I come from a long line of women who have not been able to be or even know themselves. The subtle knowledge of that has sat like a rock in my stomach from the very first times I watched the women in my family compromise or shrink themselves to please or keep a man – albeit adorned in the most beautiful pieces of jewellery while doing so. For as long as I can remember, the knowledge that pampered subjugation or oppression was the only option for these women has filled me with a sense of dread. A dread that draped itself, choker-like, around my neck.
"For as long as I can remember, the knowledge that pampered subjugation and oppression was the only option for these women has filled me with a sense of dread"
As a woman, and perhaps particularly as a Middle Eastern woman, there are expectations of who I should be, what I should want, how I should look and carry myself, who I should love … The list is stifling, and it goes forever on. These were expectations I have never been willing or able to live up to, and I acted out my disagreement in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways.
When my grandmothers passed away, as the only girl in my family I inherited two heaving safes full of jewels. Many were handed down from woman to woman: gifts from mothers-in-laws and husbands, an endless assortment of glittering acquiescence. I brought the jewels to London and locked them in my mother’s safe and they’ve pretty much been there ever since. Much to my mother’s dismay, I was not the woman to wear them.
A couple of years ago, in the early stages of writing my debut non-fiction book, The Greater Freedom, in which I unpick and debunk many of the expectations I felt were placed on me as an Arab woman, I visited a shaman in Ibiza. The first thing she said when she looked at me was that she could feel the weight of all my female ancestors on my shoulders.
"I visited a shaman in Ibiza. The first thing she said when she looked at me was that she could feel the weight of all my female ancestors on my shoulders"
I felt tears run down my face before she had even finished the sentence. "You are writing. You are usurping," she said. "Not just for yourself but for your mother, too, and for your grandmothers." I cried. Back at home I told my mother what the shaman had told me. Breathless, she told me she knew what the shaman had said was true.
The following year saw me lock myself down in my home to write and to read and to continue the unravelling. With my mother I broached subjects I never had before, and I patched us up with words. I felt myself less afraid that I would compromise or shrink. I saw my mother compromise less, too, as for the first time she grew proud of my daring attempts to refuse these concessions to my gender.
Just weeks after I submitted the final draft of my book and a few months ahead of its release, I entered the final year of my 20s. On the morning of my birthday, my mum gave me my gift. She had commissioned my best friend, the wonderful jeweller Roxanne Rajcoomar-Hadden, to craft a choker for me from emerald-cut amethyst and 18ct Fairtrade yellow gold, taken from my grandmothers’ jewels that had been locked away in her closet.
On the back, she had engraved: "you were born to sparkle". It felt like a true reflection of her acceptance of and love for me. I was not the woman she had wanted me to be but, in fact, a better version.
Picture credit: Alya’s Mum