Tuesday 28 June 2016

I don't think you're ready for this...

I've known Sha since we were both 12. We met on the first day of high school and basically grew up together. I look at her and don't think she's changed. She's still the same strong minded intelligent and funny person I met all those years ago. We still love to go on long walks into the countryside (and usually get lost), we still laugh at the the same things and we still sit and talk for hours, but obviously, life hasn't stayed still, a lot has changed!

It's been just over 13 years since Sha posed for her portrait and chose the quote 'I don't think you're ready for this' for my first ever series of paintings, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I recently interviewed her to get some information that will help with the transformation of her portrait as part of the work which will investigate several women and their personal stories.  Even though I know her well, it was still an eye opening experience. I was really interested to get Sha's take on the world and to hear her story.  

As we settled around my kitchen table with tea and some cake I began:

If you were to give a brief synopsis of who you are, as if we’d never met,  what would you say?

Oh God Gemma! That's really difficult! It's like a job interview! What was the question again... [I ask it again]
...I wear my heart on my sleeve. I try not to but it always happens. I’m kind hearted I love having adventures but life makes it hard to do that sometimes. I love exploring, nature and creativity. I’m fun loving.  

I was expecting you to tell me your name, age, occupation etc! But you've gone for a much more emotional route, that's really interesting.

I don’t define myself by what I done or what I’ve become, I haven’t been lucky enough to have a job or a house that define what I am, if I was I’d probably be in Hawaii! 

Can you tell me about the time when we did the photo shoot for your portrait what your situation was and what you were planning for the future as implied in the thought bubble? 

The painting was done when I went back to Uni to do my Masters. I was quite serious about getting a career and breaking boundaries. I was being independent when culturally it was expected that [Muslim] girls [of my age] get married and settle down.  

Your portrait has an almost confrontational aspect to it, you stare directly at the viewer hand behind head with the thought bubble ‘I don’t think you’re ready for this’.  It suggests someone who has plans and motives that would shock the audience and an inner strength and certainty. It was one of my favourite quotes from the series because I felt it really represented your personality.  

 Can you tell me why you chose that particular quote for your portrait? 

Now I’m more educated in my religion I realise what was restraining me was actually cultural. Islamically I should have had more rights but [Asian] society had restrictive views of women. It was a combination of culture and tradition and the Bangladesh interpretation of them.  I did fight against those restrictions.

There’s a quote from the Koran ‘Iqra’, which means read, learn be educated, yet there’s no definition of that being for a man or a woman. It was a relief for me that my religion promoted my rights instead of taking them away. Growing up though, I didn’t know my rights and people [misunderstanding] pinned it on religion. 

I fought a lot of cultural restrictions. There was no logic to them! Education was a big thing for me and was going to give me my independence and skills to stand on my own two feet. My parents were first generation emigrants and they wanted to bring up their daughter to fulfill their morals. My family weren’t ready for my growth. A lot of my friends were doing what was expected of them but my identity was about fighting for what I believed in. 

How did you deal with going against the cultural ideals and potentially upsetting people? 

It was hard but I had to toughen up. I’ve got my own morals. I stand up for what I believe in and my values made more sense than the restrictions put upon me. For instance it just didn’t make sense saying to me, you can’t get an education because you’re a woman. When I asked why I was told, because that’s the way it is. That wasn’t sufficient for me. 

Do you think the same traditional ideas about females still exist in Muslim culture in Britain today, has it progressed or changed in any way?

I can’t vouch for every person I’m not really in touch with many of the Muslim communities where I grew up, but I’d say that they don’t fall into any particular culture anymore. It’s the same way people say British culture is made up of many influences from all the different people who have settled here, Asian community is changing too.

It’s hard to say how it is for girls now; some families allow girls out and about whereas some still disapprove. My views don’t necessarily represent everyone else. My family when I was growing up was different to another family down the street. 

How has living in Britain as a Muslim woman changed for you since the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes painting? 

The painting was done not long after 9/11. All of a sudden my religion became a big thing talked about in the media as if I didn’t know anything about it.

If you look at it then to now, some Muslim people when I was growing up followed what they were told, they were born into their religion and some went through the motions.

9/11 brought up lots of questions about Islam and since then Muslim society has become more educated in order to find out what our religion really is. We're more informed now.
However I think this education in religion would have happened anyway. Back when I was younger we relied more on what the Mosque men told us and now we read more for ourselves. We act more positively for women as our faith promotes. The old culture knew less and there was no reasoning.

