100 Women 2016: Bake Off's Nadiya Hussain - Muslim, Bangladeshi, British and proud

Nadiya Hussain

Celebrity baker and Great British Bake-Off Champion Nadiya Hussain has talked to Shaimaa Khalil for the BBC's 100 Women season about coping with fame, her identity as a British Muslim and writing about defiant women.

Mrs Hussain's success on the BBC baking competition was watched by a record audience of over 13 million people last November. Since then, she has become the star of her own television series, written numerous books and baked a birthday cake for The Queen.

It's really interesting that your third book is fiction. Tell me a bit about the process and why you wanted to write it.

It's one thing when you're writing recipes, this is very different. There are no chocolate cakes to hide behind. I ended up creating the story by starting with the characters first. What I realised is that I really enjoy writing about strong women. I grew up in a family of very strong women... it was really nice to write about strong, defiant women who have a voice, but kind of almost don't have a voice. And that's something I can relate to. It's about an immigrant family - first-generation Bangladeshis - very similar to me, but it is in no way autobiographical. Living in quite a close community you hear lots of different stories, anecdotes, funny tales, and I just kind of took bits from things that I've heard. When you write, everything's material!

Do you feel there is pressure on you now that you're famous to represent Muslim British women?

When I went into the show I was just me. I suppose my headscarf, the way I look, the way I choose to dress is incidental. It's been a part of my life since I was 14, so I don't know anything else. So when I walked into that [Great British Bake-Off] tent it was all about just getting through the bakes. When I came out of the show and during the transmission I realised that what I thought would be incidental was actually highlighted and almost magnified. To this point I've only ever worked really hard to be a role model to my children, never ever thinking about the wider world and it's an absolute honour to be able to be in this position and to say: "Yes I am Muslim, I'm Bangladeshi and I'm British and I'm proud of all those things."

It must be really pressuring though?

It's not, because I also maintain that I'm not perfect. As a mum nobody gave me a manual - I kind of worked it out at 21. I was like: "Oh so the aim is to keep him alive!"

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Nadiya was asked to bake a cake for the Queen's 90th birthday

Many Muslim women have to endure anti-Islamic slurs in the street - has that ever happened to you?

From the moment I've worn my headscarf that almost comes with the territory. I don't feed negativity with negativity. I receive it with a smile and I say: "You know what? I don't need to balance the scales." For me that's really important because my foremost and most important job is my children. I live in a lovely country. I don't want my kids to grow up with a chip on their shoulder. Those negative people and those negative comments are the minority and I don't let that dictate how I live my life.

Has any abuse been better or worse since you've won Bake-Off?

I think when you're in the public eye and then you're on on social media, the world is a much smaller place. It's really how I deal with it that matters to me. If there's somebody negative in my life I choose not to have their mobile number in my phone - we're not friends. It's the same with social media. If somebody's mean to me, I just block them. Do I regret [entering Bake-off]? No. Not for a second. There are times when I am tired, but I'm human. This last year I've grown so much as a person and grown in ways I never would have.

What is 100 women?

BBC 100 Women names 100 influential and inspirational women around the world every year. We create documentaries, features and interviews about their lives, giving more space for stories that put women at the centre.

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At some point because of the abuse you were getting on Twitter the police had to check your house. Tell me about that.

Near the end of transmission of Bake-Off there was lots of negativity and it was quite difficult to read some of the stuff. We had to have a police presence round the house and people in the house and things, and the kids had a great laugh. They were like: "We've got extra people staying with us." And they were none the wiser. As much as I put a smile on my face I did think: "Gosh, what have I done? Are my kids safe?" That did scare me, but I soon learned that there are keyboard warriors out there who will just sit there at 2 o'clock in the morning and say things that they can't say to your face, because I can almost guarantee that if I met those people today they would not be able to say those things to me.

Being a Muslim British woman in the public eye - has that helped change perceptions of other Muslim British women?

I'd hope so. I'd like to think that this is a starting point for other Muslims in the future. Originally I remember feeling like: "Will I be accepted? It is going to be a big deal that I wear a headscarf?" And then [I remember] actually coming out and thinking: "Yeah there's negativity but I'm comfortable in myself. I'm really comfortable being me." It's not about whether you choose to cover your hair or whatever religion you are, it's about finding the confidence within yourself to think: "Yes I'm different, but I can do this."

Does it frustrate you sometimes that the focus is more on your religion than what you're about to make?

It genuinely doesn't upset me that people look at my headscarf first, because it's there to be looked at. I'd like to think people are comfortable to ask me those questions that they are curious about. Ask me whatever you want to ask and then we can go on to cake!

Do you feel sometimes you have to choose your identity - whether you're Muslim or British?

I think it's sometimes really hard to be all three [Muslim, British and Bangladeshi] at the same time. Sometimes you have to mute one part of you [so] another bit shines a little bit more, and I think that's magnified more since having the children. What I've learned is [that] it comes naturally, and I quite like the organic process. I like that we are all of these beautiful things, and I think it's such a beautiful thing to be a part of so many different worlds.

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