by Tahmina Begum
The young, bright and awesome talent Tahmina Begum talks to us about cultural duality and being caught between preconceived identities. Tahmina is a writer and the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of XXY Magazine, an agender culture, fashion and art magazine and social platform for young emerging creatives, focused on innovation and collaboration.
The other day, I was sat down for “the chat”. Not the sex chat, as I’m hoping by the simple notion of being twenty-one, that my mother and I do not need to relive the conversation that never happened, but the one where I was reminded of where I was “from”.
Luckily, as I am literate in Bengali, can nail at least one dish (prawn and spinach curry, adore wearing Sari’s simply due to my queen like being and because my skin is brown, it’s rather hard to forget my parents immigrated to the UK in the 70s, as many others did, “to make your life better”. Hence thinking I was confident in knowing about the little country next to India.
But ‘the chat’ wasn’t about Bangladesh’s Liberation War against West Pakistan or local gossip about who should not be marrying who. The entire conversation was sparked by her having heard about my being ‘seen’ falling out of a nightclub, in the arms of men.
Let’s put aside the fact that this was a great exaggeration and I was actually escorting an emotional female friend to her boyfriend’s car to see her get home safely. What did my mother mean when she remarked: “But, we, as Bengali women, do not behave like this”?
So Bengali women do not party? Bengali women do not have friends with penises? Not according to our weddings or the Bollywood films some of us grew up on. Did she mean that there are different limits on the freedom and identity of different women? And one culture could prescribe virginal sobriety, the other the perception of impropriety and promiscuity? And this was my mother who had been raised mostly in Britain, adores John Lewis and who herself comes from an ethnically diverse family.
Or was it a mother and daughter realisation of how different their needle faces when pinning down the extent of freedom they think a Bengali woman of English nationality should have.
Her statement also revealed her identification of me as Bangladeshi. You may think these are freely interchangeable but the ‘second generation’ identity is marked by a constant questioning of where your origins ‘truly’ are. My mother made it clear that she believed I had over-stepped the mark- one she had constructed- of how British I was allowed to be.
Though it would be wrong to state the Western world has solved all the problems concerning feminism and equality for everyone, for many, there is this notion that my ideals concerning progression are from living in the UK , and that valuing old and supposedly basic traditions such as God and one’s family originates from a third world country. This odd disparity works fine with one-half of the developing world- until you tip the scales and become “too Western”- or in more basic terms, being surrounded by more testicles than your Mother’s liking. I was not balancing the two with the desired culturally satisfactory proficiency.
But this was not just a result of the“Original Brown Sugar’s” (as I like to call my mother sometimes) discomfort. I’m sure many second generation British Southern Asian’s ears would ring when hearing “but what will people say?” Usually followed by a reminder to not “lose” your culture.
But losing your culture isn’t like forgetting your P.E kit on sports day or misplacing your keys at the bottom of your bag. It doesn’t mean you have to understand the germination of curry seeds or be able to speak fluently about the branches of your motherland. Culture is constantly changing, increasingly elusive and many are scared we will misplace it.
Was this the right way to balance cultural diversity? To superficially engage with Britain but assuredly ‘return to my own people’? And why do we push this dichotomy so much more on women than we do on men? They are not warned in the same way to “keep hold of your roots”. Being understood as batons of culture, they do not receive the same pressures on who to marry. Telling a young woman who has been the lovechild of different lifestyles, that despite who she believes she is, the true strength of her identity will lie in her choice of partner is the most deconstructive and corrosive lesson to pass on.
As if you have to stick to one path when there are so many opportunities. As if you can qualify your heritage when you live in such fluidity. As if you have to dumb yourself down so you easier for others to swallow.
It is the idea that you must simplify yourself enough to be a box on a form to tick; that I have to justify being female, being Muslim, being feminist; the fact that when I’m in the UK, I’m Asian but in Bangladesh, I’m British.
The struggle is felt by all fluid people who have to contend with formularised identity. We expect people of multiple heritage or complex identities of any kind to fulfil arbitrary ideas of makes humans “whole”.
