• Therapist Semeyra Sarwar opens up about negotiating her own cultural identity and the difficulties therein; confusion, anxiety, isolation.

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It was while I was at university that the feelings of not really fitting in or knowing where I belonged really struck me for the first time. I mostly had a great time at university and made deep and lasting friendships. I had also, like many other young people, moved away from home for the first time.

Although I wasn’t very far from home, it was far enough for me to taste freedom for the first time in terms of what I wore and how late I stayed out. My parents are from a village in Azad Kashmir, the disputed territory that India and Pakistan have fought more than one war over; it is an ‘administrative territory’ of Pakistan but with its own government. Although I was born, educated and raised in Yorkshire, my parents’ Kashmiri culture and religion (my family are Muslims) played a strong part in my upbringing.

I was expected to dress modestly and cover up; wearing jeans or trousers as a woman was not considered to be appropriate and a skirt was definitely out. My mother expected me to wear a Salwar Kameez, the traditional long tunic and bottoms that my mother and other female relatives wore.

University was the first time I was able to wear what I wanted without worrying about what my family would think.

I had started to wear ‘western’ clothes, which I found more practical, before leaving for university but I had covered them up with long cardigans. University was the first time I was able to wear what I wanted without worrying about what my family would think. During my first year, however, the Salwar Kameez went back on and I covered my head whenever I visited home. I remember having a strong sense of living a double life and not feeling comfortable with it. In my view I wasn’t dressing immodestly; I had a dislike of showing off parts of my body and so I covered up even when I had the freedom to wear whatever I wanted.

In an effort to try to shake off the feelings of living a double life, I slowly began to stop dressing in traditional clothes on my visits back to my family. I’m not going to pretend it was an easy transition; although I no longer wear traditional clothes, except on special occasions, I am still mindful of the types of clothes I wear when I visit family.

It wasn’t just clothes, I was very envious of my university friends’ relationships with their parents; there were certain conversations they were able to have with their families that I simply wasn’t. One such topic was relationships; arranged marriages are common within my family and although my parents would always allow me to have a say in who I wanted to marry, I felt that the unspoken expectation was that I would allow them to find someone for me.

I felt very different to many of my non-Asian friends in this respect and I envied their freedom to not only choose who they wanted to have a relationship with and potentially marry but also to not even have to think twice about what their parents’ reaction would be to their new partner. For most of my friends this was simply a non-issue but for me this was huge.

I feel that the identity struggle I experienced added to my sense of isolation.

I struggled with depression, anxiety and low self-esteem as a young adult and although there were definitely other factors involved in this, I feel that the identity struggle I experienced in trying to find a place for myself between two differing cultural worlds, added to my sense of isolation.

English culture inevitably rubbed off on me; I went to school here and the majority of my friends were from a White English cultural background. I was also born and raised within a very different cultural environment at home, which in certain respects, had very different values, expectations and beliefs.

There are many aspects of my Kashmiri culture that I really value: the language, food and sense of community, to name a few. Although I have lived in England my entire life and generally feel lucky to have had access to opportunities for education, work and leisure that simply weren’t available to my mother, there are also aspects of being English that don’t always sit well with me.

The sense of not feeling fully like I fit in or belong in either world is still there, although it is not as strong as it once was. Since training and working as a counsellor and undergoing my own therapy, the focus has shifted more to seeing myself as an individual with many other facets to my personality.

However, personal experience leads me to believe that we should not underestimate the impact on mental health and wellbeing, for those of us attempting to meet the expectations of two different cultures.

Further reading

Losing my identity

Identity and character work in therapy

Who am I and why does it matter? A therapist's view on identity

How social and political forces affect our identity