Azi Ahmed was told she’d have an arranged marriage and work in a kebab shop. Instead, she trained with the SAS. Here she says thanks to her parents, who allowed her freedom, without losing face in their community.
Dear Mum and Dad,
When I was young, I was felt invisible. A late arrival on the scene in the Ahmed family, it was pretty obvious I was an accident. Dad, you were in your early 60s when I arrived and Mum, you were late 30s.
You already had four children and four jobs between you and were struggling to keep it all together in your two up, two down in Oldham. You were knackered.
In India and Pakistan the more sons one has, the richer you are. Boys could serve the family well; work hard, get a fine job or trade, and help provide for you.
Daughters – not so much. Daughters meant giving away dowry gold when they got married, and were about looking and sitting pretty. Dad, you already had one daughter and didn’t much care for another. I learned to blend into the background and bide my time. My moment would come.
But I was always watching, observing. I wished I were a boy! My brothers were 15 and 10 years older than me and were leaving school, going out at night on their own, getting jobs. They were living full, exciting lives.
I would look at them, and then at my sister, who was five years older than me, and all she got to do was cook and sew. How is that fair? I was screaming inside; surely there is more to life for girls than this?
Luckily, I had a rebellious streak and before you both roll your eyes and nod disapprovingly, perhaps it’s worth pointing out – with all respect – that you both broke a few eggs along the way yourselves. Mum, you were an illiterate child bride when you arrived from Pakistan in the 1960s. Single-handedly, you taught yourself to read and write and run a business with steely determination. You ended up out-earning Dad.
I think you both instinctively recognised that, although I respected your way, I was determined to find my own path. And I thank you now for not preventing me. I had to help things along. I sidestepped an arranged marriage by falsifying an application form. But I refused to be like my peers following a well-trodden path, not seeing, or not being allowed to see, all the other options that life had to offer.
My stubbornness made life difficult for you. People gossiped and raised eyebrows when I went to live in London and study at Central Saint Martins college. You covered for me.
I found life in London incredibly tough; I had to start all over again and find myself. Who was the invisible child who needed to prove so much? Still, you covered for me.
Joining the British Army was a turning point for me. Not only did I have to dig deep and get to know what made me tick, but I had to train alongside squaddies from all walks of life and then, later, hold my own against the best. We all had prejudices, ideas, chips on our shoulders. But we learned we had more in common than we thought.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon to introduce him on the main stage at the Conservative Party Conference. I now hope to work with the British Army again, helping them meet their targets for more women in combat roles, and more BAME recruits by 2020. I want to inspire more women to go and do their thing and break the mould. Don’t shake your head, Mum, you were my inspiration.
I will never forget the look on your faces when I handed over my first month’s pay cheque. It was in the thousands and you could pay all the household bills and have some money left over for spending… The news started in the front room, which was always your cue to leave, wasn’t it, Dad? But you couldn’t move, and stayed with Mum and me in the back room, drinking tea and looking at the cheque.
I was always the rebel of the family. But now I’m a rebel with a cause. Here’s hoping to excite you and shock you and make you proud for many more years.
Lots of love,
Azi Ahmed is author of Worlds Apart: A Muslim Girl with the SAS.
Azi trained with the SAS but the female training programme was abandoned before she got her sandy beret.
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Azi Ahmed is the author of Worlds Apart: Muslim Girl with the SAS. For more information visit www.aziahmed.com.