I lost my father but I want his story to live on

Models of successful fatherhood are all around us. My Muslim Asian immigrant dad made me the person I am

Shelina Janmohamed and her father in the late 70s in north London. Credit: Shelina Janmohamed
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Last month I lost my father. As in the case of so many fathers like him who don’t capture the headlines, it is unlikely that you will find his name in history books. And yet they are the men who have built societies and made us. In many ways, and especially for me, he embodied the history of the last tumultuous century.

After losing my mum just 15 months ago, I am now, in technical terms, an orphan. At a personal level this is life changing and the grief that comes with it is not to be underestimated. Particularly as it is interwoven with the grief of the end of the journey of more than a decade of being a carer for them both. But I am also mindful that in these dark painful days of my own bereavement, I am still fortunate to have had them with me till their old age; especially when there are children who are being orphaned from not just their parents but entire family networks. It is sobering, for example, to think of the heartrending acronym WCNSF being used in Gaza for "wounded child no surviving family."

I am not the first and I will not be the last to lose my father. And yet while my loss expands to fill up my universe, it also speaks to a much larger human experience: the impact of fatherhood.

In the days following my father's passing, I’ve been writing and publishing his story. And that feels important: not just for me, but as a service to all fathers and to fatherhood. Theirs are often untold unknown stories – even for their own families whom they have nurtured and elevated.

It can seem like our world is being increasingly poisoned by ideas of toxic masculinity that are harmful to both women and men. Algorithms and disinformation can make such stories flood our social conversations faster than the rarely told stories experienced by so many of us who are or have been lucky enough to have had fathers as their biggest champions.

When it comes to changing the narratives and archetypes of fatherhood in the public domain, we need to start sharing stories of role models, the humanity, the quiet successes that so many of us are blessed to come from. Which means we need to capture and reframe what it means to be a man and a father, by celebrating and documenting their lives.

For someone like me, this feels particularly acute because this is an era in which Muslim men are frequently vilified as violent and as suppressing women, where immigrants are often the "other". And yet it is my father, my Muslim Asian immigrant father, who has made me the woman I am, encouraged me to be independent, soft-hearted and to work hard to make the world better, while still finding joy in people and places.

He was the one who encouraged me to have a voice, take hold of my own power and stand on my own feet. We must reinvigorate the humanising of Muslim men by telling their stories that make our lives better and make us who we are.

My father was also the embodiment of the immigrant story: his father travelled from Kutch in India, and settled in Tanzania after having worked as a businessman in the British Empire port of Aden, in today’s Yemen. The small town called Mingoyo in Tanzania was on the tectonic plates of history as German rule was eclipsed by the British and the latter’s commerce grew trade as well as its occupation of the region, and whose withdrawal post independence led to my father following his British passport to the UK. He had looked around at post-independence states and assessed Britain to be the right option for him.

His immigrant story is nothing like the hateful caricatures used to demonise today’s migrants

Like many children of immigrants, my father’s decisions have shaped my life in ways that counterfactuals mean I could have grown up in so many different places and led a different life.

But even though I wasn’t born until many years later, having spent time sitting with him and hearing his stories, I know that he made those decisions with a view to not just that old cliche of giving his family the best lives possible, but also where he felt he could contribute.

He arrived in the UK with £75 and was part of a post-war generation that helped to re-build Britain. My parents through their work and talent contributed to society, to the economy and brought up a family which now works to do the same.

His immigrant story is nothing like the hateful caricatures used to demonise today’s migrants. Having published his story, many have reached out to me to say they wept and felt pride at seeing the story of a father like their own.

None of this is to deny the sad and painful reality that there are so many fathers who are absent, violent, abusive and harmful. But we need stories to showcase that there are other ways to live, because otherwise how can we ever know and apply models of successful fatherhood that are all around us and hiding in plain sight, to our own lives.

Our fathers don’t have to have been celebrities or prime ministers in order for us to tell their priceless stories. They are powerful because they built the lives of their families and contributed to upholding societies.

We need more stories of our fathers to shine a light on a kind of masculinity we hear little about. Each of their lives will have injected magic and strength into multiple lives. And sharing their stories means not just establishing a legacy for them, it means inspiring a whole new generation.

It’s the least that we owe our fathers.

Published: January 12, 2024, 7:00 AM