Picture: Paul Felix

Coming to Britain let us reinvent what a woman could be

Our lives in the UK are now unrecognisable to those of our mothers says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Moving from your homeland can be indescribably painful. You leave behind your birthright, cultural continuity, home comforts, loved ones and networks, familiarity. You hope the country you migrate to – the UK for me – will accept and, eventually, embrace you. Some native folk do that easily and with generosity. Others determinedly push back. These nativists see strangers and outsiders as parasitical cultural and economic invaders. Migrants endure invective and racial discrimination and have to keep going in spite of the relentless reprehension. T’was ever thus.

But, here’s the thing: few of us yearn to return to old places and lives. 

But, here’s the thing: for most females, the big move also brings liberation from unjust, inherited misogynist values and behaviours. Few of us yearn to return to old places and lives.  

Menstruation comes is the first big blow if you are a female of South Asian heritage. The dearest of daughters are intensely scrutinised, placed under sudden, harsh rules. No more playing with boys, house arrest after school, no parties, no cinemas without a chaperoneWhen my periods began, my mother and aunts turned hysterical: ‘Don’t show your blood on your clothes. People will say you are dirty’. The home made pads always leaked. And boys at school shouted ‘chi-chigundhi’- yuk, yuk, filthy.  And my mum added more layers of torn sheets to the pads which chafed my young thighs

 Meanwhile males carry on being masters of the domestic universe. 

This has gone on for centuries. Meanwhile males carry on being masters of the domestic universeBack in Uganda, where I was raised, boys in my extended family were spoilt, overweight and a bloody nuisance. They got the precious, fresh coconut water, choice chicken pieces, bone marrow, and the sweetest, richest sweetmeats. Shoes too, from Clarks, while the girls ruined their feet in cheap sandals badly made by cobblers. 

From the age of ten, I desperately wanted to be a boy. Why wouldn’t you?    

I belong to the most progressive of Muslim sects. Female education is prized and prayers are led by both sexes. However, like other more conservative Muslims, Hindus and Sikhsa swathe of backward misogynistic attitudes remain deeply engrainedFrom the age of tenI desperately wanted to be a boy. Why wouldn’t you?

Menopause is the next big blow. With fertility gone, women are seen as worthless and see themselves as worthless.  

Menopause is the next big blow. With fertility gone, women are seen as worthless and see themselves as worthless. They have two options at this turning point: act old and helpless, guilttrip the children and grandchildren or become tyrannical matriarchs idolised by sons and feared by daughters-in-law.  

By the age of 40, women in my mosque deliberately slowed down, moved their body weight from foot to foot, puffing and wheezing, as if every step was agonising. (This was mind over matter- most of them were fit before they decided to act elderly and bring on infirmitiesSome husbands took up with mistresses and became mid-life lotharios, most just became more demanding and cantankerous.  

My mum, Jena, practised moving slothfully from when she was in her late thirties and, by the time she hit 45, had slowed right down. Post-menopausal ladies did carry on wearing brightly coloured clothes and lots of jewellery, but these were now indicators of asexual respectability and petty power

handful of women rebelled against these sexist and ageist conventions…I adored them

handful of women rebelled against these sexist and ageist conventionsand daringly, behaved sultrily as they agedJena had two such friends – one married to a headmaster, and the other the wife of a businessmen. I adored them. They played badminton, dressed like Lauren Bacall and walked tall, cowing husbands, families and communities with their brassiness and poise.   

Migration has enabled more such spiritedness and independence. 

Jena, who moved to London after being deported from Uganda, bought her first acrylic trousersstretchy top, and comfortable tie-up shoes in Shepherd’s Bush market in 1973. She was 53 years old. The transformation was instant, incredible. That silly old walk and pathetic sound effects went. She still wore saris to mosque and special occasions, but her ‘English clothes’, she said, made her feel as strong as any man. She got on buses, explored London, organised KFC nugget picnics in the parks with mates. One of them, Zerabai discovered Bijena cheap hair dye – still only £2.75! – and soon there was not a single grey hair between them. The last of the irrepressible, sootyhaired, fun gang died five years ago.  I miss them so. 

