Husnara Begum Head & Shoulders Image

Husnara Begum, owner & careers consultant

Love and romance are topics I’ve deliberately shied away from in my blogs. After all, when it comes to affairs of the heart, I’m hardly an expert given Cupid’s arrow has only struck me the once. Well twice if you include George Michael and even that was a mere teenage crush.

Anyway, with Valentine’s day approaching I thought now’s a great time to share some of the lessons I’ve learnt about love. This includes figuring out who I really am and learning to love myself (wonky fingers ‘n’ all) and then eventually falling in love with dare I say it a ‘white’ man.

Like so many other teenage British Bangladeshi girls who grew up in relatively conservative households during the 80s I fully expected to have an arranged marriage. That meant relationships with members of the opposite sex (including those that were entirely platonic) were strictly forbidden. As was any talk of the birds and bees. Indeed, come to think of it, had it not been for sex education at school I’d probably still be thinking babies come from storks.

Thankfully for my parents, as a teenager I was a very late developer. I also spent months on end in hospital battling the onslaught of Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, which took a hold of me aged just nine. And thanks to some healthy sibling rivalry my focus away from hospital was firmly on getting top grades in my GCSEs and A Levels meaning boys were the last thing on my mind.

Although to be fair, as a teenager, boys didn’t show an ounce of interest in me. After all, as a brown skinned nerdy Blue Peter watching wheelchair user in a predominantly white school, I was hardly a catch. Thinking about it now, as the only girl in my year who hadn’t been on a date or experienced their first kiss, that was indeed the first time I felt like an outsider. All I wanted back then was to ‘fit in’, not realising that this would be a struggle that would continue haunting me for the vast majority of my young adult years.

Strange as it might sound, it was my disability that unwittingly gave me the freedoms that I enjoy to this very day. As luck would have it my parents decided against an arranged marriage for me after realising that notwithstanding my fair skin (I’ll write about colourism another time) and brains their disabled daughter was never going to be a suitable match for a Bangladeshi groom who would’ve been chosen on my behalf. Phew.

Instead, my parents packed me off to university and upon making the 90-minute journey to Warwick little did I know how dramatically different my life would become compared to that of other British Bangladeshi women many of whom still live unacceptably restrictive lives.

After flying the nest, I tried making up for those lost years and months spent in hospital and revising for exams by quickly shifting my priorities to partying and boys. I became less interested in my studies and spent most of the first year of my law degree at the student union bar on a desperate hunt for a boyfriend but to no avail. Incidentally, to any family members reading my blog I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol and still continue to abstain. And for any aspiring lawyers wondering about my first-year grades. Yep, they suffered but thankfully I bounced back and managed to bag a training contract.

Husnara First day at uni

Me on my first day at Warwick Uni

Arriving on campus for Freshers’ Week and feeling like an outsider, I rebelled against my family and decided to deliberately distance myself from anything that screamed Bangladeshi and/or disabled by giving myself a radical makeover. Inspired by Posh Spice, I made my first ever trip to the hairdressers and my greasy black locks were chopped off in favour of a bob. I discovered makeup. My loose baggy clothes were ditched in favour of figure-hugging dresses, boot cut jeans (denim was banned by my dad) and cropped tops that showed off my belly. Think 1990s girl band All Saints chic!

Though I loved my new look, it came at a huge cost. I feared being reprimanded by my parents for looking like a slapper. I felt conflicted. The more I blossomed into a confident and self-assured future City lawyer and learnt to love myself the more I worried about how my family would react if they saw this version of me. I had no choice other than to compartmentalise my life and adopt two personas. And as I wrote in a previous blog, that meant spending most of my late teens and 20s playing Pinocchio, telling porkies about who and what I really was. It was unauthentic and utterly exhausting.

The biggest lie was keeping the relationship with my now husband, who I met 19 years ago, a secret from my entire family. Again, I felt conflicted, fearing certain members wouldn’t approve of the ‘white’ man I was besotted with. I concluded, rather than seek their approval, the easiest option was not to tell them. Thinking back, it sounds crazy that as a successful professional in my mid-20s I still needed parental consent to find love. And even more bizarre is knowing that this was despite it becoming abundantly clear that I wasn’t in line for an arranged marriage either. What was a girl supposed to do?

Deciding to end the deadlock (or as I now know to be the case the taboo) and after much deliberation with some close friends I revealed all to my mum. Thankfully, both she and my dad slowly came round to the idea of me dating a non-Asian and even turned a blind eye to us cohabiting until we tied the knot in February 2010.

As our 12th wedding anniversary rapidly approaches, I want to use this blog not to offer relationship advice but to say that when it comes to love, follow your heart. I’ve also learnt that you don’t need anyone’s validation or approval. And certainly not from your interfering south Asian aunties or indeed any other relatives. Some of mine didn’t even RSVP when I invited them to my wedding and to be honest – I actually didn’t care. All the people I loved and who loved me back (unconditionally) showed up and that’s what ultimately mattered.

And when it comes to authenticity and identity there’s nothing wrong with having more than one version of yourself provided it feels natural and works for you. After all, as I edge closer to my 50s another version of me that’s ironically now closer to my Asian heritage than ever before is already starting to emerge. And as my niece prepares for her big fat Asian wedding later this year I’ll step out in a saree and share the photos on social media with great pride.