I happen to love eating spice, have a maximalist attitude to gold jewellery and enjoy telling people that I’m originally a Bengal tiger. But I am also offended when someone calls me “exotic” or thinks it’s a compliment to tell me “I don’t seem Muslim“. No one to date has managed to successfully characterise 1.65 million people and you will not be the first. No one should ever be made to feel they should adhere to preconceived ideas of identity. We need to learn to stop judging people against rigid presumptions- we live in the most globalised society to date.
If I walk down the street and I appear “more Bengali” sometimes or if I talk in an accent which does not “give me away”, I am simply being all the amalgamations of who I am. Just do you, boo.
The featured image is courtesy of Maria Qamar.
By Tahmina Begum, journalist, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of XXY Magazine
Earlier this week, I was getting ready for my university graduation whilst listening to Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey convene at the United State of Women Summit. Whilst drinking my infused tea, attempting to place false eyelashes on without poking myself in the face, the first topic the power duo were discussing literally caught my eye.
The broadcaster started the conversation on the theme of self value and self worth, and how the thousands of interviews one had taken over the many years, and the problems encountered within them began from lacking either of these things. As the First Lady aptly replied; she could only handle the onslaught and the limited definitions put on one another, by taking the time to figure who she was.
It seemed ideal that the two women who are always on my “dead or alive – who would you bring to dinner?” list, were tackling something that I recently felt like writing a book about, and distributing it for free universally.
It may have been because I was kneeling, applying makeup and wearing an outfit brought from my social standing of simply being able to; getting ready to gain honours in an arts degree I have only ever been encouraged to do, in a privileged area of England. Or simply realising that I have the best hand, as a Muslim woman of colour, in life.
The credit may also go to building a publishing business. Going through the education system for three years and meeting all walks of life [made me] truly see no matter how much money you have, who you are and your beliefs; the foundation you have to have to build anything – has to start from being able to stand in your own truth.
But, before I break out into a High School Musical anthem, let’s take two steps back to the Winfrey and Obama interview, and the word which has coincided the most with the fourth wave feminism movement: “empowerment”.
The “E word” is becoming murkier and murkier via what we, as women in the West (who on the whole have more than a few luxuries in comparison to the rest of the world) are stating as ‘acts of power’.
For example, the popular mood board which is used when discussing empowerment online is usually photographs of Carrie Bradshaw from SATC wearing fluffy Versace shoes, the 90s supermodels (above), all the Kardashian/ Jenner clan, most likely in Balmain and promoting their latest business venture, plus T Swift and her “squad”.
The problem is not if young women look up to them, it is if empowerment is shown only through this narrow window of wealthy, (mostly) white women who possess beauty, successful careers and relationships. It falls into the trap of claiming this is the only way to be empowered: to have it all.
And to have it all, really means to be beautiful and with a “reasonable” weight (without seeming to care too much about your physical appearance), a career which will not collapse once you start producing mini versions of you and your other half. All this plus the assurance that your bank account shall not pass tumbleweed after holidaying in a tiny beach town somewhere in the Mediterranean.
Yet all these acts of empowerment seem to be only from the outside. It seems men are always powerful whilst women become “empowered”. Looking good and being praised for putting money back into the bank and selling what has recently been analysed as “the dream back to us”. So, is that what empowerment is- attaining the unattainable?
Surely we can see through this capitalist blur – that no designer handbag will ever fulfill whatever needs completing? Well maybe for a month. Six months top.
With the fourth cycle of a feminist revolution powered by young women, why is it that empowerment has taken focus off the highlight reel of one’s life? Instead of merely uploading photographs for social media and leaving it there, we have taken it from URL to IRL [As] “empowered” young women there’s a certain way we have to be in order to #getthatmoneyhunny”and “#slay”.
I am all for a power pose, red lipstick applied so sharp h8ters won’t be able hate – as long as we are also telling women [that] they are naturally powerful. With or without the contour, whether they are in a short skirt or wearing a burka and residing a ‘food baby’ that’s here to stay.
