Today’s post takes a little detour from my usual dating stories. Last week, my sister ‘had a moment’. Not a stranger to mild anxiety, she suddenly panicked at the thought of turning thirty in three years and not having done all the things she was ‘supposed to have done’. Having considered her list of things to do, I asked what would prevent her from doing these things after she turned thirty.
Nothing it seemed – but thirty was ‘old’… and naturally, it’s all downhill from there…. right?
My thirties have been my best years. As a teen preoccupied with sticking mayo filled condoms on school fences (thank you Keeley for stealing your parents’ condoms), I’d predicted that thirty-five would be my best year. Thirty-five really has been my best year, but not because I finally got that J.LO body, or that my smile suddenly gave me the softness of Kylie Minogue. No, I didn’t even bag myself George Clooney – he clearly got the wrong human rights lawyer. My body still does its own bloody thing, my sharp vampire teeth continue to make me look more murderous than Count Dracula, and I’m still convinced that the love of my life got stuck in a condom.
So why has thirty-five been amazing I hear you ask? Grab yourself a coffee and allow me to take you on a journey…
I was eleven when I first experienced the feeling of vulnerability. Travelling to Pakistan to visit family, I was immediately captivated by the vibrant and populated streets of Punjab. Whether it was flying multi-coloured kites with my ‘cousins’ or developing an unhealthy obsession with spotting excrement in the malodourous open gutter – I was truly fascinated. I quickly warmed to my father’s maternal relatives, effortlessly basking in the light of their affection. My father’s uncle, affectionately known as “abba” was a sweet old man with hygiene issues.
Donning his gigantic brown ‘chaddar’ (shawl) that had no doubt escaped a wash since the ‘60s, you’d find him indiscreetly spitting out his phlegm on every available surface – I soon realised that walking around without your slippers had consequences. Despite the need to hold my breath to avoid abba’s nauseating stench, or playing hopscotch around his phlegm, I was thrilled to be there.
One evening, I discovered that within a week, my favourite uncle was moving to Dubai for work. Irate that he was leaving, I refused to talk to him for several days. The night before his departure, as usual, I joined my female cousins in the communal room to sleep. My uncle came in to talk to me. Stubbornly, with my back to him, I refused to talk. To an observer, what seemed like an uncle cajoling his niece, made an eleven-year-old suddenly very uncomfortable. Frozen with fear, I wondered why he was getting too close – was I, an eleven-year-old child imagining his hand hovering around my growing breasts..?
The pattern of blaming yourself, even at eleven is not unusual. Was it my fault? Should I have listened to my mother when she insisted that I slept in her room? Had I not been stubborn, could this have been avoided? Was I just being disgusting and making this whole thing up? What would happen if I told anyone? He called me ‘daughter’ though, so I must be wrong, I somehow convinced myself.
Over the years, although the characters in the story would change, the storyline, as I soon discovered, would remain largely the same. At twelve, the Indian man standing behind me would find his erection on the bus, whilst an uncle’s hand would miraculously find itself resting on my thigh when no one else was around. Making excuses to dodge his increasingly frequent calls, I soon learnt that the heavy breathing that made my skin crawl was, in fact, him masturbating on the other end of the line. It’s not that my parents wouldn’t have believed me had I reached out; they would. My father would have murdered anyone that hurt his baby – but I felt ashamed and angry at myself for not being able to protect myself; I hated that I had no voice.
Around this time, a death in our family significantly changed the dynamics at home. Despite my tender age, emotionally, I felt it was time for me to step up and make sure that we never fell apart again. Naturally maternal, I raised my sister – not because my parents were incapable, but because I’d quickly learnt what was out there, and would not allow her to experience what I, and many other young girls my age were experiencing. I found a mute button for my own emotions and a headstrong, protective and feisty Leo emerged. This was a pivotal moment in my life – my ‘resting bitch face’, death stare and unpredictable angry outbursts had these dirty bastards running for the hills.
Now aunty Bushra down the road will have you believe that you pass your sell-by date before your twenty-first birthday. Expect trouble on the horizon if you’re not willing to dress up like a Christmas tree and marry cousin Bashir from the pind (village). Despite his unsightly monobrow and ‘Matric fail’ qualifications (i.e. high school failure), cousin Bashir is a good catch. He has his very own Ya’maa (Yamaha motorbike) and speaks some words of English, even if it is just “do you friendship me”. The fact that cousin Bashir doesn’t understand the concept of underwear shouldn’t phase you though, as once he gets his UK spouse visa and skips through Heathrow terminal 3 straight into your arms, you can devote your entire life to pulling that wedgie out from his hairy ass crack.
As a British Muslim woman, you are likely to spend your twenties making sense of where your values lie between the East and West. Generally, the usual narrative is that “good Muslim girls don’t have boyfriends”, so many, but of course not all, don’t. You enter your twenties and realise that cousin Bashir who will no doubt have a remarkable career at your local Chesters Chicken shop, is really not happening. You discover that you are now at a severe disadvantage – your parents expect you to suddenly pull a “good Muslim boy” out of your ass when you barely know how to communicate with the opposite sex, and rest assured, aunty Bushra will be by your side – tutting at your inability to settle down.
