Mahsuda Snaith: Lessons I have learned from Rebellious Women

Growing up on a council estate, Mahsuda Snaith took her inspiration from a variety of women both near and far. Here she tells us a little about the lessons she learned

I have always been drawn to rebellious women.  Women who view life through an altered lens, who dress and act in a non-conformist manner and, most importantly, don’t give a hoot what other people think of them.  Some of these women are described as ‘bonkers’ by the mainstream press (if they were men they would probably be described as ‘charismatic’), others are described as ‘difficult’.  These labels are designed to oppress, to say ‘don’t push too hard against this pretty little box we’ve put you in’.  But rebellious women can’t be boxed in. That’s what makes them so utterly brilliant.

One of my biggest inspirations growing up was the singer Tori Amos.  This was an odd choice of person to align myself with; she was American, I English, she had flame red hair while I had the typical Asian black hair of my peers, she was outrageously confident and shocking in her lyrics while I was excruciatingly shy, scribbling away mainly in secret.  But she was also an amazing writer – most of her songs are mini-novels in themselves – and I loved the way she wrote, the way she sang and the way she performed.  I remember the first time I saw Tori Amos in concert, watching her straddle the piano seat as she played two different instruments at the same time, bellowing out her lyrics as though she was purging herself whilst simultaneously evoking all manner of spirits from the ether.  I looked up at this Goddess on the stage and decided that’s what I needed to be, a Goddess in my writing.  I would take control of my keyboard with the same drive and commitment as Tori did her piano and mic, owning my writing with the same mastery as she did her songs.

Lesson one in rebellion ticked off.

'I looked up at this Goddess on the stage and decided that's what I needed to be, a Goddess in my writing.'

Not long after this, in my early twenties, I stumbled across Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.  By this point I had managed, slowly and stealthily, to leave my strict Islamic, council estate home to move in with friends I had met at university.  Sometimes, you find a novel that encapsulates a part of your life; Oranges did that for my childhood.  In Winterson’s central heroine I found a comrade and companion.  A person from an underprivileged background who has been told about all the horrors of a fire-and-brimstone Hell and, in the end, chooses to reject it.  A person who must confess her so-called ‘sins’ to the matriarch of the family knowing that she will be expunged from the family as a result.  For Winterson’s character this was coming-out as a lesbian, for me it was marrying a non-Muslim, non-Bengali man.  Nowadays, neither of these things seem (or should seem) particularly radical, but if we are looking at the definition of rebellion we are looking at the act of resisting authority, control and convention.  This is something Winterson has done in abundance.

Lesson two in rebellion ticked off.

Now, at an older age, I find my inspirations are closer to home.  Farhana Shaikh, editor of the Asian Writer, as well as champion of all unheard voices and a close friend of mine, probably wouldn’t describe herself as rebellious.  But if you ever get into a heated discussion with her (which I delightfully have many times) you will see the fight and drive in her, the unwillingness to compromise her opinions and her acute ability to articulate her case.   For too long, the opinions – as well as the actual experiences – of women have been belittled and dismissed.  With women like Farhana who are, unapologetically, opinionated this will hopefully not be the case forever.

And so, let the lessons continue!  History, past and present, is littered with women rebels.  Rosa Parks, civil rights activist and rebel.  Frida Kahlo, surrealist portrait artist and rebel.  Malala Yousafzai, human rights advocate and rebel.  This year for International Women’s Day I will be thinking about all those rebellious women who motivate me to #PressforProgress and say #TimesUp.  I hope you will do the same.  What’s more, I hope you will fire up the rebellious nature within and break those pretty little boxes other people want to put you in.  Once those boxes are broken, who knows what will come out . . .

More about the author

The Things We Thought We Knew

Mahsuda Snaith


'An original and affecting coming-of-age novel' The Observer
'Fuses life's big themes with daily minutiae ... A voice of the next generation' Stylist
'A vibrant portrayal of estate life in the late nineties and an affecting story of friendship' The Independent

Ravine and Marianne were best friends. They practised handstands together, raced slugs and went into the woods to play.

But now everything has changed.

Ten years later, Ravine lies in a bed plagued by chronic pain syndrome. And her best friend Marianne is gone.

How did their last adventure go so wrong? Who is to blame? And where is Marianne?

Heartbreaking, bittersweet and utterly unforgettable, The Things We Thought We Knew is a powerful novel about the things we remember and the things we wish we could forget.

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