THE LUTZ REPORT…ON SALMA YAQOOB
In the first of a series of interviews with the movers and shakers around the West Midlands, Richard Lutz discovers that Respect Party leader Salma Yaqoob likes rock climbing and old movies - and was a mean footballer on the streets of Alum Rock while growing up.
Salma Yaqoob is just about at the front door as I park and walk up the family drive. She’s a slim woman, in her late thirties neatly dressed in her long dress and hijab - a solidly middle class Moslem woman.
She is hardly out of the headlines these days- at the top table on Question Time; local issues as a councillor such as the Sparkhill baths closure; or, the controversial council job cuts. And, as a founder of
The Respect Party, a rallying point for those who turned their back on the Labour Party and its military policies.
The media, it seems, has her in its collective contacts book- an articulate if redoubtable (some would say mouthy) Islamic woman, vehemently against the war and ready to rock and roll for her ideas.
She waits for me to set up in her back sitting room. She’s talking to me, getting me my cup of coffee ands then she sits down besides a classy looking red electric guitar probably belonging to one of her three sons (or maybe even her GP husband).
I last interviewed her back on 28th July, 2005. How do I remember that? As the filming rolled on that day, the door whooshed open and we thought little of it. It was an annoyance. The cameraman and I finished, got in the car and then drove through the tatters left by the Birmingham Tornado. You don’t forget things like that.
Today, she’s in that same immaculate room, decorated now with the obligatory big family flatscreen on the wall. Winter sun, watery and weak, pours in from the garden.
To talk with Salma Yaqoob is to be hit by a runaway train. You don’t even have to ask questions. She’s in fifth gear from the off. No wonder David Dimbleby had to stop her during that Question Time programme from Wooton Bassett. He had to give the other panellists a look in - and all of them capable of shooting from the mouth.
She explains she’s always been forthright - even as a girl growing up in Alum Rock.
‘I was a bit of a tomboyish girl.’ she said, with a pinch of pride, ‘I have a brother a year younger than me and were like… the terrible twins. I’d be out with him on the bikes and playing cricket and football with the lads.’
But things changed when she hit ten. It wasn’t Muslim traditions so much but, she says, the Pakistani perspective on what a girl should do or be. And maybe that’s when Cllr Yaqoob started to think twice about things.
Suddenly, she was told she couldn’t play on the road with her brother.
‘I got really upset. I’d say: ‘Why? Why not?’ How come he can carry on? So even then I was questioning and pushing that there were two sets of standards and I think I was right.’
She explains how an older sister brought home nine A grades in her O levels. ‘I remember her pleading with my father to let her go (to university). Because at that time it was get married or do needlework.’
The cultural fears, she said, were that young Asian women would be corrupted by higher education - and white culture.
‘We fought and we did go. We knew what our values were.’
Cllr Yaqoob received a psychology degree from Aston and then did postgraduate work in psychotherapy - a profession she still practises. Bu the academic work didn’t mollify her. There were still questions and doubts. She hawked herself around all sorts of religions - Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism - until she returned, happily, to Islam.
It was the Twin Towers attack and the ensuing 2003 war that crystallised her thinking. She helped found The Respect Party and was organising anti war demonstrations. And she saw politico after politico fall into line with the Blair philosophy. She had hopes that the LibDems would vote against the war. But she felt they bottled it. She became sceptical about all the parties.
‘They were all too complacent. They took us for granted, all these politicians.’ she says, ‘And I thought we should stand.’
And she did. And she won a ward seat which she has held ever since. She says she has been wooed by the major parties but has not wavered. ‘I have not been tempted’ - there’s a hard edge to that statement. An end point.
The interview could have continued full forward about politics - after all she is Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hall Green. Ms Yaqoob breathes the stuff. But I draw a line. I’m not here to hear politicians talk politics or religious leaders talk about crosses and crescents or cultural bigwigs talk about the arts. It’s too easy a blank canvas.
So, what happens in the Salma Yaqoob household that makes it all stick together (or fall apart for that matter)?
Weekends, it seems, are for the family. Friday Night is Nandos at Star City and then back home in Kings Heath, there’s old movies on DVD - Casablanca, The Godfather - watching them in bed with all the family.
She and her boys, of course, took in Avatar: ‘It’s political,’ she says, getting drawn, maybe intuitively, back into that Old Battle Between Right and Wrong.
The boys are Villa fans. But she’s not big on football…she just gets tracked towards it because the subject infuses the household.
And then there’s the rock climbing which I slowly winkle out from her.
She and her three sons go climbing in an indoor wall. Her middle lad - 12- is the first one up followed by the two others. ‘It’s not something I would be drawn to if not for the boys. But I’m forced to stretch myself.’
And what do they do when you’re still grappling upwards and they’re on top? ‘They’re just laughing at me… struggling.’
And then she laughs and adds: ‘It’s a challenge.’ Sounds like she enjoys it.
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