I was told I would have an arranged marriage and work in a kebab shop – now I'm speaking at the Tory party conference

My parents never did understand why there were no takers for their dutiful daughter who could cook and sew. Little did they know I forged the application form describing myself as a 48- year-old divorcee with four children

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The Independent Online

As I sit on the train on my way to Birmingham, I look down at the notes in my lap. My destination? The main stage at the Conservative Party conference. My job? To introduce Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, the man in charge of the entire British Army.

I read through my preparations: “From working in my family kebab shop to becoming one of the first women to go through SAS selection training...”

I was always the rebel of the family. I refused to confirm to the expectations of a normal Muslim girl: I wouldn’t wear my head scarf, I studied art rather than science and English, and I sidestepped an arranged marriage. 

My parents never did understand why there were no takers for their dutiful daughter who could cook and sew. Little did they know I forged the application form describing myself as a 48-year-old divorcee with four children. Some things parents just don’t need to know.

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When my brothers and sisters found out I had been hired by the British Army and had been secretly training with the SAS, they said: “Typical Azi.” I never actively tried to trail blaze; I just wanted a bit more out of life.

For me, Britain has always been a country of opportunity, where you are not judged by where you come from or what you look like or how you speak. And even if you are, you can still achieve. There might be a few stumbles and trips along the way. The door might have to be shoved rather than gently tapped open. But, so long as you graft – and that’s in my blood – then you can get there.

I return to my notes: “I am so pleased to have helped pave the way for women to fight on the frontline for the British Army…”

As I think about the other Conservative MPs I will be addressing – and the Prime Minister, too – my mother’s face floats before me. My willingness to break a few eggs to make an omelet comes from her. A die-hard Margaret Thatcher fan, she arrived in Britain from Pakistan in the 1960s as an illiterate child bride. She had two things to do for the rest of her days: be a dutiful wife and mother. There were no other options.  

Had she stayed in Pakistan that would have been her entire life. But, instead, she arrived here. She saw a woman take charge of the entire country – the daughter of a green grocer, a mother of two, a grafter no less – and she thought, “here I can be more”. 

Borrowing my school library card, my mother taught herself to read and write using Ladybird books. She got her independence by jumping on and off buses and getting lost. She built and built, and grafted, and served and learned until she ended up running a kebab shop and managing staff, and out-earned her husband in his own butcher’s shop too.  

Britain and its tapestry of opportunities gave her the chances, and she did the rest. The British Army helped me, her daughter, to find myself and build a whole new career. If, by speaking about my story, I can even help turn one young person on to those possibilities then my work will be done.

Today I have that chance on the main stage in Birmingham. I slice my way through the hustle and bustle of the city and head to the conference building in my jeans, wheeling a small case with my suit, make up and court shoes inside. I’m ready to wear the suit – but when I do, I’ll be telling my own story.  

Azi Ahmed is author of 'Worlds Apart: Muslim Girl with the SAS'. Follow her on Twitter: @aziahmed1