Chitra Ramaswamy: Saffiyah Khan has lesson for us all

The photograph of Saffiyah Khan facing down Ian Crossland at an EDL demonstration in Birmingham has gone viral. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
The photograph of Saffiyah Khan facing down Ian Crossland at an EDL demonstration in Birmingham has gone viral. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
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A lone Asian woman smiling in the face of hate is a lesson to us all, writes Chitra Ramaswamy.

It’s their expressions that tell the story. On the left, a young British Asian woman with her hands in her pockets smiles bemusedly. Insouciantly. Calmly. 
She appears eminently sane and unfazed in the face of mindless ­racist abuse and violence. ­Literally, a hate-filled face is coming right at her. On the right, that face belongs to a white male English Defence League (EDL) supporter ranting aggressively, held back by a police officer. Everyone immediately around her is white and male. In the midst of this threatening scene a lone brown-skinned woman called Saffiyah Khan stands up to hate, not with anger, but with grace. As Khan says with dignity and restraint: “The picture sums it up – it wasn’t a pleasant interaction.” And as for the response from Ian Crossland, the EDL supporter in the picture? “She’s lucky she’s got any teeth left.”

The photo was taken in Birmingham over the weekend during a tiny and pathetic EDL demonstration in which grown men kicked peaceful protesters from behind and then ran away. It has since gone viral and been shared thousands of times on social media. No wonder. The sight of a peaceful woman in an angry male-dominated world symbolises the sheer awesomeness and bravery of not just resistance, but female resistance.

It’s the 21st century reboot of that iconic Sixties Magnum photo of a teenage girl holding up a flower to armed soldiers at an anti-Vietnam war rally. It gives us hope that there are people willing to stick up for what’s right in this increasingly divided, enraged, and emboldened world. To stick up for each other. As a fellow brown-skinned (not so young) British Asian woman, who has never attended a counter protest to a far-right demo because, well, I’m not ashamed to say I would be terrified, I’m blown away by Khan’s courage.

So are many others. Local MP Jess Phillips proudly asked: “Who looks like they have power here, the real Brummy on the left or the EDL who migrated for the day to our city and failed to assimilate?”

Piers Morgan (I know, I know) tweeted: “Enraged EDL racist stared down by amused, contemptuous Asian woman.”

Khan, who was wearing a Specials t-shirt in the photos, has apparently been sent free tickets to go and see them in concert. Meanwhile, at Birmingham Central Mosque, Asian elders responded to the EDL rally in the most genteel and British way: by throwing a tea party that was open to everyone, decking the place out with Union Flag bunting, and eating custard creams.

I know which version of Britishness gladdens my Indian, English and Scotland-residing heart.

More details have since emerged. The photo was taken when Khan stepped in to defend Saira Zafar, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and holding up a placard saying ‘No to Islamophobia’ and ‘No to war’ who was surrounded by EDL supporters.

“There was quite a horrific response,” Zafar has since recalled. “People shouting all sorts of racist abuse, saying ‘you don’t belong in this country’, ‘you’re not British’, ‘go back to where you came from’.”

Phrases with which every person of colour, myself included, will be sadly familiar.

Mostly, though, when we hear these words we are on our own. No one steps in to help. People lower their eyes, walk on, act as though it is not happening. It is the British way. (Apart from in Glasgow, where I lived for ten years, and where, whenever I experienced any racism, some Glaswegian popped up to shout abuse at them on my behalf. Sometimes a bit too much abuse, but still.)

Anyway, the abuse at the EDL reportedly went on. “Someone was putting EDL flags over my face,” Zafar recalled. “Someone put an Islamophobic banner on my head.” Khan, seeing that “some really, really big lads had run over… and she was quite a small woman”, and realising that the police weren’t responding quickly (“I can understand why,” she graciously added), decided to step in herself. To which my response is… wow.

How many of us would have done the same?

How many of us have been in an equivalent situation and done nothing?

When I have been racially abused in public places over the years – most recently pushing my toddler in a buggy down a street in Craigentinny when someone in a passing car screamed ‘f***ing pakis’ in our faces – no one has intervened. And I have been in situations where I’ve been too scared to get involved when witnessing someone else being abused.

But here’s the thing: it makes all the difference.

“It’s very important to have solidarity and show that if something happens to a person they are not on their own… so thank you,” Zafar said to Khan when they finally met properly.

“No worries,” shrugged Khan. “There is no excuse to be doing nothing, even if means just reporting it to the police.”

In other words, we can all call out hate crime in some way. And now more than ever we must.

We live in a country in which race and religious hate crimes soared by an appalling 41 per cent after the Brexit vote.

In a country where a cartoon depicting refugees as monkeys can be published in Britain’s second biggest-selling newspaper. Where reports of anti-semitic incidents have increased to record levels.

Where a teenage refugee can be brutally assaulted as he minds his own business.

And although no such spikes in recorded hate crimes have been noted in Scotland since the EU vote, it is thought that Brexit is fuelling a rise in racist language in Scottish schools.

The uncomfortable truth is that no country is immune to racism. We can all do more to stand up to it. And when we do stand up we can all take courage from people like Khan, who do so in peace.

As she put it: “Sometimes it’s more important to smile than to shout.”