‘I Chose to Defy the Patriarchy as Much as Possible’: An Interview with Zeba Talkhani — Thom Cuell

Zeba Talkhani’s memoir My Past is a Foreign Country is a powerful memoir which examines the author’s experiences of growing up within the strict patriarchal system of Saudi Arabia, and her attempts to carve out a degree of freedom for herself by living independently in India, Germany and the UK. In particular, Talkhani identifies the way in which patriarchy sets women against one another, and looks at the impact her own choices had on her relationship with her mother and other female relatives. She also discusses the trauma of beginning to lose her hair at a young age, and the way in which this marked her out within her community.

Zeba Talkhani has a BA in Journalism and Communication from Manipal University (India) and an MA in Publishing from Anglia Ruskin University. She has previously contributed to 404 Ink’s anthology Nasty Women.

First of all, what was it that inspired you to write My Past is a Foreign Country? Was there a particular incident that sparked it?

As far back as I can remember, I was a voracious reader and constantly looking for myself in books. As a child, I experienced many alienating experiences including early onset of hair loss and a difficult relationship with my mother. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, I didn’t have much agency and I was looking to be understood. When I grew older and started reading the few books being publishing in English by or about Muslim women from the Middle East and South Asia region, I found that they were either misery memoirs or intricate fictional tales with huge amounts of despair and oppression. This did not match my lived experience and I felt it necessary to share my story.

I’ve always wanted to write about my hair loss in some capacity because I still remember the desperation with which I looked for a story about hair loss in my books, hoping to find language to express how alienating an experience it was for me. And because of my culture, it also became a defining experience.

With the changing political scene too, I felt a pressing need to add my voice to the conversation and ensure that people like me are represented as honestly and thoughtfully as possible.

In the book, you talk about revisiting your childhood memories, and discussing incidents with your family which hadn’t necessarily been spoken about before. What was the effect of bringing these subjects up for the first time? And how has writing the book affected the way you view your childhood?

I shared the book with my parents at proofs stage. They were supportive of my choice to write it and are proud of me. My mother opted not to read the book, a decision I respect. My father read the book and the conversation that followed was very healing. I felt like there was a lot about me that he didn’t previously understand, and the book helped him see things from my perspective for the first time. He said he was sorry for not being the father I needed him to be at some points in my life. But as you will see in the book, both my parents have always gone above and beyond to support my dreams, regardless of our personal and cultural differences.

Writing this book has been a therapeutic experience for me. It gave me an unusual opportunity to make time to reflect on my life and the choices I’ve made so far. It gave me clarity and allowed me to look back at my life with more empathy. It gave me a chance to unlearn bad habits and grow into a better human. I think it even forced me to get the help I needed. Early on in the writing process I realised I was still hurting from some of the decisions that were made on my behalf by my parents and my community. I was carrying a lot of anger. And I didn’t want to write a book from this place of anger. I decided to get therapy and that changed my life. I don’t think I would have sought that help had it not been for the book.

Early on in the book, you mention a ‘discordance’ between your mother’s silence and your voice, which becomes one of the themes which runs through My Past… What do you see as the chief differences between your mother’s generation and your own? And have you been able to reconcile your experiences?

I think the chief differences include the undeniable fact that I had more options open to me than my mother did in her teens and early 20s.

Whether we like it or not, we are limited by the community we grow up within. For a woman to lead an independent life was beyond my mother’s community’s imagination and so it was not an option for her.

She couldn’t pursue the education she wanted, and she couldn’t leave her parents’ house until she got married. I left home at 17 and moved to a different country from my parents’ to get a bachelor’s degree. This set the tone for how both our lives unfolded and the kind of people we became. I grew up with the internet and the world felt much smaller than it must have for my mother.

I can’t generalise, but I do think it’s fair to extend this experience to other women of mine and my mother’s generation. I used to think that the older women in my community simply lacked the will to take charge of their lives, but I see now that they were not provided with the skills and self-confidence to choose for themselves. It takes immense strength to break away from the only thing we know and it’s unfair to put that onus upon impressionable young people. That I’m able to recognise this truth is what makes me believe that I’ve reconciled with my experiences.

You draw parallels between the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia and The Handmaid’s Tale (a parallel acknowledged by Margaret Atwood also). Were you ever tempted to address your experiences through fiction, rather than memoir?

I tried a few times to write a fictional version of this book, but I could never get it right. The more I tried to fictionalise my story, the more I felt that it needed to be shared in my voice. Taking control of my narrative and sharing my story as it happened was a more powerful option.

