‘A feeling of finally being seen’: A Review of Zeba Talkhani’s ‘My Past is a Foreign Country’

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‘A feeling of finally being seen’: A Review of Zeba Talkhani’s ‘My Past is a Foreign Country’

From teachers, friends, family and the moral police, the message was clear: the world was a dangerous place for women and we needed to be careful at all times.”

From mother-daughter struggles, feminist identities, and religious conflicts, the memoir, My Past is a Foreign Country, definitely packs a lot in content, but Talkhani’s narrative paints a beautiful coming-of-age journey of personal discovery, across multiple regions and battling religious struggles.

From the opening few pages, Talkhani dives into her upbringing in Saudi Arabia. Born to Indian expat parents, she talks about being sensitive to how men and women were treated differently at an early age. We see young Zeba try to navigate and understand this world of men, who were allowed to do certain things, whilst women had to conduct themselves a certain way, setting the tone of questioning one’s identity we see throughout the rest of the book also.

The book then follows Talkhani as she seeks personal freedom in India, Germany and finally the UK. Throughout which, she continues to navigate her relationship with her mother, challenged by hair loss, financial independence and the pressures of marriage. All whilst still in her 20s.

Even after I left home, I found myself trapped in the patriarchal thinking. I had to consciously liberate myself from it by understanding that I don’t owe anyone an explanation for how I chose to live my life. My faith helped me. My knowledge of Islam and my feminist interpretations of my religion stopped others from using it to oppress me…”

When I first heard the premise of the book – girl moves to the West and struggles with her Muslim identity and feminism – I was a bit apprehensive. Too often we see depictions of Muslim girls throwing their religion under the bus for the sake of a western idea of feminism, but this was refreshingly the opposite. Instead Talkhani’s honesty and rawness with how difficult it can be to juggle culture and religion with feminist ideals was all too relatable. Feminism in the Muslim community isn’t as black and white as it’s often painted out, and this was a perfect depiction of that.

What stuck with me the most from this book was definitely the conflicts in mother-daughter relationships. Being a South Asian daughter myself, I know too well the duties and expectations placed on the women in families, from one generation to the next. Talkhani carefully balances the importance of valuing the stories of our predecessors’ pasts, whilst also challenging their roles in society as dutiful and mandatory.

Much like young Talkhani, I used to be confused why the women in the family would be so reluctant to share their stories, especially when they’re all so similar. Lacking an understanding of what was considered ‘shameful’ or ‘taboo’ like divorce or abuse, her curiosity is described as “a kind of lewdness” – after all, girls shouldn’t be so outspoken. However, rather than paint a picture of ‘this is how I was oppressed’, Talkhani’s childhood is painted more as a, ‘this was a society that was built before me, and I couldn’t see why nobody had challenged it’, with the latter being the reason for why so many South Asian and Muslim girls would relate to it.

It seemed to me that the more our parents policed their daughters, the more they lost track of their sons”

In addition to the misogyny Talkhani faced growing up, her honest accounts of struggling with hair loss was like a massive sigh of empathy for me. As someone who also suffers from alopecia areata, I know all too well the challenge it sets on one’s own sense of self-worth, and the judgement you fear for such an inexplicable, incurable illness. Despite its commonness, it’s also something I’ve never seen so openly talked about. Talkhani’s honest and raw depiction of this struggle focuses less on the hair loss itself, but more what it means for the people around her and the effects on her mental health – a topic unfairly taboo in the South Asian community.

My Past is a Foreign Country, is easily one of my most annotated books on my shelf. We often hear about the classic ‘life-changing’ books that shape a reader’s life, but whilst there have been many I’ve enjoyed immensely, none have had that effect on me. I don’t know if I would go as far to say this memoir had that effect on me, but this is definitely the closest I’ve come to that feeling. Perhaps instead of ‘life-changing’, what I felt was a feeling of finally being seen. From page one, Talkhani’s thoughts felt like my thoughts, her struggles, my struggles, and her evolution to a goal similar to mine.

my past is a foreign country

To any Muslim girl who is struggling or has struggled with their feminist identity, especially regarding intersectionality, or maternal relationships, this book is definitely a must read. Even for those who aren’t Muslim, Talkhani’s job of portraying a strong independent Muslim woman whose religion doesn’t oppress her, and is not cast away to fit Western ideals of ‘freedom’, is an incredible example of how Muslim women can be both liberated and powerful.

About Post Author

Henry Tolley

(he/him) Henry a previous Editor-in-Chief of Chapter Z magazine. He specialises in LGBTQ+, film and in-depth community/cultural features.
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