‘They won’t win’: Oldham council leader speaks out on arson attack

The leader of Oldham council has spoken out about the firebomb attack on her car, and her determination that whoever was behind it would not stop her doing her job.

Arooj Shah, who became the town’s first female Muslim leader in May, said her mother initially thought she was in the car when it was firebombed on 13 July in what the police described as a “reckless, abhorrent act”.

Shah said she often sat in her car outside her home dealing with work calls and that night had got in late and not seen her mother.

“I remember my mum screaming because she thought I was still sat in the car,” she told the Guardian. “[In the morning] I remember feeling the need to get out of the house because I thought I have to stay composed, so it doesn’t upset my mum any more.”

Pledging to continue fighting for the town, one of the areas worst hit by the pandemic, she told of how she forced herself to go to a council meeting the following day despite feeling traumatised in the attack, which damaged the vehicle and a neighbouring property.

“I remember telling myself that whoever did this, I’m determined that they won’t win and they’re not going to stop me from doing my job,” she said. “And I stood up and did full council. I was so exhausted.

“That is anexample of me feeling that sense of duty to prove myself to people. That [they] don’t think I’m weak because I’m a woman. [They] don’t think I don’t care, because I do. But also see past the colour of my skin and understand that I am here to do a job [and] that you expect far more from me than you would if I was a white man. And that can be really mentally exhausting.”

Three men have been arrested in connection with the attack. All have since been released, pending further inquiries.

Shah, who has been open about the racism, Islamophobia and misogyny she has experienced in public office, said she hoped to be a political role model to girls from ethnic minorities. But she added that she constantly battled against being held to double standards.

“I can’t hide away from the fact that when I say something people don’t agree with, I become ‘the Asian woman’. So for example, [on] the Afghan crisis recently, I did a statement about Oldham is a place of solidarity. And straight away the comments underneath [the online version] were, ‘she’s encouraging terrorists to come down, she’s creating a Muslim caliphate’.”

In her previous role as deputy leader, Shah led the council’s response to Covid-19, and came under criticism last year after highlighting higher infection rates among Oldham’s south Asian community.

She said the backlash from racists, who saw it as proof that the pandemic was the fault of ethnic minority residents, who complained she had made them the targets of racial abuse, had been isolating and made her feel guilty.

But she said the decision had saved lives, adding that her Pakistani heritage had helped her to improve local public health messaging, leading to a reduction in infection rates.

“I live with my mum. My sisters live about four minutes away, all in their separate households,” said Shah, who was first elected as a Labour councillor in 2012 and has always lived in the Glodwick area of Oldham. “But we live as one household. So when you’re saying households can’t mix, in the Asian community that lands differently. So having that understanding was really important.”

Although vaccination rates in the local south Asian community still lag behind those for white British residents, Shah said they were making “great inroads” to address this, such as setting up clinics in local mosques. By early September, 70% of residents from the Bangladeshi community had received their first jab.

She also pointed to the work of volunteers who went door to door raising awareness of Covid as another council initiative that helped the town avoid a local lockdown like one imposed on Leicester.

“I’m really proud of Oldhamers from across our communities that pulled together through the pandemic,” she said.