A lawyer, a businesswoman, a campaigner and a cabinet minister, Sayeeda Warsi has had many roles, but she is best known for being the first Muslim to serve in a British cabinet and the foremost Muslim politician in the Western world.
One of five girls born to immigrants of Pakistani origin in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, Sayeeda studied law at Leeds University, going on to work for the Crown Prosecution Service before setting up her own legal practice.
Her father, a former millworker and bus driver who set up his own business, instilled in her values of freedom, responsibility and aspiration. These are the values that inspired her to get involved in the Conservative Party and it was there that she became Vice Chairman and advisor to the leader, Michael Howard, in 2004.
She unsuccessfully stood as a Parliamentary candidate in her home town the following year. In 2007 she was elevated to the House of Lords aged 36, making her the youngest peer in Parliament. Later that year she travelled to Sudan and famously helped to secure the release of the British teacher Gillian Gibbons who was on trial for blasphemy.
A racial justice campaigner for many years, instrumental in the launch of Operation Black Vote and serving six years at the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Sayeeda was chosen to take on Nick Griffin on Question Time in 2009. It was the first time the British National Party leader appeared on a flagship BBC political show. Her performance singled her out as ‘sharp, articulate, unhysterical and warmly engaging’ (Observer).
In 2010 she was appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron as Minister without Portfolio, becoming the first Muslim to serve in a British Cabinet. The iconic image of her on the steps of No 10 Downing Street in a shalwar kameez (a traditional ethnic outfit) were beamed around the world. She was also appointed as Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party – the first Asian to chair a major British political party. In 2012, Sayeeda was made Senior Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Minister for Faith and Communities.
In government she has devoted herself to making the case for faith, declaring in a 2010 address to the Anglican Bishops’ Conference that governments should ‘do God’. In 2011 she provoked support and controversy when she famously declared that Islamophobia had ‘passed the dinner table test’. In 2012 she led the UK’s largest ever ministerial delegation to the Vatican, gaining global coverage for a speech which called on Europe to strengthen its Christian identity.
Outspoken and challenging on the issues that many people seek to avoid, she has become an interesting and distinct voice on topics previously considered taboo. She led the government’s campaign to criminalise forced marriage and spoke out on the sexual grooming of children by gangs.
Her business background and her passion for manufacturing have made her a champion for British business both at home and abroad, and as a result she has played a key role this government’s foreign policy priorities.
A fierce political campaigner, Sayeeda drove the campaign against adopting the Alternative Vote system ahead of the May 2011 referendum, winning what she called ‘the mother of all elections’ by a ratio of two to one. She also spearheads the party’s Social Action agenda both domestically and internationally, setting up Project Maja, which has brought politicians and volunteers together in the poorest parts of Bosnia Herzegovina and Bangladesh.
A keen cook, an addict of home improvement programmes, and a cricket fan, she lives in Wakefield with her husband Iftikhar and their five children.