Whilst my twenties didn’t quite follow this narrative, it’s been the norm for many British Muslim women I know. My early twenties were spent rebelling against my overly conservative relatives and breaking free from the “you can’t do this because you’re a woman” shackles – women don’t jump out of planes? You watch me do it would be my answer. Fortunately, my father, himself a rebel for marrying a woman that was not his blood relative, never felt the need to dictate my life – however, this didn’t stop others from trying. I was largely disliked by my relatives because I’d found my voice and would not think twice before telling the aunty that had me physically locked up in her house for 4 hours until I ‘listened’ to her advice on marriage – to fuck right off. My motto soon became – “if you hate me then grab a ticket and join the back of the queue”.
My mid-twenties were overshadowed by a toxic relationship that left me drained, depleted and distraught. Gaslighting was the hallmark of this relationship, but at the time, my ego would never have allowed me to reach out to anyone, or admit that I was being subjected to emotional abuse – obviously because I was invincible and ‘in control’. The end of this relationship saw me enter the online dating arena. I met some good guys, but my self-allocated responsibilities wouldn’t allow me to pack up and leave. I mean, even if I had married that guy living just an hour away, how would I get home at 3am when my mother was having an anxiety attack over throwing an old pair of shoes in the bin? Who would go through the outdoor bins in the early hours of the morning in the midst of winter, like a diseased rat just to calm her down? Yep, that was my job – and actually, I really didn’t mind, even if my hands would emerge covered in spoilt chapatti dough from the night before last.
So what changed in my thirties? Well firstly, I found my passion in working with survivors of human trafficking. It gave me a sense of purpose and allowed me to channel my anger into making a difference to the lives of those that were vulnerable. My job became my biggest blessing. I learnt a lot from my clients. Their immeasurable strength and willingness to carry on in the face of adversity really put things into perspective for me. I realised that I was exactly where I was required to be and that every experience carried a life lesson; my faith in God became unshakeable – I knew he had my back.
My mother’s anxiety became more manageable when I realised that mollycoddling her like a 4-year-old wasn’t helping her. My sister had grown up and was sensible (though sometimes too sensible), so we worked on making her more independent. These days, she is a social butterfly and doesn’t really give a fuck about us mere mortals – she is the queen of social media, and yes, even has a bloody ‘tick tock’ account!
Freeing myself from some of my responsibilities has given me plenty of time to self-reflect. At thirty-five I now know that it is okay for my friends to know who I really am; and it turns out that they love the filthy-minded, imperfect, confused and sometimes wrong me (though for the record – I’m never wrong). I’ve learnt that we all have our own struggles and reasons for being where we are; there is no judgement between us. I know that my friends will be there if I struggle to cope, but most importantly, they will bring that shovel to bury the next body under my patio – without question.
At thirty-five I finally appreciate that happiness is a choice and that I am responsible for my own happiness. I understand the need to keep ‘destination addiction’ – the idea that happiness can be found somewhere other than the present, at bay. Happiness does not lie in my next relationship, job or my shrinking hips, though the latter is open to debate.
There are of course areas of my life that are still surrounded by uncertainty. I’ve recently come to realise that marriage really isn’t for me. My biological clock, however, issues me with daily warnings, because despite my frequent jokes about babies being “cum pets”, I want to be a mother. As much as I’d love to head down to my local sperm bank for a donation from a gorgeous gora, as a Muslim woman trying to keep the balance between the East v West, the odds on that are still against me. I know, however, that one way or another (I’m creative like that), I will be a mother. I am destined to raise good children – a son that will be worthy of being someone’s husband, and a daughter that doesn’t have to live in fear of uncle Amjad making her uncomfortable because mummy and her aunties will have buried the bastard under the patio before he can even think of it.
As a single woman in your thirties, it’s easy to forget how you got here. It’s much easier to forget the sacrifices that you’ve made. Instead, you convince yourself that fuck face aunty Bushra is right; you are single because you are “too picky” or “stuck in your ways”. No, you don’t need to be the fourth wife of Jamal with the hairy back, because you’re in your thirties. If bucktooth Billy is what your heart desires and you can find a way to make it work – let’s get the bloody non-alcoholic champagne out! Similarly, if no one meets the standards that you have set for yourself – and you are fully entitled to do so, don’t let anyone tell you that you must marry because you are quite capable of being whole, all by yourself.
For what it’s worth, I’m discovering the joy in finally living for myself. I take risks that I wouldn’t have dreamt of taking in my twenties. I still make plenty of mistakes – be it the sporadic raged outbursts, accidental witchcraft (yeah – don’t ask!), still caring for people that I know will shit on me, or allowing myself, now and then, to be treated like an option. At thirty-five though, whilst I continue to learn and grow, I can finally say that I actually really like me. I like that I can be kind, compassionate, generous, full of inappropriate humour and kinda batshit crazy all at the same time. I like that I speak my truth, and am – unapologetically me.
This post really wasn’t supposed to make it to my blog of dating horrors. In fact, I’ve sat on it for a couple of days, questioning whether I’ve lost my mind in trying to share this with my friends, colleagues and the bloody World Wide Web. However, when the sister you’ve raised wishes that “more women would talk about the positive experiences of being in their thirties”, you know it’s time to lift the veil.
Stay tuned for the next dose of dating disasters, where I explain why my ‘date’ was pelted with eggs..
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The Accidental Lawyer