The Identity Series
SEASON 1, EPISODE 8: TASNIMA UDDIN
In our eighth and final podcast episode of this season, Habiba Akhter from The Rights Collective is joined by Tasnima Uddin, a writer and campaigner with interests across race, gender, abolition and citizenship. She is the co-founder of Nijjor Manush, an advocacy group for Bengalis and Bangladeshis in the UK, as well as leading the Assam Project at international human rights organisation, Restless Beings. Together, Tasnima and Habiba discuss the linkages between faith and activism, the need for community-focused organising and the importance of speaking on and acknowledging history away from broad identity labels.
UPBRINGING & IDENTITY
Growing up in Surrey in a white dominated neighbourhood and school, Tasnima had to confront her identity from a young age. She recalls how her interactions with racism led to a difficult relationship with her identity.
Though gendered roles may have been enforced onto Tasnima as a child, she shares that growing up with two brothers and lots of male cousins gave her an environment where she felt she could reject these gendered expectations.
“I was a tomboy really, when i was younger i didn’t reject that as much...I still feel like I have to perform femininity sometimes, but i think growing up as the only girl in the family...people didn’t always get why I was always with the boys, or playing football or didn’t like wearing a kameez. There were many instances where I felt almost forced into playing the role of a good, abiding daughter.”
As she got older, Tasnima shares that there was a period where she somewhat rejected her inner child, in favour of exploring what femininity could mean outside of her tomboy-ish nature.
RELATIONSHIPS WITH FAITH
“I’ve had a very unstable relationship with my faith since i was young. The idea of anything being forced on me, I automatically reject it, I think most kids do.”
As a child, Tasnima saw religion as a negative thing which was enforced onto her with too many restricting rules. Coupled with having to navigate racism and Islamophobia, she spent a lot of her childhood and adolescence rejecting this part of her.
In more recent years, as she went on to university and found herself surrounded by more Muslim communities and influences, she was able to interact with Islam in a very different way, which she says helped open her up to her faith.
“When I started campaigning and organising, I got involved with my faith at the same time. Both of them - activism and my faith - kind of coincided and I just saw [faith] in a completely different light. I’m constantly learning about it but it’s something that is a really big part of my life now. It’s funny because when I was younger I just never saw that happening at all, but now I think that everything I do, I do for God, and that’s where I am now, anyway.”
On their relationship - Tasnima shares that, when she began exploring religion on her own terms and began her activist journey, it made sense to her that her duty as a Muslim is to also engage in humanitarian work, and how important it is to use your privileges to alleviate other peoples’ suffering.
“I’m doing this for my faith, I’m doing this for God. God gave me these privileges to do this. It made sense for me, this responsibility that i had, it just made sense that as a Muslim this is what I had to do.”
On pivotal moments which shaped her relationship with faith:
“Seeing how other people were using faith as a liberation tool got me thinking that I needed to look at things myself if I wanted to understand it. It gave me a lot of answers to questions I had growing up. There weren't key defining moments, but more of a journey that i’m still on at the moment. Being around more Muslims and seeing their relationships with their faith inspired me in a lot of ways.”
“Nijjor Manush is an independent campaigning group that aims to educate, empower and organise Benglais and Bangladeshis in the UK. we are a group of young Bengalis who wanted to create a clear alternative for radical, Left, non-party politics for other Bengalis and Bangladeshis to engage with.”
Having started in 2017, Nijjor Manush was created as a way for Bengali activists and community workers to connect and engage with each other.
“Our aim is to engage and politicise Bangladeshis and Bengalis in the UK. We opted to organise Bengalis and Bangladeshis specifically so as to be able to address particular conditions affecting our communities and at the same time be able to engage in diaspora politics with those from Bangladesh originally.”
For Nijjor Manush, this focus is especially important when thinking about the particularities of the Bangladeshi experience.
“There's a lot of Bengali cultural work being done by our community in the uk, which is great, but this, for the most part, this work is deeply apolitical and carried out through the framework of secularism or state multiculturalism. There's a whole lot of celebrating your culture but not much agitating. We knew from the outset that we wanted to fill that vacuum of radical Bengali activism that works independent of the state and addresses the material conditions of our communities.”
“We want our politics to continue the radical legacies of our communities that fought fascists and state violence, and strive to uphold principles of anti-capitalism and anti-racism.”
