Written by guest contributor Bilkis Miah
"To move forward on gender equality, we need to stop preaching the same message to the same groups and start listening to other communities."
As I reflect on my childhood growing up in a British Bangladeshi household, I often think about how I naturally absorbed the burden of gendered expectations without consciously knowing it. When my Aunt told me: “education isn’t important for you, because you’re a girl and going to get married anyway,” I was shocked but I buried my reaction away.
Growing up in both cultures meant my education was tolerated, rather than celebrated. Having my own ambition was fine, as long as it included being a wife and a mother. Our families eagerly wanted us to assimilate but were simultaneously scared of change, especially for their young girls.
So, what is the answer? I had to dig deep and think about what is the root cause of these seemingly innocuous, but dangerous statements. It’s something bigger. Having spoken to my community, a common theme was abundantly clear - it was about being seen as the other. It’s about my community feeling like the world is moving on without them or still being seen as an afterthought when it comes to important societal or political issues. It is also a lack of engagement and education.
Luckily for me, my parents were always passionate about me having an education, and had different and often opposing views to that of their community. The biggest difference? They felt integrated into the core British community, and saw the power that education could have, regardless of whether you were a girl or a boy. They were engaged by teachers, friends and other parents which allowed them to feel embedded and to feel a part of the British community.
We need to make sure communities like mine are taken on the journey of change with everyone else too. Let’s not leave them behind. When you ask these communities what they want, more often than not they want their children to succeed and to be happy. But, it’s important to navigate the nuances carefully. You may want your child to have happiness within the confines of what a tradition or community thinks is right for a girl or woman. It is our job to challenge and change these traditions both internally, but also for those externally looking in.
It’s why I have founded an organisation that challenges these stereotypes both in the school and home environment early on. We work with primary schools through key lessons that we’ve co-created with local teachers and through our home activity kits that engages the wider community, including the British Bangladeshi families across East London. Impact needs to be felt in and outside the school gates for there to be sustained longer term change. We need to speak to all families and include all corners of our communities.
To all my people of colour: be brave in having conversations and consistent in challenging notions your community might have, particularly when it comes to gender. Challenge the stereotypical views of what white people think your community is or has to offer. A classic line back in the day was: “Are you going to have an arranged marriage?” My response: “No, things have moved on, although my parents did have an arranged marriage.”
Challenging these notions shifts the conversations from being one dimensional and presumptuous to one about a community trying to change (albeit at a much slower pace). To all my white allies, educate yourself, do your research and also listen. Stop preaching the same message to the same, aligned groups and listen to what the other communities have to say. Even if there’s a difference in opinion, use that as a platform to find commonalities. Because, ultimately, we all want the same thing and there’s greater power in numbers.
About the author
Bilkis Miah is the CEO and Founder of You Be You. Bilkis is a former management consultant, who has since moved into the education sector. She was raised in Britain by Bangladeshi immigrant parents, and experienced the intersectionality of race, religion and gender first-hand. She is dedicated to changing these expectations through the work of You Be You; a social enterprise dedicated to inspiring limitless choices for the next generation, particularly beyond their race, class and gender through their school programme and home activity kits.