Photo Credit | Maryam Wahid

By Umarah

South Asian heritage is a melting pot of various cultures, languages and ethnicities. It has significant presence on a global scale: shaping cuisines, arts and literature. Today, one cannot deny the far-reaching influence of Bollywood as far as art is concerned or how global businesses are opening across south Asia which is changing the dynamics of human connections. The UK is one of those countries which has benefitted heavily by the skills of people of south Asian background. We all know about tikka masala or bhangra because someone left his country of origin and migrated to a new land and brought the identity and heritage to a new world. 

In this blog, I will focus on the presence of south Asian Muslim women who came to Britain in the 70s and 80s and their experiences of a new adopted country. Alongside, I will share feedback from their daughters and explore their experiences of growing up in two different worlds simultaneously. One could write endlessly about immigrant experiences and its difficulties, but I would like to focus on positives of south Asian immigration and the heritage/identity it brought to British public.

Mrs. Khan (Bangladeshi mother)

The story of Mrs. khan is unique as when she came over to UK, she came through a Pakistani passport. However, when she went back a few years later, she went to a country whose name was changed in her absence. In her lifetime, her national identity changed significantly. Interestingly, she identified her cultural heritage with memories about folktales of her land. How holy men came to her country and their saintliness changed the culture. Her heritage which relies heavily on family translated into a relationship between herself and her British white neighbours. Despite rudimentary English, her childless neighbours looked after her own children and Mrs. Khan never forgot their kindness. Her experience of watching a Hindi cinema for the first time in UK was a cultural shock. She loved the cleanliness and manners of British people and found them welcoming. She is a prime example of an immigrant who calls Britain home despite all the language and cultural differences.

Mrs. Raheela (British Bengali)

Mrs Raheela thinks of her Bengali heritage as hardwired in her. She did not get a lot of chances visiting the land of her parents, yet the food that she eats, the way she relates to her family is culturally centred. She married outside her heritage, yet her son has a Bangla dictionary on his bookshelf. He is trying to learn the language of his maternal grandmother. Mrs. Raheela considers herself as much British as Bangladeshi. But when the guests come, her Bangladeshi hospitality kicks in and she would serve them with abundance of food. She thinks that diversity in British society can result in stereotyping of certain cultures among public. But the diversity also enabled her to find a partner of different ethnicity and race which might be still hard to digest in a typical Bangladeshi household. Her heritage holds a stronger value in her personality despite her educational background in a decidedly non-Bangladeshi environment.

Mrs Ahmed (Indian mother)

Mrs Ahmed came to Birmingham in the 70s as a young mother of two. Belonging to a well-educated background from Bihar (her father, uncle and her husband were all doctors), surprisingly she considers her cultural heritage her home. She credits her mother and aunts for giving her confidence to be a strong Muslim woman and making her heritage around her family. Community was an important part of her experience and she reminices about those days with utmost fondness when she would gather with her friends from India and spent long hours together. She found her own community and insisted upon the fact that in order to grow, a Muslim women should find her own people. She realised early on, that despite her focus on her family, time changes, and she would need company in her old age. Sari was an important part of her identity. She still hosts parties with her friends and enjoys the Urdu language.

Mrs Massarat daughter (British Indian)

Mrs. Mussarat cherishes her Indian cultural heritage, which instilled in her the values of Indian hospitality, such as prioritising guests and respecting traditions like seeing them off at the doorway till the car has left the driveway. Despite growing up in a family with a strong focus on education (all her brothers are doctors), she followed in her mother's footsteps and embraced her identity as a devoted mother and wife when her family requires her attention, without any regrets. While she converses with her mother in Urdu, her children don't speak the language, though they understand it. Being the only sister among six brothers, she defied stereotypes and found her own path as a mother with the support of her heritage, never feeling ashamed about it. She left her career out of her own choice. But she encourages her daughter to pursue a career as a doctor, following in the footsteps of her own father. For her, a British Muslim women is not limited to one role. This mix of cultural heritage and modern aspirations reflects the richness of her identity and the blending of traditions in her life.

Mrs Samia Zakai (Pakistani mother)

For Mrs. Samia Zakai, coming to UK in the 80s was certainly an interesting change, she belonged to an educated westernised family from Karachi. However, her heritage faces a cultural struggle that she saw among other south Asian communities in West Midlands which were orthodox and insular at times. She brought her heritage to a small village in an all-white community of Warwickshire in 1984 by introducing the concept of halal food. She supports the cultural norm of sending money back to family to elevate their status, yet she is in agreement with the British value of working independently and not relying on family for financial aid. She never spoke English to her children despite being fluent in it as she wanted her identity as an Urdu speaking immigrant. Her community was vibrant and diverse. She would host her friends by having paratha parties. She worked for her local community and understood the conflicts between the world that immigrants face on daily basis. If given the chance, she would still repeat her experience of immigrating to UK and calls her life a success.

Dr. Seher Zakai (British Pakistani)

For doctor Zakai, the cultural heritage that she identifies with is a mixed fusion. She learnt the kathak dance growing up, she wore shalwar kameez at her prom, loves to dance on mehndi songs. Yet she is not comfortable about someone knocking on her door unannounced which she calls a very non-British thing to do. She is fond of Urdu literature and poetry, and she credits her frequent visits to Pakistan as a driving factor in her understanding the culture. She has travelled the world but never let go of cultural ties. She moved in with her mother after her father passed away. This is an example of south Asian culture where the children live with their parents to look after and support them. She is fond of her rich and fulfilling heritage. Unlike others of similar childhood, she finds it easy to switch between her south Asian and British identities. She credits her success to growing up in an environment which was open and generous both inside and outside the home.

The examples of strong Muslim women are all around us. Their examples confirms that the human spirit is stronger than any change. Their presence in British society makes it interesting and offers unique perspectives, traditions, and values that can broaden our horizons and foster tolerance in society.

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