“I have so much to say and so much to do,” says Lida Nasiri. “When standing on that stage I will be a universal woman.”
The stage the Afghanistan-born 26-year-old is referring to is the knockout round for a place in the Miss England final. Many may raise an eyebrow about how a beauty contest fits with her culture and upbringing.
“I will feel a responsibility to uplift that voice and that image but in a most respectful and moral way. Because that is who I am,” she tells The National a few days before the event.
On Monday morning, Ms Nasiri will carry a large suitcase down stairs from her apartment and jump into a taxi accompanied by her devoted mother for the 15-minute ride to the Taj hotel, a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.
It may only be a short hop across the city for the fashion and PR executive who is among 40 contenders in the competition. But it is the culmination of a remarkable 20-year, 5,000 mile odyssey from the backstreets of Kabul to one of the capital’s top catwalks in a swish five star hotel.
Along the way she has had to contend with people traffickers, being a refugee with an uncertain future, family rifts, the breaking of conservative taboos regarding the role of women in Muslim society, and a damaging breakdown.
Win or lose, Ms Nasiri is adamant that her already epic and challenging journey in life is not one that is about to stop.
Her motivation now is to use the platform of the pageant and her experiences to educate and empower women wherever they may be.
Journey to Europe
Ms Nasiri, who speaks six languages, was born in Kabul in 1996 — the same year that the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan for the first time.
When she was 3 a rocket crashed through the roof of the home and her mother Brishna, then barely 20 herself, decided the family had to flee.
Understandably, she recalls nothing of that time but by talking to her mother — who she describes as her “rock” — she has picked up the threads of their escape.
From Afghanistan they crossed into Iran by road, then Turkmenistan, and finally Russia. It was a blur of lorries, cars, walking and trains.
For two years in Moscow her mother worked day and night making and selling food in the local bazaar to raise money to pay people traffickers to get them to Europe and freedom.
“All Mum thought about was seeking safety for me and my younger sister Surya. Where and to which country we didn’t know, “ she said.
Their first stop in the hands of the traffickers was Poland where Ms Nasiri’s recollections become clearer. “I remember all I did was hold my Mum’s hand,” she explained. “I was afraid of letting go because I saw a long chain of people walking behind us.”
As part of a group of 50 they were moved on to Germany. “In Berlin for the first time as a child I felt safe. It was a ray of light. A moment of stillness and peace.”
After a brief sojourn in the German capital and via a contact from her father’s extended family, they were on their way again, this time to the Netherlands where they arrived in 2001. “We were put into a camp with caravans with a kitchen and a washroom. Everything was so clean and tidy. From a young age all I had ever known really was moving. So that caravan was my first real home.”
Roots were put down in another bigger camp in Utrecht. “The Dutch were so considerate. They put people from the same ethnicities together to create that sense of community.”
In 2007 and by now in Montfort in the south of the country, they finally received citizenship and their precious official papers. “You start living again. I continued my education. It went well and I even learnt Latin. I wanted though to learn English.”
She had learnt English grammar at school but picked up the colloquial language by watching hours of the children’s channel Nickelodeon.
In 2011 came Ms Nasiri’s final move — at least for now as the family decamped to England. “Mum knew how much I wanted to finish my education in London.”
Demand for education
She studied for her A-levels at Uxbridge College, in West London. But when she finished she told her family she wanted to stay on to go to university. “I wanted to be somebody, I wanted to work and I wanted it in London," she said. "It is a really taboo subject. To live apart from your family especially if you are the oldest one and even more so if you want to live abroad is looked down upon, especially for a girl.”
They agreed she could stay and she enrolled at the American International University in Richmond, in south-west London, where she studied fashion, management and marketing, and a minor in philosophy. “Having freedom was so exciting. I felt I had control of my life. It felt good. ”
After graduation in 2019 her world caved in. She suffered a breakdown which required three months in hospital and three more months of medication. “I really had to battle. Now I am much stronger. In the hospital the only thing I thought about was getting back to the stability I had created for myself. Because that is the only power I had for myself.”
This is who I am
Now working in fashion PR for a company and as an event organiser, she entered and won the 2021 UK Beauty and Brains pageant. Her motivation was to further the cause of female emancipation. That qualified her for Miss England. “I enrolled, won the third heat and passed through to the semi-finals straightaway.”
Why a beauty contest, which she must have realised might antagonise even those closest to her? “It is part of a statement I want to make, it is part of who I am,” she argued. “The message I want to put out is that [Muslim] women even in the Netherlands, Morocco and Turkey are looked down on. We are recognised for our beauty but there is so much more to it.
“We should celebrate individualisation. More than ever uniqueness should be celebrated.”
Fifteen contestants will get through to the final in October where the winner will be crowned Miss England and qualify automatically for Miss World. “I am very nervous! There are 40 different women with 40 different stories, all unique in their own way.
“I am nervous but I am also strong in who I am, what I want and what I stand for. If I win I will be winning for all those women — even today — who are still constrained. A year ago my best friend from the Netherlands had an arranged marriage. And she had not even seen the guy. Imagine that in 2021. And that is in the Netherlands, in Europe.
So what is her relationship with religion now? “At 14 I started to find out for myself what the Muslim faith meant. I read the Quran in Dutch. On an emotional level I felt enriched by the stories. Morally I learnt a lot, the correct way to talk to people and to respect. Today, though, and living in the western world, religion is more in my heart and in my behaviour. Do I have a strong relationship with faith? Yes, but in my own way.
“My family on my Dad’s side is still quite conservative. My sister got married into a conservative family. Sometimes I feel it is a shame that the community where I come from can’t open up. I am not saying you have to be wear a bikini to be liberal. I am saying it is important to try and understand someone else’s perspective before you instil yours. I don’t disrespect anybody. But I want people to respect who I am and the choices I have made in my life.”
As well as her mother who has travelled over from the Netherlands, in the audience will be her father, sister and brother Mansoor cheering her own. Blood, after all, is thicker than water.