Aasira Siddiqui
Humanities 2017-18 at Glasgow Kelvin College; HND 2020-21 at City of Glasgow College; BA Hons Education and Social Services 2021-23 University of Strathclyde
I was born in Scotland, the second of four children, and the only girl. Both of my parents were born in Yemen. My mum was a housewife and my dad worked all the time. He was quite controlling of my mum and their relationship wasn’t the best, but he took care of me and my three brothers. He provided for us.  

I didn’t realise it while I was growing up, but as I got older I started to become aware that there was something very wrong in my relationship with my mother. It was quite toxic. Because my dad was so central to my mum’s life, it seemed like she would get angry with me whenever he showed me any attention or affection. At the time I didn’t understand what was going on, although I have a better understanding now, mainly because I have studied subjects like psychology and sociology. I realise now that she just wanted to be loved and to have my dad’s attention, and she felt like she had to compete with me to get it. In any case, it made for an unhealthy and backwards sort of household.  

When I was very young I loved going to school because it was my escape from the house. In the house, there would always be arguments and we kids would get pulled into it. It felt like there was always some kind of competition going on. I didn’t understand. I just thought it was weird.  

In school, I was a smart kid. I always got good marks and I always attended. But I was also always late, because my parents would drop my brothers off first. Because I was a girl, they didn’t think it was important for me to go to school and it didn’t matter if I was late. I used to get up early and sit on my bed, dressed, and ready to go, and my mother would scoff and ask, “Why are you so excited to go to school?” as if it was a bad thing to be enthusiastic about education.  

My education was continually interrupted. For example, when I was in P2, we went abroad to visit family and stayed for a few months. When we returned, I was put into P3, but I had fallen behind. I would always get pulled out of class and sat in a different room with some other person, not my teacher. I didn’t understand why that happened, and I still don’t. I wish I had questioned what was going on, but I didn’t. I was only a kid.  

I went to school with bruises all over me. They were covered up, but whenever I would try to speak to my teachers about my family, including the physical abuse I suffered regularly from my mother and my elder brother, their response was to bring my brother in to ask him about it. So then I would go home and he would tell our mother what I said to the teacher about him, and I would get beaten again. If my mother didn’t do it, she would direct my brother to do it, and he would carry out her orders. He was always the favourite child, even though my dad used to beat him, too. My mum especially favoured him and would always protect him or indulge him in whatever he wanted.  

Over and over again, I got the message from my parents that boys were superior to girls in every way, and they would get really angry with me if I achieved anything. I won something at school and took my prize home to show my mum, but she wasn’t happy about it. Even worse, my big brother was really jealous. He took it away from me and destroyed it. But there were never any repercussions for him for behaviour like that. After a few such incidents, any time I got any recognition at school, like a certificate or something, I would not bother taking it home because I knew they would just throw it away or take it off me. I was told all the time that I was worthless and useless.  

Eventually, it became clear to me that they didn’t actually want me to do anything. Although they said they wanted me to “be smart” and “do something” with my life, whenever I expressed an interest in a future career, they discouraged me. They didn’t want me to choose my own path. They wanted me to do whatever they told me to do. I even asked my mum to explain to me exactly what she wanted me to do, so I could do it, but she refused to answer. I was just expected to be obedient, and that’s it.  

So my primary school years were unhappy. I would go home and get a beating for something I said or did, but I would go to school and get bullied for other reasons. Until P6, I think I was the only brown girl in that school. I wasn’t allowed to do PE even in primary school (because according to my mother that was “showing off my body”). The other kids ridiculed me because I was different, or they teased me about my shabby clothes. I always felt I had to compete and prove myself. I was always trying to fit in and be friends with people.  

The first couple of years at high school were really hard for me because I was trying so hard to fit in and it wasn’t working. I always got high marks on my work and got praised by teachers, but the only comments my mother ever made were about who I talked to at school and how I behaved around boys. Because I was a girl, I had to be collected after school and ushered home. I wasn’t allowed a phone, because she was afraid I might have a boyfriend that she didn’t know about.  

When I was in third year, I noticed there was a group of kids who used to get in trouble with the police all the time. To me, it was such a fantasy. I had always been so well behaved, and yet I still got beaten at home, so I finally just sort of decided: Why not? Why shouldn’t I do like they do? What’s the worst that could happen that isn’t already happening? I did begin getting into trouble with the police, although the first time was by accident. In a weird way, I actually enjoyed getting into trouble. I liked the attention. The police genuinely seemed to care about me and be worried about me. I think they could tell something was wrong, because they sent social workers to our house.  