Tasnima is currently Project Lead at Restless Beings, working on their Assam Project in India. This role involves helping Bengali communities in Assam who have been the target of ethnic cleansing and criminalisation for the past 50 years:
“I went to Assam in 2018 to start the project, talk to lawyers and organisations on the ground. It was life-changing in a lot of ways. There were women who looked like my mum, my nani, my aunty, who spoke like them as well, locked up in detention centres. Even in India, there wasn’t massive backlash against these 1.9 million people who have lost their citizenship. I think the main reason is If you’re seen as a community who doesn’t belong there, seen as non-citizens, seen as immigrants, suddenly, that compassion is no longer there.”
On keeping herself grounded whilst working on intense and also very personal campaigns and projects, Tasnima shares that it is her connection to God that keeps her motivated, as well as the recognition that she is not alone in this journey:
“I have to understand that i’m just one person in this massive movement which has thousands, millions of people within it, and understanding my place within the movement helps as well. There have been millions of people before me and there will be hundreds, thousands of people after me, and that’s okay. I’m just one person, and as long as i’m doing as much as I can, I guess i’ll be okay.”
Tasnima also shares some of her advice for younger people who are interested in activist work and organising:
“Understand your place. I see a lot of discourse from young people looking to get into activism, and having this idea that they’re the first ones. It’s very individualised...the best thing I did before I got into activism was read a lot from activists and organisers to understand the history of what I was going into. Also, don’t be afraid of anyone or anything. Bengali girls are not always encouraged to get involved by some of our elders, I would say be unapologetic in that way of who you are, what you’re doing and what you want to do.”
ON SOUTH ASIAN IDENTITY
While discussing Bangladeshi organising and Nijjor Manush’s work, Tasnima highlights the necessity for British Bangladeshis to organise on a communal basis:
“There are specific struggles that the Bangladeshi/ Bengali community face in the UK, whilst the political context back home is also quite distinct from the other countries in the Indian subcontinent...When we are categorised under this wider South Asian label, all of these differences are overlooked and missed out on.”
On the limitations of the label ‘South Asian,’ she shares:
“We are labelled with communities that committed genocide against us, and I think putting those communities together is harmful in a lot of ways. South Asian communities obviously have similarities, so I understand the label, but like any identity label there is going to be some type of flattening of differences.”
Similarly, Tasnima comments on the intra-communal racism that Bangladeshis experience from other South Asian communities, which further drives the need for Bangladeshi-focused organising and campaigning.
“Community to me, right now looks like safety, healing, a space to be unapologetically who you are...it’s about reaching out for help, being supported, solidarity, mutual aid, forgiveness.”
On her hopes for the future of Bangladeshi and Bengali communities in the UK, Tasnima shares:
“I hope that our communities go down a line of becoming more and more politicised and down the line of community organising. I think we need to reject the individualist approach that many people, especially online, have. We need to come together as a community, which means we need to be in solidarity with other racialised communities as well. We, as a community, need to understand that our liberation will only come with the liberation of all. Not just other racialised communities but other sexualities, genders. We need to understand that some of our views come from the Victorian and colonial eras, we need to unlearn and relearn a lot, and reject the state multiculturalism that is being forced upon us. We need to let go of the fight of identity, let go of representative and party politics. We need to look down the road of collective activism, radical organising, abolition, all of these things."
Thank you to the Podcast team who worked on this series, including Inaya Hussain, Minnie Bhullar, Habiba Akhter, Nishma Jethwa, Tasha Mathur and Yogita Deogan.
Music produced by Substeppers
Substeppers are British Asian bass music duo combining the precision of Sunny Banger, with the mastery of Vxks. After a long hiatus, they are back to capitalize on their early success and send ripples of their new sounds all around the world. With consistent support from the likes of BBC, MTV & Mixmag, their newest EP entitled Bollywood Trap led them to become the BBC Introducing's first British Asian production duo. The Substeppers project aims to take people to another world with their latest single & explore eastern themes combined with progressive ideas, through the lens of electronic world music.
Artwork produced by KakiKasi
KakiKasi is currently based in the Bay Area, California with roots in the American Midwest and Punjab. They are an artist, writer and overall community-centred creature. You can find some of their artwork @KakiKasi and some of the work they’ve curated of South Asian queer and feminist art @popadumart.