early twenties she married a prominent senior within the legal fraternity. Her husband was singled out as being the only male lawyer to be campaigning for women’s rights in a 1880s mail dominated environment. His early death came as a shock to her, but their shared devotions to their mutual causes acted as further fuel for her activism. In 1889, she founded the Women’s franchise league, who campaigned on a number of fronts and are known in particular for their struggles to grant married women the right to vote in local elections. In 1903, she founded the more militant Women’s Social and political Union, which later went on to be known as the Suffragettes. If you hadn’t guessed already: this is no fictional figure, I am talking about Emmeline Pankhurst, a name that is so integrally linked with struggle, activism and immense courage, a woman who was prepared to stand up and fight for her rights: equality she instinctively knew was due to her and was being denied by the prejudicial male dominated law courts of her time. Emmeline and her colleagues did not engage in the relaxed, laid back campaigning of today: they would have been laughed all the way to indifference! Instead, they built together what is more recently viewed as direct action. They protested in the streets, they broke windows, they made sure that the media of the time was saturated with one single message: ‘give women the vote!
They knew that to generate interest and support they had to keep increasing their exposure and momentum, many will recall the story of another of Emmeline’s compatriots, Emily Davidson, who threw herself under the King’s horse, sacrificing her life over the government’s continued failure to grant women the vote. The suffragettes are most known for their hunger strikes, and subsequent imprisonment, where they were mentally and physically abused, often force-fed in the most barbaric of circumstances.
Their battles dragged on for many dark years, in conditions that got much worse before any hint of a change came their way. When the authorities could not stamp out the hunger striking, they formed the ‘cat and mouse act, which stated that when a female prisoner became fearfully weak, she should be released from prison to regain her strength, only to be imprisoned once again when medical professionals deemed her fit!
Emmeline spent the bulk of the subsequent few years in and out of prison, this period of darkness ending only when war was declared in 1914, when she was forced to join her colleagues in supporting the war effort. It would have been easy to abandon such a struggle, which seemed to most as being responsible for more heartache than justice, but change was to come: in 1918, the ‘Representation of the people act granted the vote to women over 30, but it would take until 1928 for women to be granted equal voting rights with men. In June of that year Emmeline Pankhurst breathed her last, as though she could finally leave this world in peace knowing that she had fought, died and conquered the task God had sent her to earth to perform.
Tomorrow (May 6th 2010), the UK electorate will take to the poles to elect a new Government in what is said to be the most important and closely fought battle for power this generation has ever seen. But in spite of the equality Pankhurst and her colleagues fought for, coupled with the democratic values this secular country claims to hold dear, no one expects a massive turnout tomorrow! Over the past 10 years, estimates show that less than 50% of the UK electorate can be bothered to tick a piece of paper and slip it in to a ballot box (hardly back breaking work now is it!). Moreover, we even have postal votes, fully accessible poling stations and teams ready and willing to assist elderly and disabled voters, with every thing from transport to their local poling station or help to access the booth and sign on the dotted line! But while disillusionment among the masses is something of an inevitability in my view, I have never been able to comprehend why the turnout among Muslim voters is so low and only getting lower (20% at the last election).
Academics put it down to detachment, the inability to integrate fully in to British Society on account of being an immigrant, a Muslim, or both! But given that Muslim communities have existed here since the days of Pankhurst’s struggle, I find all this pretty hard to believe! Its not entirely surprising that people are turned off: few Muslims grow up in politically motivated families like the one Pankhurst was raised in. Most of them have a choice: wahabi or the West (and never the twain shall meet!). When living with such an identity crisis the brain has little time to process any thing else! Their parents teach them the language of the homeland, masjids teach qur’an in parrot fashion, and mainstream state schools demonstrate how 2 plus 2 is 4. The suffragettes might be skirted over later on, but in most cases it will drift in to infinity along with all those other useless pieces of information you glean during your first and second years at high School, yet never utilise in practical life!
Politics has in fact figured less and less in state school education. At least 10 years ago when I was in high school the voting system was explained, along with other methodologies from around the world, some schools also held student elections to get first time voters in to the zone as it were! But most of that seems to have been abandoned. So-called political correctness hints at openly voicing one’s political viewpoints, whatever those may be, as being offensive to “people”, (though the hidden offended ones are never defined for us). The result is that people grow up affected, embarrassed and ashamed of politics. The comedy programmes on British TV these days, entertaining though they can be, indirectly infer that politics is that useless add-on that no one wants, a waste of energy and a drain on society! And who can blame them: few politicians listen to those voters who can be bothered to lobby (the Iraq war being a case in point), and more recently, the shambolic MPs expenses system!
As far as Muslims are concerned, those few aspiring Muslim politicians who have risen through the ranks haven’t done much for branding politics back to the people! As I write this, I’m struggling to think of any of them who haven’t been tainted by election fixing, fraud, conflicts of interest, expenses abuse, unlawfully employing family members or using the Islamic Forum of Europe (more on that in another post) to manipulate them in to strategic positions of power!
