I, like approximately 13 million people in the country, spent Wednesday evening bawling my face off, watching Nadiya Hussain become crowned the winner of The Great British Bake Off. It was all too much – the amazing cakes, Nadiya’s tears, the camaraderie of the lovely participants. When even Queen Mary of Berry had a moment, you could hear the nation collectively sob.
But I also found myself having a big old cry because I didn’t realise how affected I’d be watching a brown Muslim woman succeed on telly. It was so refreshing to see a woman in a headscarf who wasn’t playing a tragic bit part – Nadiya wasn’t background footage on the news, slowly walking through a bustling inner city market, while statistics about race and immigration were superimposed over her face. She wasn’t part of a news item about headscarf bans or forced marriage. And she wasn’t part of another new hard-hitting drama that explored the effects of radicalisation among British Muslimsszzzzzz. Sorry, nodded off there for a second.
No. Nadiya was on telly for being nice, and normal, and making amazing buns. Such a pleasant, if unremarkable, feat had me bawling my eyes out. I could never have remotely imagined seeing anything of the sort when I was a kid. Would I have turned out differently if I had? What would it have been like to grow up in an England where women in hijabs won nationally beloved cooking programmes? I’m delighted that a young generation of brown girls might find out.
The joy I take in Nadiya’s victory is that she has been allowed to simply be herself – and perform the remarkable feat of being nice and unremarkable
I suppose I’ve always kidded myself that increased visibility of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people on television didn’t matter too much. Because, of course, tokenism is embarrassing, and the best way of integrating is to just pipe down and muddle along with everyone else, right? After all, growing up in a relatively rural area meant that practically everyone around me was white anyway. So it didn’t strike me as too odd that everyone I saw on TV, books and magazines was also white. There were one or two exceptions, I suppose: whichever couple was running the newsagent’s in EastEnders, an oppressed girl on Grange Hill. But, generally speaking, nobody on television even remotely resembled me or my family.
We’d always pounce whenever we spotted a brown face reading the news or weather. There was often a sense of pride that one of "our own" had made it – even though the definition of "our own" had to be broad. As a teenager looking for a reasonably cool cultural touchstone, I had to make do with Apu from The Simpsons. Not quite the same sex or race – and yes, a cartoon – but at least he was depicted in a harmless, toothless positive light. And I could get easy laughs by saying "Kwik-e-Mart".
I can also remember seeing angry brown people on the news, burning copies of The Satanic Verses. The newsreader said they were Muslims, like me, and I was shocked. The first Gulf War happened, and I have a very clear memory of a fellow 11-year old in my class asking me why I “liked Saddam Hussein”. These incidents in particular stick out because they were the first times I realised that part of my identity had been taken away and shaped into something sinister and other by a narrative I had no control over: the white male gaze.
The joy I take in Nadiya’s victory is that she has been allowed to simply be herself – and perform the remarkable feat of being nice and unremarkable. She has been given enough airtime to show emotion, wit, stress – you know, as if she were an actual human being – and this is what we need to see more of. Nadiya is representative of the many nice, funny, intelligent Muslim women out there whose voices need to be heard talking about… stuff. You know, stuff that isn’t to do with terrorism and/or oppression. Stuff they want to talk about – like cakes, cats, nuclear physics, David Bowie, dinosaur eggs, stem-cell research, digital marketing, monkeys, knitting.
I like to believe we are making slow progress. I hope young brown girls watched Nadiya’s triumph and felt really, really happy, but not as overwhelmed as I did. I hope that for them, it was no big deal.