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.
What did British mean anyway?
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.
“What will people say?”
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. Don’t want to choose, don’t have to choose
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.