All this would be mildly tolerable though, if the Muslims concerned were making a conscious decision not to participate in the election. What terrifies me is that most of the young people I speak to tell me, “when is the election?” “I don’t know who to vote for: you tell me!”, “what’s the point any way?”, “I’ve never voted: I’m not even registered to vote: why bother?.” Some have even been quoted in the media as saying that participating in UK elections is haram, because our votes contribute to the selection of an unislamic state government (My blog would get deleted from the internet if I wrote what I really thought of that particular view).
We all know that the very people screeching uselessly on about Khilafa, are the very same people who would run a mile if you piled them on to a banana boat and sent them to Afghanistan, Somalia or Saudi, those nations flagged as real “Islamic states” in their eyes. The question however, is, why would any one truly believe that voting goes against Islam? And why would a Muslim be so disaffected that he/she would choose to remain ignorant, and choose to opt out!
Islam was, after all, the religion that brought about real democracy to a people riddled with social ills, governed by tribalism and injustice, wouldn’t voting/self-determination be at the forefront of every Muslim agenda? Moreover, There was no “Islamic” state when Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) brought the religion of peace to his people. The state that was later established didn’t come from warm words and a few activists at the top, it came from every one playing their part and collectively harnessing good will, hope and action to create something beautiful, and inclusive for all. But oh how the tide does turn, now most sit back, shirking the responsibilities that are part and parcel of democracy, some stand up, most lay down: the sad irony of their inaction being that most of them claim allegiance to a group of individuals who cried election following the death of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), so desperate was their desire in fact that they went ahead with an illegal one in order that they overthrow the rightful and chosen successor of the Islamic state himself!
That said, our politicians are certainly not squeaky clean, there are many factors that would detach the common people, particularly in ethnically diverse constituencies such as mine! But the hard and fast fact remains, that you cannot change a system you choose to disengage from. Only by making our votes count, and backing those few figures we do trust to bring change, can we truly progress towards the kind of society and community we aspire to own. Emmeline Pankhurst was not simply bleating on about ticking a piece of paper, she fought for women’s votes because she saw the bigger picture: active citizenship is the catalyst that brings revolution: and those that really care will not simply tick the box every 5 years, rather they will fight, question, demand and lobby, holding those they entrusted with leadership to account at every turn. Some of you might question me as to the lack of women standing this term, across all political spectra, and while I would agree with you re: the obvious discrimination at work, I would ask you what you are doing to change it? Saeeda Fatima (A.S) was not shy and retiring when the illegal leaders of the state stole her rights from her. With ferocious dignity and confidence, she faced them, and delivered a sermon that if studied and understood, is reported to be a sure means of seeking a visitation from the awaited Imam Mahdi (A.S). Islam brought about rights for women to work, lead and act in the community way before Pankhurst and her partners did, however they continued on a struggle that men have been constant at trying to usurp from the hands of those who justly own it. Men are not solely responsible though, those of us (women in particular), who choose to sit back, yet claim devotion to women such as Khadija, Saeeda Zahra and Lady Zeynab (peace be upon them all), are nothing worse than the hypocrites we denounce!
Whatever might be wrong with Britain, (and allot is wrong with it!), I give thanks each day for the fact I live in a country where I, as a Muslim, disabled female hold the key to determining my political future, and that of those I care about. Sure my vote on its own won’t mean that much, but if we all took this attitude, not only would nothing change, but we would have no right to criticise the useless leaders we failed to elect for ourselves! Australia recently brought in compulsory voting, and those who don’t participate are fined, while consistent offenders can even be jailed! Affective though this may seem, I like to think that we vote because our conscience drives us to do so, because our desire to be counted and have a voice outways any sense of being burdened by the ballot box!
Ultimately, if none of this moves or make sense to you, take this night to reflect on what democracy really is. Why, did Imam Hussain (A.S) give his life on the sands of Karbala, only that we, his faithful could continue to fly the flag of freedom, truth, equality, justice and living democracy for all. His followers are not identified as such by their tears once a year, they are people of dynamism, vibrancy who live, breathe and implement activism through worship, love, and sometimes, paying a visit to their local poling stations!
I have my own political views, but I don’t mind who you vote for, (well, providing its not the conservatives!). Seriously though, what would really make waves would be to see my Muslim brothers and sisters turn out in droves tomorrow morning, bright eyed, charged and enthusiastic that a new era is on the way. Vote for who you choose, but make sure your vote is one that counts because you cast it: rather than being one of the great unclaimed, among those millions of poling cards that will fill trash bins and gutters on Friday morning!
Even if you’d opted out before reading this, its still not too late! You’ve got 7 hours and counting, and the poles stay open till 10 PM, so you’ve all day tomorrow too! Get busy: it will only take 5 minutes of your time (if that!).
Whoever you choose, here, in my 100th post would you believe! I wish you luck, action and ticks on papers tomorrow: …, may your parties be with you!