The Muslim mother

Salma Yakoob, 30, is a psychotherapist who had no political leanings – until a racist attack led her to join the anti-war movement
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The Independent Online

Salma Yakoob was a working mother who had never been a member of a political party, never taken part in a protest, never even spoken in public before 11 September. A month later the 30-year-old psychotherapist found herself standing on a plinth in Trafalgar Square addressing more than 20,000 people at the anti-war rally. The speech, in which she described how her life had changed completely, eclipsed contributions from veteran campaigners.

The event that began the process of change happened a few days after the attacks but was a direct result of them. Ms Yakoob was walking in the centre of Birmingham with her three-year-old son when a man spat at her. "I was just so shocked I was shaking with fear," she remembers. "It's so humiliating. Although it's not your fault, you feel as if it is. People just carried on walking. That really upset me. I thought, 'What if he had got violent?'"

On the bus going home someone shouted that he wanted to stab all Muslims. In the school playground, mothers who had always been chatty in the past turned away from her. Later she was told her younger brother had been bullied. A lawyer friend had been attacked with a beer can, another woman pushed in the street.

"I knew racism happened but I'd never experienced it," says Ms Yakoob, who was born in Birmingham. Now some of the neighbours apparently associated the wife of the local GP with Osama bin Laden simply because she looked Asian and wore an Islamic head-dress. "After that day I decided I was not going to be passive any more."

As a specialist in psychological trauma she had watched events unfold in the US with a trained eye, becoming alarmed at what she saw as over-reaction on the streets and in the corridors of power. "Scared people do irrational things. They act in ways that would not be acceptable in the cold light of day, and allow their leaders to do the same."

Ms Yakoob became an activist by accident, when she "stumbled into" a small meeting of people opposed to military action. "There was such a sense of relief. Until then I had felt overwhelmed, but in that room there were all sorts of people who felt strongly about it."

To her surprise, she was elected chair of the local Stop the War coalition. "Everyone was applauding but I was thinking, 'Oh my God, what have I got into?' It's not as if I've got any credentials."

A presentable young Muslim woman with no political experience might seem an ideal front for anyone wanting to manipulate the movement, but that does not allow for her own strength of purpose. "My job is to hold a very broad coalition of people together. The majority of people are like me and don't belong to anything."

Her involvement has stopped her feeling so afraid, she says. It is also daunting. "I'm on my own journey. I feel like a character in the film The Matrix, who moves between a world that is comfortable but an illusion, and reality, which is much worse. I cannot choose to return to the way I was before I woke up."