British, Bangladeshi and Belonging in Manchester

16 December 2021 celebrates the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan and is known as “Victory Day” or “Bijoy Dibosh”.

Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre and Education Trust Head Safina Islam reflects on what it means to be a British Bangladeshi and belonging, in conversation with Selina Ullah, a Trustee of the Education Trust, who is also of Bangladeshi heritage.

Safina: What does “Bijoy Dibosh” conjure up for you?

For me it reminds me of going with my parents and siblings (as a child) to these independence celebratory events hosted by the Bangladeshi Assistant High Commissioner and attended by most of the then Bangladeshi community in Manchester. You could fit us all in a hall back then! There would be speeches and some traditional Bengali singing and the Bengali national anthem would be sung with such vigour and all the pride of a new nation that was only recently liberated. At the time I didn’t really understand the significance of why it was so important to my parent’s generation to come together and reflect on the hard won liberation especially as we were living in the UK. There was so much loss and sacrifice that was largely erased by the largely more culturally dominant Pakistani community in Manchester. There was so much organising, resistance and activism that took place outside of Bangladesh, particularly in the UK, that I’d heard about and only recently came to understand my own late father’s significant contribution to the resistance movement.

Selina: What does “Bijoy Dibosh” conjure up for me? Well as a young child growing up in Manchester, there was not really any organised way of celebrating Bijoy Dibosh. I’m talking about the early seventies, soon after the war of independence, so it was only, I would say, in the eighties when the community started organising events to commemorate, to celebrate both cultural and political and historic events that we started to get that information. Later, when I had my own children, my husband was very active in organising events such as Bijoy Dibosh, bringing people together both in Manchester and then when we moved to Bradford and Keighley. We were very actively involved in those kinds of events, both attending them and organising them. and my children would often go and recite poetry that their Dad had written for them to recite; we would listen to speeches; we would hear personal accounts about what it had been like for individuals who’d experienced that time and that period, and often it was with a lot of emotion and passion about the dream of a golden Bangladesh. So I think it was very patriotic and it did give a sense of identity and a sense of belonging, that this is part of my history. Whereas the history that we were being taught at school was a very remote, very distant history, this was an immediate history that connected with people that we knew and we’d experienced. I had personally experienced the war of independence because my family was in East Pakistan at the time and experienced the birth of Bangladesh; we paid a personal cost as well. It was in my living memory even though I was a young child, and my husband was obviously from Bangladesh so it was also in his living memory. We could connect to it and make it very real for our children

Safina: Tell me about being a British Bangladeshi. Do you identify as British Bangladeshi or how do you describe your nationality/ethnicity? Is it even important?

Selina: Do I identify as a British Bangladeshi? I most certainly do. I see being British as part of my identity. It was something that was installed very deeply in me by my brothers and sisters, by my father who was very proud that he was British and he had a black passport. For him that was a very important part of his identity and of his existence in the UK; it almost gave him a sense of ‘I have a right to be here’ and that was passed on to us. I know recently the debate has been about feeling English or being English; I don’t see myself as being English, I don’t even consider it as part of my identity. I think Britishness speaks to me more because that connects to the colonialism, it connects to the Commonwealth and all of that which is much more relevant to me and its relationship and dynamic that goes with it, whereas to me being English is something quite flat; it doesn’t resonate with me and I don’t get a sense that it includes me or has any aspect of it which relates to my life.

When it comes to identity I would say that being British, being Bangladeshi and being a Muslim are the key components of my identity. The Britishness speaks to me about my sense of being in the world, the legal aspects and nationality, the  rights of citizenship; the Bangladeshiness speaks to me about my culture, my cultural identity and how that has been framed by my parents as they passed on a version of their  Bangladeshi culture to me which I’ve passed on to my children and they are passing on to our grandchildren, Each version of that culture has changed slightly and it’s incorporated aspects of our environment and our experiences of living in this country and being a diaspora, periodically going to Bangladesh and being shaped by that. And Islam and being a Muslim really governs my outlook on life, my values, how I live every day and that is a constant, from what I choose to eat, how I choose to dress, how I engage with certain entertainment – all of that is a very intricate and intrinsic part of my life. None of those identities has a hold greater than the others; I think is a combination of the three which makes me unique and how I see the world and how I interact and relate to the world  

Safina: I can relate to the Bangladeshi heritage and my faith as being part of my identity but being Mancunian and northern describes my identity more than being British or even English. I do describe my nationality as British and ethnicity as British Bangladeshi but I am culturally northern and I even speak Bengali with a northern accent – should we be thinking more about belonging? What does the term belonging mean to you?

