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.
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.