One of the most traumatic incidents described in the book is your hair loss, which coincided roughly with the onset of puberty. Both developments affected the way you were seen by the outside world, and crucially it seems like you didn’t have the language to discuss these changes with your parents. At times in My Past…, it feels as though your hair loss acted as a physical representation of something non-conformist in you, that could be used against you by family members who didn’t approve of your choices. Is that a fair comment? And how do you think it affected you, growing up?

That is a fair comment and that’s exactly how I see it now. From a very early age I knew that I was different from others when it came to perceiving things. I questioned a lot of what others in my South Asian Muslim community took for granted or accepted as natural. When my hair loss began, my mother’s reaction to it was very strong. Hair has such cultural value in our society, especially for women and my mother’s anxiety stemmed from how this would impact my marital prospects. The hair loss made it clear that conventional paths that women in my community were expected to pursue, such as arranged marriages, are probably going to be tougher for me. Arranged marriages rely heavily on a woman’s conventional beauty and the more beautiful you are considered, the better your marriage prospects. My parents were not sure how to go about arranging a match when I was in my late teens because of my hair loss and this uncertainty gave me the chance to pursue my dreams and become the person I am today. So many of my friends were convinced into marriage at an age when they couldn’t possibly make this choice for themselves. My hair loss bought me time and changed the very course of my life.

My hair loss also became a weapon that my community used whenever they felt that I needed to be shown my place. They were threatened by my confidence in myself and attacking my perceived lack of conventional beauty became a way for them to be in denial of their own insecurities. Such constant attack from a young age definitely made me stronger and most challenges that came later on in life didn’t faze me as much.

Continuing with the theme of language, later in the book you talk about how useful you found intersectionality, and Guilaine Kinouani’s work on microaggressions, which helped you to understand and discuss experiences you’d been through. What was the process like, of discovering these kinds of ideas?

Liberating. The weight of being misunderstood is a heavy one and the concepts of intersectionality made me feel seen for the first time within the western feminism framework. The language and the studies around intersectionality both liberated and grounded me.

When you started your publishing MA, you talk about seeing the privilege of your fellow students, and the lack of diversity on the course. How had that been reflected in your experiences of the industry itself?

When I started my MA, I had just moved to the UK and wasn’t aware of a lot of the discussions that were beginning to take place within the industry. When I was studying, the privilege and lack of diversity came as a surprise and I felt that my course was an exception. It’s only retrospectively that I realised that the course was a reflection of the industry itself. This was in 2012. A lot has changed since then. We still have a long way to go but at least there is progress.

There’s a line that stuck out for me, when you say that ‘conforming to the patriarchy can be a traumatic experience’. How did that trauma affect you and the people around you? And how do you resist it?

From a very young age, I’ve been fascinated by the way older women in my community treated younger women. I kept asking myself how women could be both victims and perpetrators of the patriarchy. All my life I thought women were policing each other and enabling the patriarchy out of spite. I thought it came from a place of ‘why can she, when I couldn’t?’ But now I think this comes more from a need to not question or confront the ‘choices’ we are forced into, to simply go with the flow because to question it is to realise how much the patriarchy has cost us all, especially the women in my community.

In my 20s, and especially after I got married, I chose to defy the patriarchy as much as possible and I noticed that this really upset the women around me. No one was going out of their way to control my freedom, but I sensed a discomfort around my self-assurance and confidence.

This shift made me realise that by making conscious choices I had reminded them of all the choices they didn’t think they had. I remember one woman who couldn’t get over the fact that I was keeping my name after marriage. She kept asking me to change it and demanded reasons for choosing not to. I tried explaining my reasons, but nothing seemed to stick. One day I told her that I was keeping my name because I wanted to and that should be enough of a reason. I remember how shocked she looked and dumbstruck. She never brought it up again. I wonder if she would have liked to keep her name too. It upsets me, how much the patriarchy takes from us women and sometimes even men.

If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

I would pick whatever is on my tbr pile because it’s starting to get dangerously tall and I’ll be surprised if I ever get to the bottom of it in this life!

Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?

Allah does not lay a responsibility on anyone beyond his capacity. (2:286)

It’s an ayat from the Qur’an and I find a lot of strength in it. In moments of weakness and desolation, it reminds me that I can overcome anything, that I am capable.

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

A couple of months ago I saw Fiona Shaw’s portrait by Victoria Russell at the National Portrait Gallery and I can’t stop thinking about it. I think it’s her expression of open curiosity and a hint of joy. It makes me happy every time I look at it.

Zeba Talkhani is the author of My Past is a Foreign Country, published by Sceptre Books (June, 2019). It is a memoir about her growing up in Saudi Arabia and finding freedom in India, Germany and the UK. She offers a fresh perspective on living as an outsider and examines her relationship with her mother and the challenges she faced when she experienced hair loss at a young age. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @zebatalk.