Of course, my mother lost her mind when the social workers turned up. She said that social workers were just nosy people who liked to cause trouble. She told me I had to get rid of them, to lie to them if I had to, but we couldn’t have them coming to our house. I refused to lie, but I couldn’t tell the truth in front of my mother either, so I just didn’t speak. My mum wouldn’t say anything to them, either. So the social workers got nowhere.  

By this point, I was getting into trouble constantly. I started really misbehaving, talking back to teachers, and dogging class. My grades started falling and my attendance was really bad. The social workers obviously knew something was up, so they eventually visited me at school instead of at home. That’s when I told them the truth about what was going on. I told them how I was treated at home, that my mother and brother had both used weapons to beat me, and that my brother especially was always trying to control me and punish me. He beat me up many times, any time he wanted or any time my mother instructed him to, and no one would help me.  

So then, very unhelpfully, the social worker visited my home again and told my mother everything I had reported. Even then, I think I had a tiny little bit of hope inside me that my mum would somehow miraculously change, but no. She completely denied everything, of course. She lied to their faces. My eldest brother was always the only one she cared about and it didn’t matter what he said or did, she would always defend him. They’re both very good at manipulating others, and the act they put on in front of official authorities was impressive – they could have won an Oscar for it. Their view was that our troubles were strictly a family matter, and a matter of our family honour. They thought I was in the wrong for sharing private stories with people they didn’t know, people whom they said didn’t really care about me. They thought the authorities were just being nosy.  

Although the social workers tried to help me, it seemed like whatever I told them they would just promptly tell my family, which would result in me getting another beating. Nothing in my circumstances ever changed. So I just stopped telling them stuff. I started running away instead. When I didn’t return home, my family would report me missing. I would eventually be found and returned to the house. That happened over and over again.  

When I was in fourth year, I tried again to tell a couple of my teachers about my home life and how it was affecting me, but they didn’t seem to take me seriously. It was only when I was getting ready to go into fifth year that they wanted to sit down with me for a chat, suddenly all concerned about my future plans. But I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go to college or anything like that, and there was no point in fighting it anymore. I knew my family would keep me indoors if I wasn’t legally required to be at school, and I would never go out again.  

I had tried and tried, but it just seemed hopeless. At that point, I was still supposed to be attending Children’s Panel meetings, but I missed the final session and no one ever followed up to find out why. They didn’t check to see if I was okay or not, and that was when I gave up hope for a while. I found out later that it was decided by someone that there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant further investigations, because I had stopped speaking up. It never seemed to do me any good. In fact, it made things worse. I had been silenced, so they just let me go.  

After leaving high school, I wasn’t allowed to work or go to college. On a couple of occasions when I was sent out to run some errands for my mother, I took the opportunity to run away again. I didn’t have anywhere to go and I had no money, so I never got far. I would just go stay at a school friend’s house for a night or two, and walk the streets during the day time. I was sixteen by then, so the police couldn’t intervene, but my mother would send my big brother out to find me. He would get his friends, who were brutes like him, to hunt for me and force me to go back. Then when he got me home, he would beat me, with my mother’s approval and encouragement. Eventually, I wasn’t allowed to leave the house at all or even answer the door. I didn’t have a phone. I was totally isolated. That was the pattern for the next several years. I spent my days sleeping as much as possible, unless I was forced to get up and clean the house or cook.    

During this time, I became closer to one of my younger brothers. We had both been bullied and beaten up by our eldest brother, and we developed some trust in one another. He would tell me things he wouldn’t tell anyone else, and I would do the same. My mother hated that we had that relationship. When we were younger and we used to fight, she actually seemed happy with that. She was not comfortable with us being allies. He was the one who finally got me a phone. I kept it secret and made a social media account. I remembered a girl I had gone to school with who was friendly to me, so I messaged her, but then I panicked and blocked her because I didn’t know if she might tell people I was on social media. But eventually she got in touch with me and we caught up on all the things that had happened since I’d left school. When she asked about me, I told her the truth about how I was living, and she offered to help me. She said that if I ever wanted to leave for good, I could stay with her. She had also had some involvement with social work and said she would put me in touch with her social worker, who might be able to help me get on my feet now that I was on my own.  

I knew I needed to get out. The household was so toxic and I was becoming very unwell, even having fleeting thoughts of suicide. I didn’t actually want to hurt myself, but I thought about it because I was desperate to put an end to the way I was living. Leaving the house was problematic, though, because in that house anyone could hear you even if you coughed, so if you opened a door, everyone would know. So I had to be very strategic and sneaky about it. I waited until my eldest brother was away on a holiday with his friends. I picked a day when my father was at work and my mother was resting. Very quietly, I packed up my personal belongings and sneaked out. My friend came to collect me and we went to her house.  

