What Labour's women can learn from their US sisters, Tlaib and Omar

What Labour's women can learn from their US sisters, Tlaib and Omar
Comment: Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar's responses to smear campaigns are good examples for Labour's Salma Yaqoob and Zarah Sultana, who are facing similar attacks, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
12 Nov, 2019
Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar have faced staunch criticism for their pro-Palestine stances [Getty]
When it was confirmed that Salma Yaqoob would be running for Midlands Metro Mayor, it seemed only a matter of time before a barrage of attacks would come flooding in. 

Yaqoob is a long time Palestine solidarity activist, an opponent of Britain's military invasions of military countries, and has campaigned for a break with the neoliberal "common sense" that has ruled over all of Britain's main parties since the mid-1990s.

Her activism in Birmingham, the Midlands and across the UK has marked her out as a progressive and principled activist who is not afraid to take on the rich and powerful, challenging injustice wherever arises. In the current climate, these characteristics could only lead to attacks and character assassinations. 

And so they did - from every angle imaginable. The attacks have ranged from accusations of homophobia, anti-Semitism, and even misogyny, for having once stood against the Labour shadow minister for women and equalities, Naz Shah, for an MP position in Bradford West. 

But it has been equally easy for Yaqoob to counter these attacks. As a longstanding anti-fascist organiser, she has taken on the rise of racism and Islamophobia in the UK. She stands shoulder to shoulder with Jewish communities, and has defended them alongside thousands of other trade unionists, students and activists from many faiths and none. She has also been at the forefront of bringing together Muslim and LGBT activists in the Midlands. 

In reality of course, none of Yaqoob's advocacy work to fight the very forms of hatred she is accused of seems to matter to those waging a character assassination against her. That she's unapologetically left-wing, a staunch supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, a committed internationalist and a Muslim woman of colour to boot, makes her easy pickings.

That Yaqoob is unapologetically left-wing, a staunch supporter of Corbyn, a committed internationalist and a Muslim woman of colour to boot, makes her easy pickings

Much like other progressive women of colour, in the UK but also in France and the US, she is already assumed guilty of holding these "radical" views.  

The truth is that Yaqoob's efforts, particularly in mobilising millions across the country to oppose the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, still resonate with those that the right wing of the Labour Party, and much of our political elite would like to silence. 

Yaqoob is also not the only target of the right-wing media during this election cycle; a much more general assault on left-wing candidates has already started. As soon as she was selected, Zarah Sultana, Labour's candidate for Coventry South was attacked for years old and long since deleted tweets, highlighting a media machine more interested in resurfacing old material from Sultana's student days, rather than discussing her current achievements and policies.  

Those future victories are only possible if all of us rally around those who are attacked

We have of course watched similar fates dealt to Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib in the US.

Their pushback against these attacks - whether they came from the right, media outlets that relentlessly published defamation after defamation, or even those within their own political institutions who sought to oust them - was exemplary.

Amid mounting accusations over their support for Palestine, for example, Omar responded with a stronger stance by bringing a
pro-BDS House bill. Trump's targeting of these women has had a reverse effect, because the people on the ground and their political base were there flipping the narrative that the far-right had hoped would destroy them. 

The hits to Tlaib and Omar in particular, have been coming hard and fast, but so have the mobilisations in her defence. Omar's coalition is expansive and comes from often different political traditions, but it is unified in the push back that it launches.

The Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) provides one example of a response from her faith community that has been crucial. Whether its public statements, or activating its volunteer base to support rallies, demonstrations and online campaigns, the support has been strong and consistent.

When the congresswoman was reprimanded for a speech that she gave at a CAIR event, it wasn't a scramble for apologetic statements, or attempts at distancing, or reinforcing the "good Muslim" vs "bad Muslim" trope. Representatives of Muslim intuitions called on people to say 

Black-led movements, communities, caucuses and groups like The Movement for Black Lives have ensured a visible and public show of solidarity is maintained through gatherings like the one famously organised by the collective outside the Capitol Building in Washington, which saw high profile names such as Angela Davis address the masses. 

Furthermore, figureheads of the wave of left-wing candidates such as Bernie Sanders did not stay on the sidelines of Omar's defence.

Despite sharing clear difference on Palestine and BDS in particular, Sanders
showed solidarity with each attack. This was not only effective in igniting support for Omar from his own base, but it empowered anyone who could have been wavering due to considerable pressure.

Sanders wasn't waiting for an electoral victory before putting his cards on the table and aligning with Omar, and neither did the Congresswoman, despite the fact that sections of the political centre ground likely privately advised them to do so.

If the left, and particularly Omar had adopted such a poor tactic, it would have cost her the radical and hugely active base that she now has to lean on in times of crisis.

The same solidarity is needed here, not just from the left of the Labour party, but all those movements and institutions with similar visions of a progressive future.

Hits to Tlaib and Omar in particular, have been coming hard and fast, but so have mobilisations in her defence

Yaqoob, Sultana, and others like them will continue to come under fire because they represent - both in who they are, and what they stand for - what the rich and the powerful fear most; they are principled, confident activists, ready for a fight, and with the know-how to mobilise the working-class communities they come from and represent.

The attacks on them are an attack on the political project they represent. They will not disappear through prevarications or 'good PR'.

They will disappear when our movement grows in strength and wins. Those future victories are only possible if all of us rally around those who are attacked, defend their record, and point to the hypocrisy of those who are destroying our society and our planet, but have the gall to point accusatory fingers.

The coming month will be tough, attacks will be ruthless, and attempts at dividing us will persist. Now is the time to stand our ground, support those who come under fire, and kick the Tories out. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.