Bangladesh turns fifty this year, and so do I.

I was born and raised in Cambridge, England. For me, this is significant. While living in Western society, I have been steeped in the importance of maintaining my cultural identity.

I have embraced my roots while living in the present. I speak English and I speak Bengali. As a young girl, I drew pictures of the Queen, watched Play School and Bagpuss, but I also spent many hours in the kitchen with my sister and mother learning to cook Bengali dishes. I am a 21st century British-Bangladeshi woman, well-versed in the traditions and culture of my roots.

Bangladesh is in the spotlight this year as it turns 50, and I feel some of that focus is directed towards me. Increased discussions about our family’s roots and the history of our homeland have triggered my own children to think about why our connection with the past is so important.

Deep within, I know that embracing our culture is vital, but I struggled to find a clear response that might resonate with my kids. I searched my writings, studied my past and dug deep into my thoughts and beliefs to find an answer.

I found three: Embracing our culture gives us stability. Sacrifice matters. And self-acceptance leads to acceptance of others.

Embracing our culture gives us stability

An unmanned ship breaks away from its moorings. As it drifts into the open sea and away from the shore, it is buffeted by gales and giant waves. It has no choice but to follow the wind. But imagine that ship with a captain, a crew and a compass. With the benefit of direction and experience, the ship can travel far and wide, safe in the knowledge that it can return safely to its moorings to rest and recover.

In this era of individuality and “being your own person”, it is easy to feel as though you are a product solely of your own choices—a ship at the sea. But whether we admit it or not, our families, ancestors and culture are our captain, crew and compass. They create a stable place from which to launch our ship. These powerful roots help us enrich and make sense of our experiences as we travel into a magnificent but complex world. 

Sacrifice matters

Throughout history, every generation has been influenced by the one before. My parents shaped my siblings and me, just as my grandparents shaped them. Through actions, discipline, beliefs, and personal sacrifice, each generation carves a path for the next. Over time, this path evolves with additional curves as well as bumps and repairs, but by embracing our culture and remembering the sacrifices made for us, its direction does not waver.

My father left his home in East Pakistan in 1957 seeking a better life for his family. He started in Cambridge as a cleaner, but after years of gruelling work and determination, he became the owner of two “Indian” restaurants in Cambridge (most Indian restaurants were run by Bengalis). He saved enough money to bring his family to England, and in 1963, during one of the coldest winters on record, my mother arrived.

Four years later, I was born—the same week that Bangladesh became independent. The significance of this is not lost on me. My father held himself to a brutal work schedule, sacrificing his own freedom and comfort, which paved the way for mine.

My parents bestowed on my siblings and me a rich knowledge of Bengali history and culture, and through their sacrifices we experienced opportunities and freedom they never had. In turn, I have tried to instil respect and pride for Bengali culture into my own four children and shared their grandparents’ stories with them. They understand that their privileges and luxuries came from the blood and sweat, courage and sacrifices of their forebearers.

Self-acceptance leads to acceptance of others

When Bangladesh issued the proclamation of independence from Pakistan in early 1971, its first government (provisional government) drafted an interim constitution with three fundamental principles: equality, human dignity and social justice. I am proud that my heritage links me with such an ethical and generous philosophy. I teach my children to value people over possessions and to reach out to those in need.

Studying, understanding and celebrating Bangladeshi culture and religion, while living as a British citizen, leads me to accept my links to my heritage. It gives me a thrill of pride to know that I am linked to such a rich and colourful history.

This cultural self-acceptance offers me a compass if I lose my way, but also keeps me grounded. Acceptance of my own culture leads to confidence in who I am and where I come from. This cultural confidence feeds open-mindedness and makes it easier to be accepting of other cultures, races and religions. This is critical when living in a multi-cultural society, and it paves the way for peace and acceptance within the wider community.

I am a British-Bangladeshi proud of my heritage and my family. I stand as a conduit that connects my parents and my children, and I trust that my children will continue to sail their own ships fully equipped with their captain, crew and compass. I am grateful that they seem poised to continue on our path of learning and growing from a foundation built by family, history and culture.

Written By

Shahida Rahman

Editor and Co-Founder of Cambridge Muslim Heritage