A photograph showing a young woman smiling bemusedly at an incensed English Defence League protester has been widely shared as a symbol of Birmingham’s defiance in the face of the far right.
The image, which has been shared thousands of times on social media, was captured during a demonstration by the far-right group in Birmingham city centre on Saturday. It shows an EDL protester Ian Crossland staring into the eyes of the young woman, who is looking back at him unfazed. A police officer appears to be restraining Crossland.
The woman pictured has been identified as Saffiyah Khan, who is from Birmingham. Her family has links to Bosnia and Pakistan. She said the picture was taken when she stepped in to defend a woman wearing a hijab, who had been surrounded by a group of the protesters after she called them racists.
“She was quite a small woman,” Khan said. “When I realised that nothing was being done [by police] and she was being surrounded 360, that’s when I came in as well.” She described the man who confronted her as “an angry man having a bit of a rant”.
Speaking to Radio New Zealand, Khan said the best responses she has had from the photograph were from people who had got in touch to tell her how the picture had personally affected them. “I’ve had lots of stories about [people’s] daughters being affected and how they see me as a role model,” she said.
The EDL demonstration attracted about 100 people and was condemned by the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative leaders of Birmingham city council, who said the group was not and never would be welcome in their city.
The demonstration attracted a heavy police presence, including riot vans. West Midlands police said two people, thought to be counter-protesters, had been arrested for alleged breaches of the peace.
Tweeting the photograph, which was taken by Press Association photographer Joe Giddens, Birmingham MP Jess Phillips wrote: “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?” Her tweet had been shared and liked nearly 18,000 times by Sunday evening.
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 pic.twitter.com/bu96ALQsOL— Jess Phillips MP (@jessphillips) April 8, 2017
The journalist and television host Piers Morgan hailed the picture “photo of the week” and shared it on social media with the caption: “Enraged EDL racist stared down by amused, contemptuous Asian woman.”
EDL activists claimed on Twitter that scuffles broke out at the demonstration after counter-protesters shouting “Nazi scum” disrupted a silence being held at the rally for victims of terrorism. Writing on Facebook, Crossland described Khan as a “dirty unwashed leftwing scrubber”.
He added: “The disrespectful witch chose the minute’s silence for the victims of the terror attack in Stockholm and Westminster. She’s lucky she got any teeth left.”
Speaking to Vice News, Khan said video evidence contradicted the EDL’s claim. “Anyone who knows me will agree that I would respect a minute’s silence for the death of innocent people, regardless of who was holding it,” she said. “That is a matter of my conscience, and it is a powerful tool.”
Tommy Robinson, the EDL’s former leader, tweeted that the picture was embarrassing. “OK, just had confirmed by a friend who was at EDL demo, this lady was defending a woman in a navy hijab as she said to the papers,” he wrote. “[And] I don’t care how many people don’t like me saying that, the truth is the truth. [And] the picture is embarrassing.”
Khan told Vice that she hoped to use her newfound status to “fight against racism on the streets of the UK”. She added: “[I’ve] got big things planned, focusing on the bigger picture. Being viral is worthless if nothing helpful comes of it.”
In an event organised to counter the EDL protest, Birmingham central mosque held a “Best of British” tea party, complete with union jack bunting, tea and cake.
Addressing the estimated 300 people who attended, the local MP Liam Byrne said the event celebrated “the quiet miracle of a normal life and the things that we love most about our city and our country”.
“Getting together as friends, getting together as neighbours, breaking a bit of Victoria sponge and having a cup of tea,” he added. “That is a potent, powerful message that we will send to those who seek to divide us.”