by Syima Aslam
When I was growing up, an only child in a Pakistini Muslim family in Halifax, sex was a taboo subject. Although sex was inferred all the time through dictates about correct behaviour, it was never discussed openly. I never had the ‘birds and bees’ talk from my mother, and the only time sex came up was when girls went ‘bad’. Girls who were found to have boyfriends were quickly married off before they could do anything to dishonour the family name. And in a world where the hymen was so crucial, even tampons were suspect – a woman’s honour was quite literally located between her legs.
At first, this culture at home seemed diametrically opposed to what I was experiencing at school – many of my friends either had or wanted boyfriends. Despite this, I could see many of the same values inflected through slightly different prisms – boys wanted notches on the bed post while girls were obsessed with being fun without being ‘easy’. Double standards for the sexes were embedded in both cultures, with women being an easy target for denigration. Through school, university and in my professional life I became increasingly conscious of the wider impact of the differing narratives about men’s and women’s interactions.
In addition, as a Muslim woman, I was always struck by how Muslim women were constantly viewed in a very binary manner: either liberated (brainwashed by Western culture) or oppressed (brainwashed by Muslim men). Neither view allowed much space for female agency. However, in my experience, women everywhere – regardless of culture and religion – experience the same pressures dressed up in different narratives.
Literature has always been my route into the world around me, providing an education in walks of life I can’t experience and empathy with people I will never meet. So it was books, ranging from Fanny Hill to the Arabian Nights, that gave me the sex education which my mother didn’t and which my friends mangled. My first ideas of romance came from the brooding heroes of Mills and Boons. I devoured these books in my early teens before finding the ultimate doomed love in Heathcliff. I discovered Jeanette Winterson when I watched the BBC adaptation of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit – and to this day, hers are the books I turn to when I want to remember that love and passion are possible.
My inspiration for creating Bradford Literature Festival came from the idea that without education – without books – our options and outlook are limited. Literacy enables us to engage with the world, and change it. Books allowed me to work out how I felt about my body, my religion, my sexuality, and the interaction between these. Reading voraciously gave me confidence in my identity as a woman on the cusp of two cultures. And now that I have a teenage daughter, super-glued to social media, I am even more aware of the progress and setbacks in perceptions of female sexuality, and the need to respond to it.