The very next day I applied for the SWAP programme at my local college. I had confided in my younger brother about my plans, so he helped me with the application. He bought me some clothes and topped up my phone, as I had no money. I was really scared, because I didn’t even really know how to do anything. I wasn’t sure how to use the bus or get a taxi myself, for example. Everything seemed strange for a while, because I had been isolated in the house for so long. I had trouble with basic communication skills, like greeting people and making small talk.  

When I applied for college, I was actually kind of hoping I wouldn’t get in, because I was so scared. Then when I got the email inviting me for interview, I had a slight panic. On the day of the interview, I was convinced the interviewer didn’t like me. I remember she kept looking at me with this strange smile on her face, but then she told me it was because she saw potential in me. So, I got an offer for the SWAP Access to Humanities and, after eight years, I was finally back in education.  

Next stop: university! Or so I thought….  

First Attempt at SWAP
When I started the SWAP programme the first time, I tried really hard to fit in, but also to hide at the same time. I sat at the back of the class, kept my head down and did my own thing, trying to be nice to everyone but also not really engaging like I should. I tried to make friends with people in the class, but I didn’t seem to click with anyone. Still, it was good to be learning again, so I did my best.  

And then one day I heard from my younger brother that our eldest brother was back in town, and he was looking for me. I learned that he had been tasked by our mother to find me and bring me back, and he had his friends out looking for me, too. There was also the suggestion that I would be taken out of the country and forced to marry, once they had me back in their custody. My mother had always told me that my future was only to be a wife and a mother, and I would just have to learn to accept it, but I don’t think I ever took her seriously. Now I thought she might actually carry out the threat. I was terrified and filled with dread. I thought about what would happen if my brother did manage to find out where I was staying. Would I just disappear from college and no one would know why? Would they think I just didn’t care about my education or couldn’t be bothered attending? I realised that my one chance to turn my life around was in danger of slipping away from me and I didn’t want that to happen. So, late one afternoon after class, I gathered my courage and waited until all of my classmates had left. I approached my class tutor and told her the whole story.    ~

She sat down with me and I saw that she was genuinely concerned. Right away, she put me in contact with the relevant authorities and I got some information from the Home Office about how to avoid being taken abroad. She also arranged for extra support to be put in place in the college to help me feel more secure. That didn’t stop my family looking for me and making threats, but I knew that if I did disappear, at least my class tutor would know why, and I might get some help. I also had some practical help in getting on my feet as a lone adult estranged from my family. And that was when I knew that there are actually good people out there. It’s okay to trust people. It’s okay to open up, to be vulnerable. Before starting at college, I thought I was the only one going through such a hard life, but I’ve come to realise that there are lots of people out there with different stories and different traumas. I’m glad that I can see that now, because I had always compared my situation to others’, and they always seemed better off. Everyone else looked like they were living happy lives full of rainbows and butterflies, but now I know that my perception was skewed. We’re all struggling with something.  

Because of my own trauma, my head was a bit all over the place in those first few months on the SWAP programme. I wasn’t really taking in everything in class, which became apparent when the first assessments rolled around. I realised that I had no clue about some of the subjects and I was really struggling with the work. I looked around and saw my classmates all seemed to understand things just fine. They would pass on the first attempt, but I was getting it wrong even on my second attempt, and I just couldn’t understand why. Then my class tutor came to me and said she thought I should consider taking a step back to a lower level. My initial reaction to that suggestion was embarrassment. I also felt angry and frustrated. I didn’t want to go back, I wanted to go forward!  

But then I decided to be realistic with myself. I had missed out on a lot of my education even when I was still enrolled at high school, due to my poor attendance and the troubles at home. So I decided to accept the guidance to leave the SWAP programme and complete a ‘Pathways’ (SCQF Level 4) course instead. I looked at it as an opportunity to make up for the learning I had missed. I did well on the Pathways course and that enabled me to try again with the SWAP Access to Humanities programme the following year.    

Second SWAP Year
I thought the second time around would be easier for me – and it was. But it was still a big challenge. I knew I had definitely improved in terms of my academic work, but I found I still struggled with certain aspects of it. When interim profile grades came out, I was only achieving Bs and Cs, whereas my classmates all seemed to be getting As and Bs. I felt awful at first, really disappointed in myself, but I decided to stop comparing myself to others. I knew it wasn’t helping me. I had to stop myself thinking “I’m dumb” and “I’m never going to get this”.  

