When Eastern Culture Collides with a Western Awakening
“When are you getting married?”
“No, don’t tan, you’re much prettier when you are fairer!”
Are those tattoos, are they permanent?” That dress is too short, the pants are too tight…”
Those and many other questions are what I have had to listen to growing up, 35 years old and thankfully some of them have abated. British Pakistani, female, Muslim, the complete anti-thesis of what you would deem ‘typical’. You know, you come across the stereotype before, subservient, studious, virginal and doe-eyed..
I am here to let you know that they will never be able to stereotype us, again. My name is Shajahan, I live in one of the suburbs of West London called Little India, where the sights, sounds and smells take you to the lands of snake charmers, spices and honour killings… Two of the three are correct, guess which ones they are? Hint – snake-charming hasn’t really ever been a ‘thing’.
I digress, growing up, I was advised that I was the ‘honour’ of the family and that every time I stepped foot outside, I carried the respect of the family with me. As the eldest daughter, I have carried that on my back for as long as I can remember. And thus I was. Good, kind, shy and mindful, always wanting to please and I loved it.
After the passing of my Father, I am reminded yet again that I need to be less ostentatious and open about my feelings and become more what I am expected to be. Us women of colour are not prepared nor desired to be strong. Look back on our ancestry, our royal bloodline, the power and strength from which we have sprung forth, the countless women that have birthed us time and time again, the men to be raised with power and the females to genuflect in submission. Why? I then realise that it is only because my Mother is taught this patriarchal unbalance, I vow this mind-set is going to end with her and her sisters.
We push and persevere and somehow, we make it through. I shave off my waist length hair for charity and in the name of my parents. I cover my body with roses that I don’t like but my mother loves, the same flowers that adorn my father’s chest. Their names, crying angels and flying doves. Wings and clouds and stars but now I don’t have anyone telling me, ‘You know that tattoos are permanent, right?’ That was the whole point you see. My father seeded me, my mother created me and now I carried them on me, forever. I joyously rebel. Everything frowned up, I embrace. Not for attention, not for assimilation but for me. I want to be everything I know I am so I honour my inheritance with the very things that are consider taboo.
Growing up in an environment where eyes are constantly upon the girls, growing up, a strict friend of the family lurks on every street and in every doorway. Never knowing that the person you pass walking to the shops isn’t an uncle, to be fair, almost everybody is. Not by blood but because they are from the same village or town back home. Often arriving home to find out that your parents know who you have walked the streets with, the length of your skirt, the tightness of your blouse. Shit, it doesn’t matter what you do. Sometimes it just isn’t enough.
Resolution within myself, belief in what I was doing, smiling through my adversity, grew the strength in me.
At the end of the day, I have lost the two greatest loves of my life and if I can get through that, then I can get through anything. You see confidence comes from within. Our culture and the traditions do not allow the woman to be strong. That is for the males in the family to be. The ‘Man of the House’ was me. I did not want it to be anyone but me. I am the eldest and therefore I shall take control. The simple act of reversing roles would stand me in good stead to shape my mind, break the barriers and form me into an exceptional woman, one who surpasses her own expectations and confidence.
I learnt as I grew, to always treat others with kindness – behind closed Asian doors, there is so much hidden – under pillows, in the dark, in the nooks and crannies that we keep secret. The whip of submission, the inferior expectations, the cap and gown we want to wear at the age of 18 and not the wedding ring that binds us to an existence we never dreamt of. We don’t know what others go through, learning that the pain I keep well hidden is also the same of others – some less so, but so many worse off than me. We hear of it. The beatings, the houses that go up in flames, leaving behind now desolate dreams of a happy future. Those forced into slavery, forever looking up at our mother figures who look back with disgust and disdain, never living up to the vision of perfection they aim for every time they wake up to cook and clean and cook and clean and cook and clean. We have to be kind. We must. As women of colour, as the Mothers of this world, if we do not cultivate and educate our children, where will they get their knowledge from? In the very least, if we are not compassionate and emphatic to others, doesn’t that make us inhuman?
Arghhh the frustration, the wanting to break our and away from the chains. I mean, why is so much expected from women? Why are we subjugated and tied down, bred like machines and then told we have lost our looks when we are too tired to pleasure our men. You see that anger? I utilised that and came to a halt, instead I stop heeding advice from elders, I realised that what they thought best and what fit with my reality at the time, were two completely different things. The conflict within us, to stay true to the values and traditions we have been taught and have hammered into us as young girls, to discovering a bigger, brighter and more complicated life, one within which you want to assimilate, to be as ‘them’ to not smell of home cooking and be painted as ‘the corner shop’ family.
You have adapted way too much of the Western ways, the short skirts, the tight tops, the laughing raucously at jokes and begging your parents to not drop you right outside… Just a few streets away, PLEASE!
The forever battle.
How can you just be who you want to be, when it becomes so difficult to KNOW who you are? This is a question that I ask myself on all the time. Do I listen to too much Kartel and Alkaline and not wear shalwar kameez enough? Am I too fixated on drinking brandy and rebull and smoking cigarettes and dancing with a big smile on my face, batty cock in the air, in just my underwear? Am I not educated enough and is the job that I am in, not ‘prestigious or professional’ for my family? Do I fall by their standards or my own?
Neither completely Eastern nor Western, I find myself stuck in limbo. A British Asian female. That is why I stopped. I no longer care for what does not serve me any purpose. Let go. Be free. What is more seductive than to know that nothing in society can hold you down, no one can preach what is right or wrong, no one to fill your head in with inadequacies of how you do not fulfil their perception of who and what you should be.
I am learning. I am happy. I am free. I am just me.
I lust after my heritage, the saris bedecked with golden thread and star shaped sequins, the slick of oil that perfumes our hair, the turmeric which lays heavily on skin, smells mingling with the henna stains on our hands. There is so much we have been exposed to but even more has been denied. The jeans, crop tops, mesh ensembles of pure glamour, satin and lycra, bra straps revealed and the entire length of our legs on display for men to marvel at. Letting our waist length free, free to dance in the air around us, our eyes rimmed in kohl, lips painted red – we are torn. We want it all and our nurturers reject it so what do we do? We fucking take it. I remind myself that we aren’t the traditions that have been forced on us, the culture that stifles us, the patriarchy that diminishes our feminine self – we are the creation, we are the dark earth, the water that soothes, the fire that rages within every single one of us. The gold in our ears, the silver in our eyes – the perfume of our bodies, the silhouette of our curves. And there is not a goddamn thing that can stop us.
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