If I could have my opportunities again now I would have to fight less. Things have progressed within the Muslim culture. When I see young Bengali girls out and about now I think ‘wow, there’s no way I would have got away with that’! 

For me personally things have changed for the better too. Nowadays I have to fight less for my rights thanks to my supportive family and this only happened once I got married.

What is your reaction to the media’s part in the way Muslims have been represented? 

Islam has nothing to do with promoting violence. It promotes peace and getting on with things, it’s about harmony and greater understanding. 

There’s nothing I can relate to in the media today. There’s so much in it that makes me feel like I don’t belong. It doesn’t unify society and it doesn’t represent the multiculturalism that is everywhere. It’s only when I go to work or talk to my friends I realise actually, it’s not like that. The media had done more bad than good.

In the media Muslim women are misrepresented as repressed and forced to act in certain ways that restrict their freedom.There’s a perfect example of this in the film Sex and The City 2, where the main characters are sitting by the pool in Abu Dhabi and talking about the local women who were covered up and wearing burkinis. It was making out how restricted the native women were while the Western women were free. Yet they were only saying that because the Eastern ideals didn’t fit in with their ideals.

It’s very hard to find a woman wearing a burqa because she’s been forced to. It’s her choice. It’s a kind of freedom but freedom isn’t a unified ideal. Western freedom means women can choose what they want to wear or show. If a Muslim woman chooses to cover up she’s saying you can’t define me by what I look like. You can only define me by what I’m like as a person. 

Can you tell me a little about how you got to where you are, and any outstanding (these can be huge or tiny) moments in your life since the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes series that have helped to define you?
The turning point for me since I sat for the portrait was getting married. When I was single there was just me to think about and what I could create for myself. Afterwards everything changed. Now I think about my partner and the children. After marriage I saw what a family was like for me; I didn’t really have that before.
The quote I chose for my portrait was career focused. It was what I was aiming for, but once I was married my aim changed.   

How has being a mother changed you? Has is altered your outlook or your feelings about yourself? 

Yes, now I see myself through my children’s eyes. I see myself more as a mummy. It’s a good thing. I now have a sense of belonging and being cherished. 
 In my outlook and actions I think of the kids first; my career choices, day to day things. I always wanted to design my house and the interior decor but everything now has to be assessed with health and safety! 

A good thing that has come from this is that I’m not precious about possessions anymore. Back when I posed for the painting I was much more possessive about belongings, things meant more to me when I was on my own. I identified myself through my surroundings – what I liked gave me joy. I don’t feel like I need that now. The kids have changed me, they’ve taken that role, they are my expression in life.

What would you tell/advise the person in the portrait if you could knowing what you know now?
...Don’t let go of yourself completely, don’t take life too seriously, find the good in whatever comes your way, remember you have choices, be true to yourself no matter what.... This is really hard. I don’t know. 

I’ve always been a dreamer, I remember even when I was at uni I thought things would work out like a novel and just happen to me. I’d have so many romantic notions but I never did anything about them. I think that’s what I’d say to myself if I could go back...dream less do more!


Being a very private person I was thrilled that Sha agreed to share her thoughts and feelings for this project. Unable to go too far into detail for personal reasons I still got a sense of Sha's tough inner strength that has seen her fight for her personal beliefs and values and still supports her through day to day life.  

I can also see the effect belief has for Sha and the direction it gives her life in promoting morals that enrich and nourish.

I love the fact she has now found a sense of belonging and a profound love through her family which has filled a void from her younger years. Married life gives her the support and encouragement she never had growing up.

Sha's advice to her younger self did surprise me as I always thought she had achieved so much in personal growth, but also knowing her, I understand that her steel core has nurtured a very sweet and gentle person who often wishes life had more adventure and creativity. I've seen that side of her personality manifest itself in yearnings for the countryside and multiple craft projects over the years, but most recently and successfully, in the beautiful mehendi creations she designs and works hard to perfect.

Via Instagram

I feel very drawn to the idea of mehendi designs as they say so much that put me in mind of Sha. In order to create one of these designs one must have patience. The act of drawing them is almost meditative and promotes a peaceful state of mind while the geometric mandala patterns are both beautiful and represent a spiritual nature.

I hope to use this style of drawing to create a mandala which will incorporate ideas of inclusion, family and growth and layer it over Sha's original portrait. I may add other layers underneath the mandala to illustrate difficulties that have been overcome or are outshone by Sha's inner strength.

This is a very exciting project and I want to add a huge thanks to Sha for taking part!

I'll be posting more research and ideas as this project progresses and I try things out. I've also been pinning down other models from the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes series and interviewing them and I'll be sharing more about that soon!