I especially struggled with Maths. I studied so hard, I was dreaming about Maths. It was all I could think about for a while. It got to the point where all of my classmates had passed the tests and I was the only one still preparing for them. I got really angry with my Maths lecturer when he seemed to dismiss my fears, and I did think about quitting at that point, but then I thought about why I had left my parents’ house and cut off contact with them in the first place. No one in my family had ever made it as far as I had in education at that point, and I knew that if I left college I would just be proving them right in what they’d said about me – that I was useless and stupid and I would never get far. I wasn’t going to allow that, so I decided to stick with it. I studied hard and passed all of my Maths tests. The relief I felt was incredible. It was definitely worth it in the end.  

At the end of that year, I found out I had been nominated by my lecturers for the John Wheatley Award, which is given each year to students across the College and community who have overcome significant challenges in order to access and participate in education. I was one of the winners that year, which made me feel very proud of myself.  

When it came time to apply for university, I really wanted to push ahead and go for it, because that had always been my goal and I had been trying for so long, but I had to admit to myself that I still wasn’t ready. Instead of going straight to university, I opted to progress to the HNC in Social Services instead. It was the smart move. I met some really cool people in that class and made some good friends. I also learned a lot and improved my academic skills, resulting in me getting an ‘A’ in my graded unit. From there, I transferred to the City of Glasgow College to do my HND. I then used that qualification to articulate into the third year at the University of Strathclyde to study towards my BA in Education and Social Services.  

The year I spent doing the HND was probably the roughest I’ve had since sneaking out of my parents’ house. There was a lot of course work to be done, but then the pandemic hit and suddenly everything became even more difficult and stressful. I also found out that my father was in hospital, which hit me harder than I expected. I got really depressed about it, in fact. I stopped getting out of bed, stopped eating properly. I felt guilty. I thought that maybe if I hadn’t left, he wouldn’t be so ill.  

I got so low, it began to affect my college work. My lecturer even commented on it, saying that I had started out so strong, but seemed to be faltering. I decided to explain what was going on in my life, and she suggested that I consider making an appointment to speak with a counsellor. At first, I scoffed and dismissed the idea. My SWAP class tutor had also recommended that I see a counsellor, but I had rejected the suggestion then, too. I guess I still had the mindset that I was better off keeping my personal business as private as possible. Then it got to the stage where I was really beginning to feel that life was pointless, and that’s when I checked myself.  

Hold up, that’s not me. Why am I thinking like this? I love life! I want to live forever. So, maybe I should speak to a counsellor. If I meet them and I don’t like them, I can always stop going or find somebody else….    

My lecturer put me in touch with Who Cares? Scotland and I had eight weeks of counselling. At first, I didn’t think it was helping me much, but that was mainly because it forced me to change my way of thinking. I had to look at myself. I had to understand myself. That led to me making some changes to my lifestyle. In fact, I went on a sort of healing journey. So counselling did indeed help me a lot, so much so that my friends who hadn’t seen me in months commented on the difference.  

University and the Future
I have just completed my third year at university. Although I am relieved to finally be in uni, I’m also sometimes amazed and I wonder how I got here. I have one more year to go to get my degree, and then I think I may do some travelling. I have a very good friend now and we’ve travelled together a few times over the past couple of years. I think I’d like to do more of that. I’d like to travel the world. Well, around Europe anyway! Then I plan to do some post-graduate study, perhaps in social work. I’m not sure yet if I want to work with adults or children, but I know I want to help people. I will work towards a masters degree or, who knows, maybe I will go for a doctorate. I think “Dr. Siddiqui” has a nice ring to it.  

I am still not in contact with my parents. For a long time, I hated them. I blamed them for everything and I was very angry about how I had been treated. But now, having studied for several years and learned more about history and society and human behaviour, I have some compassion for them. I realise that it was their own upbringing that made them behave the way they did. It’s not my fault, but it’s also not my responsibility to make them change. And I know I cannot make them be happy. That’s up to them.  

When I look back over my journey in education so far, there were many times when I could have quit – when I wanted to quit. But if you are reading this and you ever find yourself in that situation, I would just say this: before you quit anything, think about why you started it in the first place. Even if you need to pause for a while or go another route, that’s fine, if that’s what is right for you. Remember that you can always pick up where you left off in education, wherever that may be. The other thing I would say is to avoid comparing yourself to other people. Your story is not anyone else’s; it’s yours alone.
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