It is not surprising that the word “empowerment” itself has become part of the new femvertising for commercial marketing. So, can we trust the brands or icons who state they are doing it to be examples for young girls? The 2016 version of suffragettes or who, I dare say, are riding this bandwagon of feminism to sell their goods. Breasts included.
The question isn’t why is advertising for men different than for women (we already know that men are not told they have to buy a certain look to be a man) [to] the extent [that] women’s products are sold to fulfill the female sex, [and] now we are being told we can buy empowerment?
The most popular example of those ‘selling it’ to us would be Kim Kardashian. Her name is slurred everywhere whether it is on style pages or adorns much hate in her own comment sections. The general public love to loathe her. It seems we have a huge problem with a woman who took the male gaze and monetised it proudly.
After receiving [a] backlash for her naked selfies, Kardashian’s open letter on how she gains empowerment via her body caused a frenzy whether you have a PHD in gender studies or not.
I personally cringe when many slam the reality star for ‘starting’ her career from a sex tape. Surely we should look at what she has achieved since then, and not box women, the way we seem to forget to do with the opposite sex, for one act in life (even if the repercussions were profitable).
However, similar to a topless Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj twerking in her music videos, the question [is whether] these celebrities are doing it for good ol’ girl power and self-empowerment or is it just coincidence that they are “feelin’ myself” while we all know that sex always sells?
Though I agree with Cyrus that we shouldn’t be so fascinated by women’s nipples that we censor them (‘ello Instagram), yet the blurred message this gives to young girls is that they have to be sexy to be empowered. That to be “liberated” is to show off your back garden (and front) and surely if you’re authentically “free”, why not take your clothes off? Don’t get me wrong, if all of womankind want to drop it like it’s hot every day of the week – I am all for it – as long as they are doing it for themselves and know the difference between empowerment and approval.
I technically didn’t need anything else to make me feel good when I received my cap and gown. I had every privilege in the world and most importantly, I was happy from within – I am already a force of power. In addition to being a thousand contradictions.
The women who are shut down and shut up, those who are told they cannot love who they love.
This doesn’t mean women in the West do not need empowering – you can’t purchase meaningless pretty things, wear a tight dress nor have a bad day. But let’s stay honest with ourselves and not ignore our sisters whose stories are wiped out and yet who are parted only by sea and simply not wanting to know.
That without any of this, a hyper real on what they have to obtain “to be empowered” does not make them less of who they already are and what they are wanting to be. Now, that’s what’s being #Queen.
Rosalind: Tahmina Begum heads up XXY magazine – a fabulous online publication full of smart writing and great imagery.
I only met Tahmina recently but she’s someone I immediately clicked with. Her work ethic and ability to balance so many things at once is something I both admire and, I think, recognise slightly.
Talking to other driven young women who are open and curious and full of questions is always a pleasure: they’re the kinds of chats where the hours just disappear. She’s also, like me, in her final year at university. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Tahmina: The foundations of XXY is that it is an ‘agender’ magazine and platform which produces intelligent content and striking visuals to form conversations. The name ‘XXY’ comes from the blend of the male and female chromosomes. It’s a clear statement in which our content is suitable for both genders.
It is run by myself and Georgina Dunn, my business partner, with myself as Head of Content. I also have a kick ass team of editors, directors and journalists who simply have a love for this labour.
We have six themes a year and we are currently on Neverland– tales on things from your childhood which effect your adulthood. However we concentrate on emerging designers whether that be in textiles or a film maker focusing on architecture.
We’re niche in all our culture subsections. It is vital to me that we create worthy content as digital journalism still has a bad name. The ethos of quality over quantity is very real.
I grew up in Solihull in the West Midlands and currently reside in lovely Oxford, where my university is-though I am a fake Londoner in how often I am there for work.
My parents are from North East Bangladesh making me first generation British. I don’t know how much you’ve heard the term ‘the immigration story’, it’s a term of endearment, children use of their parents who weren’t born in the UK as a reminder to strive for a better life. It’s rather funny when you look back and see how your parents used that with not finishing your vegetables but nowadays, it is clear how much of an effect my roots have had.
