Muna Abbas reflects on the past couple of years working as a self-defining ‘scarfie’ in the House of Lords
‘Religion and politics don't mix’, I was always told. Or put simply: “Muna, do you really think you – a 'scarfie' Muslim can get anywhere in British politics?”
2nd February 2014 – I remember it like it was yesterday. Arriving at Peers' entrance: new suit, new headscarf, I was officially an employee in the House of Lords, Opposition Office. I looked different, I knew that. A practicing Muslim, headscarf wearing, Arab woman from Yorkshire diving into the world of UK national politics. I was determined to shatter misconceptions and counter stereotypes, both within the political world and my community.
No other country does multiculturalism quite like Britain. We embrace it and genuinely enjoy learning about different cultures and heritages. Walking through the corridors of Parliament, I have always enjoyed seeing how people react to someone who, well, isn't exactly 'male, pale, and stale'.
Although there is still some way to go to get both Houses of Parliament to reflect the makeup of our society, I can safely say that I’ve never felt hindered in my role, or that there were barriers to fulfilling my duties. Diversity and the involvement of BAME communities is improving, and there are probably few other political assemblies around the world whose parliamentarians can match the same level of acceptance as their British counterparts.
Undoubtedly, it goes both ways. I’ve always tried to make a conscious effort to use my fortunate position to advise and give an alternative viewpoint – especially on matters which particularly affect the Muslim community. As I always tell those who discredit the nature of politics, I would rather have a seat at the table to discuss, explain, and possibly influence, rather than protest and raise objections from afar.
Throughout my two and a bit years working in the Lords, I’ve learnt that assumptions and misunderstandings can easily manifest in a vacuum of knowledge and an unintentional fear of ‘the other’. This can only be overcome by a sincere willingness from all parties to educate one another and, sometimes, ask the awkward questions.
It was only after a good year in the job that some Peers felt comfortable enough to ask me about my faith; and in particular my feelings regarding those who have hijacked it for their own twisted and abhorrent motivations. Admittedly, some of the hardest moments have been where I’ve felt defeated and powerless in what felt like a battle to save my faith’s reputation. I’ll always remember the day of the vigil in Westminster Hall in remembrance of the victims of the Paris attacks. I was proud to stand with my colleagues to show solidarity, share their grief, and silently say “not in our name”.
My time in the House of Lords is over for now, but I would like to think I’ve done a little bit to show other Muslims, particularly women, that you can play an active part in politics and not have to compromise your faith. And also to show that British Muslims can and want to play an equal part in shaping the future of our society. Ultimately, my faith acts as a driver in my striving for social justice.
At points in the two years, some in the building will have seen me rushing into one or other of my bosses’ offices to pray before sunset, heard me count the minutes until I can break my fast in Ramadan, watched me stocking up on Shloer at receptions, and tell colleagues that I can’t go to the pub for religious reasons. But I’m actually pretty much the same as your average political adviser.
To quote one of the many lovely Peers I’ve worked with: “Muna, when I first met you I could just see a headscarf – now, I just see you”.
Muna Abbas was a Legislative and Political Adviser to the Labour Lords frontbench. She tweets @Muna_Abbas1
Published 4th March 2016