Oldham’s first Muslim female leader on tackling trolls, racists, and Covid-19

For Arooj Shah, taking on the leadership of Oldham council feels like a historic moment.

Next week she will be officially confirmed as the borough’s new leader, a first not just for Oldham but for the whole north of England.

Being a Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage in politics hasn’t been easy.

She’s faced an ongoing battle with misogyny and racism, online trolls and opposition from traditionalists within her own community.

But she hopes she can be a figurehead that will unite a borough that has struggled with division, and inspire a new generation of women to take centre stage.

“I do feel like I have a huge duty to get it right because I want any Asian woman who’s looking at me and watched the bulls**t that I’ve gone through to feel like they can do it too,” Arooj says.

“That we don’t need men or anyone else to justify our existence.”

‘In my career I’ve always had hate and abuse’

Arooj was first elected to the council for Labour in 2012 in St Mary’s ward in Glodwick, the area on Oldham she has lived her whole life.

Her parents had moved to the UK from Pakistan in 1968 to work in the local textile industry, one of many families that came from newly independent Commonwealth countries to fill gaps in the labour market.

After representing her neighbourhood for four years, Arooj lost her seat to an independent male candidate in 2016, a result that she believes was a reaction from the male Asian community.

“Throughout my political career I’ve always had a fair amount of hate and abuse and that is for a variety of reasons,” she says.

“A lot of it is misogyny, a lot of it is racism, and all that is very, very hurtful.

“But the one thing that’s helped me build my resilience is to just focus on the task, and the task is making sure I support the most vulnerable people in our communities to make sure they don’t just get by in life, but actually get on in life.”

Cllr Arooj Shah pictured in front of a statue of suffragette Annie Kenney in Oldham Town Centre
(Image: Joel Goodman)

While the backlash she has encountered hasn’t stopped her continuing to lead a frontbench role on the council, it has taken its toll.

“You put yourself into public life and you make that decision but I certainly underestimated the impact that has on your family, on your friends and on the people that care about you,” Arooj adds, visibly emotional.

“When my dad was alive all he viewed was the horrible nastiness that I got from misogynists in my own community, that’s what he saw.

“He never saw me be deputy leader and he never saw this and I think he’d be so super proud and he was the greatest feminist I know.

“I’m such a strong feminist and I want Asian women who watched me get all that crap in 2016 when I was ousted by predominantly Asian men, I want them to look at me and think ‘we can do this too’ and that’s the most important thing.”

Two years later, in 2018, Arooj once again stood to be a councillor, this time in the Chadderton South ward where she was elected with 967 votes.

In the years since she has taken on cabinet roles, including neighbourhoods, social justice and communities, and served as deputy leader alongside leader Sean Fielding.

He lost his seat and consequently the leadership in a shock result in the May 6 local elections, having led the council since 2018.

Arooj says the result came as a ‘huge surprise’, and the Labour group had not discussed who would be his successor if he was defeated.

“I just didn’t expect that, we’ve seen some hostility and the campaign with Sean was really personal. And that was really horrible and really uncomfortable to see but I didn’t anticipate that we would lose him as leader that night,” she adds.

“With Labour nationally there was a backdrop we were up against, but it’s also that there is a disconnect between us and our residents.

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“My commitment is that I don’t want to run the town from the civic centre, I want to run the town from being out there in the community, with the people for the people.”

‘I want to achieve political peace across the town’

She explains that one of her first pledges as new leader – investing more money in street cleaning and tackling flytipping – is geared at trying to repair the relationship with voters.

“What’s really stark for me is reconnecting with our residents and businesses,” she says.

“I think what I have recognised and reflected on, given the result on Thursday night and what came up a lot on the doorstep, is that people care about the simple things.

“I want to instil that pride in people so they feel not just that they are listened to but the council actually cares about the place, and that is really important for me.”

However she also makes plain she wants to deal with less visible enduring issues than littering during her leadership.

Coun Shah pictured in the council chamber in Oldham Civic Centre
(Image: Joel Goodman)

“I’ve always been driven by inequalities and the issues that actually brought me into politics,” Arooj says.

“For a long time we’ve had so many issues and we haven’t had the resources to match that.

“When you have however many years of a Tory government, budget reductions, the politics of envy really plays out in places like Oldham.

“People are seeing when they haven’t got something other communities are getting it and the truth is no one is getting it.

