So it’s Eid today. For years before now, it’s been a day of heartbreak for me. It used to be the one time in the year when everyone in the family was together; so many siblings and nieces and nephews running around; so much excitement and banter and happy noise. We would think for weeks beforehand about what we were going to wear. I used to always love choosing the brightest, most intense colours and matching them up with bangles and earrings and embroidered shoes.
In the years after I left home, I still had a relationship with most of my family, and tense though it was I did feel a little freer. I noticed the sense of compromise in the way my matching eyeshadow or someone else’s sleeveless shalwaar kameez were allowed to pass without comment or punishment.
And I remember the food. For those who have experienced honour abuse and have subsequently become estranged from their families, food is an emotional subject indeed. In her book Daughters of Shame, Jasvinder Sanghera puts it like this:
“The pungent smells of cooking, the pot of curry on the stove, the big unifying meal – those are the key ingredients of an Asian family. Leave them behind and the things that take their place – microwave meals for one, tins of beans and any kind of takeaway – are all reminders of the massive gaps in these girls’ lives. Some of them deal with it by becoming great cooks themselves, others – the majority – turn away from food completely.”
All day on Eid, my mum’s kitchen smelled like heaven and we would help while meat was marinated; vegetables chopped; salads, yoghurts, rice and naan prepared. The young ones would run up to me, hug me, climb all over me, demanding my attention and love. After we’d stuffed ourselves silly and fallen into a food coma, we might watch a movie or play a game. We were together.
For a long, long time, I dreaded cooking and the constant disappointment of tastes that made a mockery of those memories. Each of us experienced feelings of joy, relief and contentment as we ate in each others’ company. We joked and bantered and even though awful things had been done to us, there was always someone in the room who knew what I was feeling and going through. That was home. Yes I had to behave in a certain way; yes I had to censor most of who I was and yes I was still under constant surveillance – but we were together and I was part of something. I was part of a family. When I left, I felt more alone and more disconnected from my sense of self than I thought possible. I felt like a ghost.
But then I remember other times, like when I went to a sibling’s in-laws for a family gathering. I was wearing a black shalwaar kameez with silver embroidery around the neck; nothing like the provocative clothes I often like to wear now. It had a tiny V-neck around which the embroidery twirled. The mother-in-law, who couldn’t speak English, grabbed my wrist and took me into the kitchen. Then, she took a needle and thread and sewed up that tiny little V-neck as I stood there in shock. I was in shock because I thought had escaped such shaming treatment more than ten years previously. Only now do I realise for how long I carried it with me, and still do in some ways.
And there was always something. TV channels needing to be switched over if a women was wearing something ‘inappropriate’; if there was an on-screen kiss; once I was even told not to refer to a ‘chicken breast’, but to a ‘chicken fillet’, because the word ‘breast’ reminded this person too much of a woman’s boobs. That’s what sexual repression will do. I will definitely be talking more about how sexuality and expression of it often strikes at the heart of the motivation behind honour abuse. But for now, as I sit alone with a Bud, enjoying being gloriously me and writing this, I’d like to remember the good stuff.
Here are some pictures of the AWESOME food that I used to eat on Eid, but can’t seem to replicate yet (I kind of like cooking now, I’m getting into it!), and here is the music that reminds me of home. I have a few precious memories that I will protect so that I remember always where I came from. The rest I will keep close in a guarded part of my consciousness so that I can use it to help others. Because nothing feels quite as good as the sweet taste of freedom.