My latest piece published today in The Telegraph
Nadiya Hussain is the favourite to win this year’s Great British Bake Off and yet her ‘surprise’ success is very revealing, writes Shelina Janmohamed
I love Nadiya. Millions of people up and down the country love Nadiya. She doesn’t even need a surname anymore. Even Mary Berry loves Nadiya. She’s the face of today’s Britain: authentic, honest, creative, emotional, heartfelt and honest.
Oh. And she’s Muslim. And she just happens to wear a headscarf. But this newly discovered baking genius, despite being Muslim, isn’t cooking up any kind of shariah flavoured sponge or jihadi cupcakes.
Not that you’d know it from some of the bizarre comments about the nation’s newest sweetheart, and finalist in tonight’s Great British Bake Off. Now in its sixth series, the finale is tipped to be the most watched TV programme of the year, and Nadiya seems to be the people’s choice for winner.
Finally, we have a Muslim woman in the national limelight who has not been put there for us to dissect her headscarf/forced marriage/escape from FGM/liberation from Islam/burqa/niqab/jihadi bride status (delete as appropriate).
Muslim women don’t often get to have their own voices. Or be in control of how their image is portrayed. (Have a glance at the comments below any article written by a Muslim women and discover how much people think we need saving – especially those of us who don a headscarf.) But boy oh boy, Nadiya is fully in charge and has a bit of cheek – not to mention a face of a million expressions and a talent most of us only dream of.
And this has made many people unnerved. What, Muslim women are people too? And they can bake? Even while they wear a headscarf? Is she some kind of fictional superhero?
At the kinder end of the tweets and comments, there’s also patronising undertone of surprise that a brown Muslim woman is ooh, such a lovely girl too! That Nadiya, she wears a headscarf, did you notice? She wears a HEADSCARF. She’s a Muslim, did you know? A MUSLIM. She’s a MUSLIM, who wears a HEADSCARF. But it’s OK, DON’T PANIC. She can bake.
Photo: Mark Bourdillon/BBC
The Muslim women I spoke to have said that it seems to be the very same people who seem to bewail the “Muslamic” [yes, people do say that] oppression of women who are complaining that Nadiya is only in the final in order for the BBC to be politically correct, and nothing to do with hard work and merit. Well to that I say you can’t have your cake and…
Naturally, there’s a sense of pride among Muslim women at Nadiya’s success; a feeling of finally being represented. But just because we enjoy seeing her on screen and she shares our faith, doesn’t mean we blindly support her. It’s not like last year I went up to all the 60-something white women I know and gushed about how excited they must have been that Nancy Birtwhistle won.
We need to face up to why Nadiya’s description is usually tempered with references to her religion, clothes or ethnicity, (because she doesn’t bring them up unless directly asked). It’s because so many still have very deeply ingrained ideas of what Britishness means, and it doesn’t include ethnic minorities, immigrants or Muslims. Whilst GBBO’s coverage might seem like just a bit of fun, this same ingrained idea is having far more serious implications that affect people’s life, death and freedom.
These racialised attitudes infect the Government’s rhetoric – and lead to politicians describing refugees as a ‘swarm’ or talking of immigrants who come to work here and who contribute to the economy as a strain. (Theresa May’s latest speech is a case in a point).
By limiting Muslims’ collective identity to that of their religion – and then linking us all ominously to terrorism through guilt by association – is how the Government gets away with making schools and universities police our thoughts. It’s how Muslim charities can be ignored at the Conservative Party Conference.
However, what’s given me huge hope over the last nine weeks of GBBO is that large swathes of British public recognise all of this. The majority of ordinary conversation has focused on Nadiya’s immense talent, her passion,and the way she wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s reminded us all that these are the values we hold dear, not the fear mongering about immigrants; the security lockdown on Muslims; the removal of voices; faces and diversity from our landscape.
Nadiya’s the woman who we’d love more than anyone to be our neighbour and offer to cook cakes for us. That’s why tonight I’m firmly #TeamNadiya – regardless of her religion or headscarf.