9/11 and the British Bangladeshi identity crisis

The British Bangladeshi identity is one that has been through the works and when you consider the history of the community, there is no wonder as to why.

Although Bengali migrants have been documented in the UK as early as the 1800s, the first significant wave arrived just after WW2, with many having served as Lascars (sailors/militiamen from the Indian subcontinent) as part of the British Navy and with the British East India Company.

During this time, however, Bangladeshis were seen as Indians from the British Empire. Post-1947, with the partition of the ‘British Raj’, Bengalis were separated by religious identity, as Hindu West Bengalis joined India and Muslim East Bengalis became East Pakistan.

Following a systematic genocide operation aimed at eroding the Bengali language and killing 3 million Bengalis, the successful Liberation War allowed us to gain independence from Pakistan in March 1971. In essence, the country of Bangladesh is younger than the current British Prime Minister himself and this constant theme of being defined by community outsiders via a religious vs cultural identity appears to still prevail in the community today.

It’s key to distinguish between two time periods, the one before 9/11 and the one after. Pre-9/11, British Bangladeshis associated with a collective South Asian identity despite geopolitical tensions back home. Whilst this made sense, given the fact that Bengalis in the UK would have introduced themselves as being Indian, then Pakistani and then Bangladeshi all in the space of 24 years, it was also the result of the prevailing anti-South Asian climate which treated us as a monolith.

Indeed this was the same climate which made Bangladeshi restaurateurs label their businesses as selling authentic ‘Indian’ cuisine instead of Bengali for the benefit of their white British customers, despite being the pioneers of the ‘great British curry’. Having said this, there was still a strong nostalgia for the motherland and many migrants invested in land in Bangladesh with the intentions to return ‘someday’ and were intent on preserving and reproducing the culture that they had left behind by continuing traditions and customs, wearing cultural dresses and jewellery and organising local community initiatives.

Post-9/11 there was a distinct shift, as suddenly, we weren’t just having to defend our cultural and racial identity but our religious one too, as we went from ‘p*kis’ to ‘terrorists’. Previously the community had been dependent on a charlatan with dubious qualifications for their religious education, resulting in the spread of false and problematic information often rooted in misogyny and presented practices derived from other religions as Islamic.

Almost overnight, having realised just how much their religious knowledge fell short and made them feel disconnected as a result, the post 9/11 increase in access to information on Islam and pressure to ‘do the reading’ to defend against rising islamophobia led to a resurgence in religious devotion in the community.

Where previously the headscarf was something that was wrapped loosely over half the head to signify your status as a married woman, it was now a tightly pinned hijab representing devotion to God. Where Bangladeshi-owned restaurants had previously been selling alcohol that most did not drink themselves to attract white British customers who did, owners and the community at large began considering the morality of earning income this way and many removed the beverages from their premises.

British Bangladeshis began to align themselves with a larger global Muslim identity and for second and third-generation British Bangladeshis growing up in this era, who didn’t share the same direct connection to the motherland as their elders, it also became a tool to question and root out many of the problematic cultural practices that they been previously pushed to blindly follow.

However, whilst in many cases, this was a positive and welcomed change, slowly anything that was related to Bangladeshi culture was beginning to be shunned and looked down upon, as they had no ‘foundations in Islam’ and over time we began identifying more with Arab-speaking cultures.

Only a decade after 9/11 and already modest saris and sherwanis had been swapped for Arabic abayas and thobes and parents who were pressed for time decided to make the trade-off of prioritising teaching academic and religious education and English and Arabic over the Bengali language, history and culture. It started to become about a religious vs cultural identity again just like partition had triggered, there was no nuance for both to complement each other rather than an either/or approach.

The rising loss of Bengali speakers in the community, which is ironic considering Bangladesh fought to preserve this very same language, has led to a significant dilution of cultural heritage. Stories which should have been shared between elders to new generations cannot be told when the children can’t speak to their grandparents and as a result, many don’t have knowledge of a history that occurred only less than half a century ago, let alone commemorate the dates that mark it.

And yet, almost 20 years on from 9/11, a change can be sensed in the British Bangladeshi community again. Increasing social mobility and the rise of social media, making it easier for minorities to carve out representation for themselves, has led to a slow resurgence in cultural pride but this time on our terms.

Years of racist and xenophobic comments from White and Brown counterparts alike, made us feel insecure and pressured to align with cultures that we felt had greater social capital but now we are beginning to see ourselves as the cool, funny kids that we had always been. Designers like Sabyasachi are making our cultural clothing fashionable in both South Asia and the West has made the diaspora feel comfortable to reclaim it again.

Where we had often been the target of the colourist and classist jokes, we’re feeling the pride again and also realising that we don’t have to pick, we can be proudly British, Bangladeshi and Muslim all at once.

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