…working made me strong, taught me not to accept destiny. In England they say make your destiny. I made mine.  

Jeyaben Desai, a 4ft 10in British-Kenyan Asian womantook on her boss, trades union bigots and mobilised the biggest Labour force movement ever in the UK between 1976 and 1978. It began with a small strike at the Grunwick film processing plantThe all-Asian workforce was severely underpaid and overworked. This unlikely heroine told me her life story in 1998: ‘In Africa, life was easy. Like other Asian ladies, I didn’t have to work. We came here because Asian were not wanted by the Kenyan government. We had to start again. So we found factory work or sewed clothes for manufacturers at homeTo the managers we were less than dogs. But working made me strong, taught me not to accept destiny. That is how we are brought up. In England they say make your destiny. I made mine. History will remember us’. History does indeed remember them.  

Over the years I have talked to scores of women from India, Pakistan, East Africa, Arabia and African countries too. The vast majority said they have become more liberated and assertive, including those who felt debased by unrelenting racism and those who struggled to make ends meet

…’in Pakistan, my life as a girl would have been no choice, no voice. In the UK, you can see how we are speaking up’.  

I met some of their very feisty daughters too. Samira, 20 and a beautician, spoke for many: ‘It has been horrible for my parents many times. And for me too. But in Pakistan, my life as a girl would have been no choice, no voice. Like my mother when she married my father at the age of 17, no voice, no choice. In the UK, you can see how we are speaking up’.  

Kulsum, 42 was only three when her family moved from India to Leicester. She now owns a small wedding food business : ‘Sometimes I cry. They call us names and my son was so badly bullied in school by white boys. But now  I own this house, support my children at university. He ( meaning her husband, Hassan) tried to, but couldn’t stop me. Now he likes my money. I am the Queen of the house.’ Incredibly Hassais now a feminist: ‘ I think we control our ladies and daughters too muchWhy? Look at Kulsum. I am a lucky man’.

I got them to understand how important it was to treat sons and daughters equally, to encourage choices and joint family decisions, to stand up to male domination  

Until 2019, I used to run workshops for Somali women on democracy, not only the system and the vote, but on living a full democratic life. Through participatory exercises, I got them to understand how important it was to treat sons and daughters equally, to encourage choices and joint family decisions, to stand up to male dominationbasic stuff.

…’men are like the bullock, strong but not so clever, like us women. So we must sing, smile, but also tell them to change again and again, push them till they hear you’ 

After six sessions with 12 women, three were thinking of divorce – an unintended consequence – and four said they were reeducating their husbandsCasho, 30, mother of five, was leader of this pack: ‘You know, men are like the bullock, strong but not so clever, like us women. So we must sing, smile, but also tell them to change again and again, push them till they hear you. I went to sleep in the children’s room. He likes sex too much. He promised to change. He is a good man now. 

Halima was rejected by her Muslim husband and in-laws after she gave birth to twin girls (Mothers in Asian and Arab families are blamed for divorce, infertility, disabilities in children, having daughters, miscarriages, and much else). She moved to London from a northern town, rented a small flat in a suburb and set up a clothes alteration stall in a covered market. Last April, the market closed. She kept the business going at home and now has two part-time employees. She laughs when she describes her last conversation with her ex-husband, a cabbie: ‘He said he will not give me money for the girls. £20 each month!. I am making enough money now. Learning to drive also. I have a boyfriend, a nice man from Ireland, the driving teacher’. More laughs. 

England has been good for me too. It is where I found my voice, political identity and purpose. 

England has been good for me too. It is where I found my voice, political identity and purpose. My first husband was a fellow Ugandan Asian, handsome, educated and macho. I was happy enough with him, but restrained my ambitions. My mum used to say, ‘Don’t let him know you are smarter than him’. He left me and my son anyway ( for a young blonde, of course)My English husband Colin, is the kind of partner every feminist needs and deserves.    

So thank you GB for enabling so many female migrants to cut free and fly. 

  • Yasmin Alibhai-Brown 

(Some names have been changed)  

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