Maybe it’s because I’m a woman of colour, I have an ‘outside’ perspective whilst been ‘in’ but the consequences of having my parents migrate were positive such as teaching me to have a strong work ethnic.
Although in any Asian culture, creative paths are not encouraged, which was a struggle especially as the public in general, in my opinion, still lack knowledge to what happens behind a fashion and art magazine- through no fault of their own.
Therefore the struggle was just having to constantly justify and explain what I am trying to achieve but I look at it as a positive – another glass ceiling to break.
I think I naturally am interested in stories of those who have grafted from the bottom and those who have not had certain privileges, a reason I am grateful to my role as it allows me to be the gatekeeper in posting work of or from these individuals, which may have not have been noticed by another title before.
But most importantly I try to reflect and make sure I’m making decisions to make myself happy and not because I owe ‘my community’. You cannot be everything to everyone, so I’m going to do me and if that happens to shatter some roofs, then that’s an added bonus.
I do not think I’ve received any negativity before from the Asian community- or Muslim, which I am. I think what it does is surprise people as it’s part of a career many go into. However, what’s interesting is that people, regardless of their background don’t expect someone who is Muslim, female and from a rich heritage which is still a third world country and a feminist who works in the creative industry such as fashion to exist or be discussing these themes. As if that all does not fit together.
Although I think humans are walking contradictions, I see those factors are utterly streamlined. With the Quran stating to educate yourself daily, how better to publish intellectual content discussing social politics and culture, with fashion being a celebration of stories. It’s true when they say ’empowered women empower women’ therefore having self-love makes me want to do more for those coming up and naturally, young women. Thus it comes full circle.
My inspirations growing can be summed up in two words: Jacqueline Wilson. Until I started to discuss with The Publishing Girls (a sisterhood and
close friends at university) I didn’t realise the diverse stories she told and the seriousness of them. Whether it was on addiction, individuality, divorce, care homes, homelessness, neglect by a mother- I relish in that the girls she created were not flat but oh so very real.
I actually attended her talk at the Oxford Literacy festival in the Sheldonian and of course, I already knew everything she had to say being the ultimate fan and reading all her books (fact of the day: that is over a hundred now) and meeting her exactly a decade ago when I won a competition to be the first to get my hands on Candyfloss.
I was this close to running onto the stage, bearing in mind I was on a high tier thus swooping down with an imaginary cape to just remind her that was me in the bad pink suede blazer and matching hat who fawned over her and brought her chocolates and that she’s great. I’ve rambled too much on this question but no seriously, she’s Queen.
I am throughly inspired by the creatives I luckily get to work and how hard they try in making sure their success does not last for one season.
But everyday, I am inspired by the group of women around me- and the men, who are open minded and make me feel as though ‘thank god were the next generation’.
I adore those conversations exploring all aspects of life and if it should be that way. Shoutout to the American talk show: The Real for uplifting me on happy days and not so happy days and all the days in between.
The future holds exciting themes but I’m also aware of how we are pushing the notions forward in discussing subjects which are not talked about or thought about yet, and how we continue to do this via talks, events and working with the best creatives. We’re building an Empire.
It was one of those gorgeous, free evenings: the kind where work had been finished, dinner cooked, and I could subside with a glass of wine. As I sat in the living room, Kate Bush blaring out (who else?) I began thinking about all the brilliant women who inspire me. Kate has been a presiding influence in my life for years. I adore her keen creativity. The theatricality and continual reinvention. The songs that reach the nerves.
I grabbed a pen and paper, and began scribbling down other names. All the extraordinary women who’ve affected me on one way or another. The list grew and grew. In fact, I think it may be never-ending. That evening was several months ago, but I’m adding in new names all the time. Some of them make me want to grab life by the handful. Others write such astonishing words that I’m left reeling after reading. Others still I admire for their empathy, their compassion, their never-ending interest in others. I wanted to share a few of them here. I’ve written before about the significance of celebrating others, but this goes beyond mere celebration. It’s about acknowledging how we all, in our own way, owe a debt to so many others. In fact, less of a debt and more an acknowledgment of countless riches: of a multifaceted set of influences we all assemble for ourselves. So, here are just ten women who currently inspire me.