“So when you’ve got an increasing challenge in inequalities that increases over time and reducing resources, that’s going to create a level of tension that needs managing really carefully. But I am hoping that my leadership will help bridge that gap.

“One of my absolute commitments is just to achieve that political peace across the town.”

In the last year Arooj has taken on a new challenge with the position of portfolio holder for Covid-19 recovery in Oldham.

Oldham has been one of the hardest hit boroughs by the Covid-19 pandemic, with high numbers of cases and endemic pockets of infection enduring despite the success of the early lockdowns.

This led to the borough being placed back under local restrictions last summer, where it remained while measures were eased in other parts of the country.

She says that while she faced criticism for speaking publicly about the increases in coronavirus cases in predominantly Asian areas of the town, it was ‘the right thing to do’.

“My argument was there are massive inequalities here, there are higher levels of deprivation, multi-generational households and these are the kind of things that even throughout the pandemic the government hadn’t considered,” she says.

“If you live in a two-up two-down how do you isolate, if you’re the breadwinner where do you go if you share the same bathroom? There were so many issues.”

Arooj adds she also called out health secretary Matt Hancock for the decision to bring in local lockdown restrictions in Oldham on the night before Eid, a decision she describes as ‘poor’.

“People were going to sleep thinking that they were going to celebrate Eid in the morning but wake up and find they’d be breaking the law,” she says.

“But equally we had to do the right thing – the numbers were really high.”

Controversy over friendship – and tackling CSE report

While she has been taking strides in her political career, her friendship with a criminal associate of Dale Creegan has also prompted an ongoing backlash against the Labour councillor.

She has been childhood friends with Mohammed Imran Ali, or ‘Irish Immy’, since the age of 11.

Ali was convicted in 2013 for assisting the killer by driving him to Leeds after his murder of gangland rival David Short in 2012.

Creegan later went on to murder two female police officers Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone.

In December 2019 Arooj stood up in the council chamber to put her relationship with Ali on the record after it had become the subject of intense speculation on social media.

She also spoke about her brother during the speech, who has served time in prison.

When asked about brother’s past, and whether her ongoing association with Ali is appropriate as a politician, Arooj responds frankly.

“I can’t be responsible for my upbringing, for the choices that people in my life make,” she says.

(Image: Joel Goodman)

“I can condemn their individual and personal choices but I can’t condemn them as people. And that is something that I’ve been really honest and open about.

“I’ve been born into one of the most deprived areas in the whole country.

“I know people from all walks of life but I am such a strong believer in rehabilitation, such a strong believer that these people didn’t choose to take the path that they did but lack of opportunities do drive people towards that.

“I am not here to cancel people from society or culture but I’m certainly here to make sure there are opportunities for people so that they don’t make those bad choices in life.

“But I’m not responsible for what other people do. I’d like to be judged by my own standards, by my own conduct.”

One of the issues that has dogged the Labour administration in recent years is allegations of historic child exploitation in the borough.

An independent review led by the team who wrote the damning report into the Operation Augusta investigations in Manchester is currently underway.

There is no confirmed date for when the report into Oldham will be published, and when questioned Arooj states she has no more information on its timescale.

“That report will come out when the report comes out,” she adds.

“It’s completely independent, I have no control over that report.

“My job is not to protect individual reputations, my job as leader is to instil confidence in our social services.

“If somebody is vulnerable and is being exploited in that way they need to know that they can pick up the phone to us and we will take the utmost robust action against those people.

“I don’t want people out there thinking they can’t turn to us. That’s what worries me.”

With Arooj due to be ratified as leader at the annual meeting of the full council on May 19, she will become only its second ever female chief.

She has appointed councillors Amanda Chadderton and Abdul Jabbar to serve as her joint deputies, and Carolyn Wilkins continues in the apolitical role of chief executive.

“Me and Amanda and the chief executive, three women leading the town – I think that’s a really positive move for places like Oldham,” Arooj says.

“And I think our record and our vision going forward and our priorities will connect us back to our residents.

“This is a historic moment and I do feel proud of it but what I want residents to know is that I am of Pakistani heritage and I am of Muslim faith, but I am an Oldhamer first and foremost. And that’s what I’d like people to see.

“My whole political career and life has been about doing what’s right no matter how uncomfortable and unpopular it is. That’s why I know I’m set up for this challenge.

“That means all the hurt, all the trolling, all the abuse, I will put that to one side and just focus on the task in front of me.”

Manchester Evening News – Oldham