“We are who we are, and people see us for who we are.”
This month, London-based Asia House kicked off their widely anticipated Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in the United Kingdom. The IPF had the chance to attend the opening night of the festival, which hosted session with Nadiya Hussain, winner of BBC’s The Great British Bake Off 2015. She sat down with journalist, activist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to discuss identity, integration and, of course, cakes. We also learned about what it was like for a Muslim woman of Bangladeshi origin to rise to fame during the course of the show, and where she plans to take her success next.
Nadiya is a wife, mother, baker, and a Muslim. She was born in Luton and is undeniably British, but is often viewed through the lenses of her skin colour, gender and religion. Nadiya’s discussion with Yasmin covered issues of integration in the UK, as well as the obstacles she has faced as an Asian woman thrown into the public limelight.
Nadiya told the Asia House audience that she only entered the competition because her husband first signed her up. She recalled: “He realised, at some point that I do everything [at home]”.
The pair was subject to a great deal of negativity for the decision. Generally speaking, people were not supportive of her husband’s decision to encourage his wife to appear on TV – especially as the new commitment would draw her away from her “family duties”. Nadiya recalled one man sending her husband a message on social media, saying:
“What kind of husband are you, for allowing your wife to go on a show with men? You should be locked up.”
Despite the difficulties she and her family faced as a result of their skin colour and religion, Nadiya emerged as the Great British Bake Off’s triumphant winner. Yasmin questioned whether a Muslim woman could have won on such a public and prominent platform in France, a country accused by Human Rights Watch of carrying out discriminatory measures against Muslims since the terror attacks in Paris last November. England, she maintained, is different. England has long-standing ties to countries in the Middle East and Asia.
Yasmin recalled a saying her mother would repeat, directed at British-run colonies: “You captured our countries, but we captured your stomachs”.
Many of the cultural connections between the East and the West stem from food. It is no secret that Britain is home to a wide range of diverse cuisines, nurtured and disseminated by immigrant communities that now consider themselves ethnic minority British.
These integral ties are what Nadiya will explore in her new spin-off series, ‘The Chronicles of Nadiya’, which airs on BBC One later this year. In her show, Nadiya will spend time in both Luton, her birthplace, and Bangladesh, where her family is from.
She will cook food along her journey and celebrate the rich cultural heritage that binds her to Bangladesh, and followed her family to England.
At one point in the discussion Yasmin noted: “Many of us [immigrants] feel quite lucky to be here [in England], doing what we do”. She and Hussain agreed that identifying as a woman of colour can often be a complex and uncomfortable process. They both cited experiences in their life that were heart-wrenching, one being when someone asked Nadiya to bleach her hands before baking the Queen’s 90th birthday cake earlier this year.
At the end of the day, however, Yasmin stressed: “We are who we are, and people see us for who we are”. Being a Muslim, Bangladeshi mother is what makes Nadiya the baker she is, and are thus the very roots of her success.