Her prose is poised and crafted, whether it’s a sharp-talking essay or beautiful, aching portrait of the Biafran war in Nigeria. She’s also someone I love for her unashamed celebration of being smart AND reveling in dressing well (and telling off anyone who thinks there might be an incompatibility between the two).
Diana is in her seventies. I occasionally visit her house for mum, which will involve a cup of tea, a tour of the greenhouses, and a return home with an armful of whatever is currently in season: whether it’s the tongue-curling tang of tomatoes straight from the vine, or wind-fall apples.
Diana is curious, vivacious, and full of life. That’s how I want to be.
I bumped into Tahmina by chance at a book event. We met a fortnight later for a very enthusiastic, drawn-out chat over ice-cream. She’s the same age as me and, alongside doing her degree, is the editor in chief of XXY magazine.
Meeting other driven young women is always exciting, especially when the conversations spiral from feminism to fashion and back again.
The image tapped directly into how I felt about my own spine (read Rosalind’s beautiful piece about Scoliosis here). It was a visceral, gut-punching reaction.
From her ability to explore her own trauma through her art to her always fabulous outfits, Kahlo is someone I think about a lot.
Louise writes books that can be difficult to read, and I mean that as the highest compliment. She tackles the kinds of things we need to talk about more (body image, pressures placed on women, rape culture, feminism), and her YA books Only Ever Yours and Asking for It are both compelling, disturbing works. This list is rather biased towards writers (given that it’s my own career too), but Louise ranks highly because she leaves me feeling braver and more willing to tackle challenging subjects. Plus, she’s hilarious on Twitter.
I wrote my dissertation on Woolf. Spending several months in the company of her words was both a privilege and a pleasure. Her sentences fizz and sparkle. Whether it’s a deft observation in an essay, or the galloping rhythm of life passing by in The Waves, I always surface from her works wanting to read, write, and live vividly.
Hepburn purely makes the list for looking so damn good in wide-legged trousers. Also for her brimming wit and sass in every movie I’ve seen her in. I always feel a little more assertive after watching her act.
Where to begin? My mum is steel-strong. Despite being the smallest member of our family, she exerts the most power by far. She’s a ruthless editor, spying stray split infinitives and telling me off for using too many adjectives. She’s a gorgeous, gorgeous writer. She’s a red-headed, well-dressed, always-organized, ever-thoughtful woman who somehow manages to keep our family glued together. I have endless respect for her, and endless love.
I could write an entire list alone composed of the female poets I adore (hey Kate Tempest, Elizabeth Jennings, U.A Fanthorpe, Mina Loy, Greta Stoddart, Sarah Howe, Greta Bellamacina and countless others!) but Alice Oswald is particularly special.
Her sense of craft and music astounds me. Her poems are so alive to space, to landscapes, to bodies, to intensity.
Every time I put down one of her collections, I have to grab my notebook and begin scribbling.
Artist, textiles designer, clothes maker, multimedia goddess – Delaunay’s imagination manifested itself in so many forms.
Artist, textiles designer, clothes maker, multimedia goddess – Delaunay’s imagination manifested itself in so many forms.
Moving between different fields and ways of thinking/ creating is such a wonderful skill to have. Delaunay said that colour was “the skin of the world”, and her bright, beautiful work – whether it’s a poem dress or a patchwork quilt – gets me itching to pull out paints, fabric, and needle and thread.
As I said, this is but a handful.
My original list also included people like Erin O’Connor, Janet Mock, St Vincent, Flo Morrissey, Cindy Sherman, Angela Carter, Grace Jones, Ida Kar, my great-great maternal grandma, Anne Fadiman, Amandla Stenberg, Jeanette Winterson, Mara Clarke, and many, many others.