Selina: So what does the term belonging mean to me? I think belonging is a sense of being part of a place and community. Being comfortable in the feeling that you have an opportunity to contribute to express an opinion, to question and critique what’s happening -that all gives a sense of belonging, and I think it’s a sense of being wanted as well. Belonging – you can only belong to a place where you feel wanted. I think that is a double-edged sword sometimes, because having been born and brought up in in this country, it’s the only place I’ve known and I am an active citizen, I contribute to society, I volunteer, I work and am vocal about things that I disagree with and all of that At the same time when you see the reports on hate crime, the political angle, the hostile environment, you do question at times (even if it’s momentarily) ‘Do I belong here?’ But I think there is no other option for us: second, third, fourth generation and now we are just getting to full fifth generations, so we can’t really say, well we have a fallback situation. I don’t see myself going back to Bangladesh no matter what the situation is, because this is my home, this is where I have grown up, this is where I know how the system works and I understand it even with its flaws, how to operate in this system. For me this is my home and this is where I belong

Safina: I find this quite complex to describe and you’ve articulated it really well. Similarly, for me belonging requires “acceptance” and I think if I feel accepted as my whole self then I can begin to feel like I belong. That acceptance has to come from the people as well as the environment and this is where my Muslim, female and Bangladeshi heritage elements intersect. There are spaces that I am accepted as a woman but at the same time those spaces reject my faith (and my freedom to practice/express it in the way I want) and there are spaces that I can be a visibly Muslim woman but I need to leave being of Bangladeshi heritage at the door. There are very few spaces that I do feel I can truly belong, regardless of the fact that I was born and bred in this country; belonging comes from so much more than your citizenship or nationality and is something that you have little control over at times. It is something that comes up a lot when we work with young people at the Centre and the Trust. Do you think the next generation has a similar view on identity and belonging?

Selina: When I look at my children, my nephews and nieces, I think they all interpret it in a different way. I think that is based on the types of discussions and experiences and exposure they’ve had to that diversity of thinking about identity and belonging and culture and difference and diversity and equality and all of that. I think that is what makes somebody feel confident in their own identity: when you understand the dynamics of what’s going on; when you’ve been able to understand your own place and accept the good and the bad of your own identity and culture and faith; when you’re comfortable in your own skin – I think that gives you that confidence to outwardly challenge the injustices, to defend yourself and your position and to defend your own community and its perspective and also be an advocate.  That’s what’s really interesting to see in my own children, because I hope that we’ve given them a strong sense of their identity and their place and their worth, and that based on that they can be good human beings who stand up for equality and justice and who are comfortable of being fluid.  I think they are more much more competent at being global citizens rather than being nailed down to a place or a community. I think moving forward we will see future generations -my children, my grandchildren – being much more fluid and confident in that fluidity, being confident about being who they are, and a lot of their identity will be based on and currently is based on their values, their value base and how they see themselves contributing to the community and wider society.

Safina: I agree with so much of what you’ve raised here – it does depend on what you’ve been exposed to and I was thinking about the dynamics of first, second (and future) generations of the Bangladeshi diaspora. When I was younger (and faced so many barriers) I used to think, well, it will at least be better for the next generation. Surely society can’t question their right to belong here if both parents are born here – yet I’ve met many young people through my community work with Bangladeshi young people who say they don’t feel they are “allowed” to be British or English. I think the next generation certainly think critically about Race, Identity and belonging and I think they have a more sophisticated and nuanced language for it too.  How do you think the work of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre and Education Trust contributes to these ideas and attitudes?

Selina: I think the Centre has a pivotal role to play. I think the Centre collects the lived experiences of people from different communities and puts them out there so that other people can hear those stories, can engage with the stories and can interpret it and take from it. I think that’s the role of the Centre, that it is a point of collecting. The Centre collects all those voices and experiences and doesn’t place a judgement. But I think there is something more that we could be doing, and that’s about engaging and steering discussions into difficult territories.  I think it isn’t just about being a repository of information and experiences; I think it’s also about generating knowledge, it’s about making sense of the collective experience and either producing questions for policymakers or mobilising communities to activism in a positive way, and it’s generating a sense of wellbeing and pride in our experiences, that the fact that the experience of minority communities has worth,  is valuable and there’s learning from it and we can inform the future based on that experience.

Safina: I agree that the Centre has a leading role to play and there is always more we can do. I think more recently we have been sharing our platform and privilege as an organisation and ensure we commission global majority community groups and practitioners to co-produce or curate/deliver our community engagement and public programme events. I actually feel we face real challenges with the current government’s attitude to racism, islamophobia and migrant communities, but on the other hand there is a heightened consciousness in relation to racism and anti-racism work. We are often seen as part of the problem because we raise the problem of racism and we don’t often get to stay on the platform long enough to talk about solutions. However, we have many partners, stakeholders and individuals who believe in the work we are doing, are amplifying our message and are seeking out the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust to work with on their own anti-racism journey.

Today as we remember, reflect and celebrate “Bijoy Dibosh” I hope we can emulate the activism of our ancestors, build bridges of connection between the communities and generations and ensure the memories and stories are learnt from and live on in the diaspora. Joy Bangla!