Bangla babes rule Britannia

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By Good looking Bangladeshi women in their twenties and thirties are scoring a win over their Indian and Pakistani sisters in the UK, says Amit Roy
  • Published 29.04.07

Last week’s Daily Mail officially anointed Konnie Huq, a 32-year-old presenter on Blue Peter, a long running BBC television programme for children, as a Bangladesh babe by publishing an alluring picture of her displaying her undoubted physical charms.

Had this photograph appeared in India, no doubt some disapproving fundamentalist would have filed a court case on the grounds that Konnie had hurt the sentiments of the people. But this is Britain where tabloid picture editors are grateful for any offerings from attractive women, especially at film premieres — and Konnie, who was attending the opening of Spider-man 3, was certainly generous with her gift to the snappers.

The image of Konnie in her “show-stopping frock” has sparked a debate about the new phenomenon of the Bangladesh babes — good looking women in their twenties and thirties, whose parents came from Dhaka or Sylhet, but who were themselves born and brought up in Britain and are now taking their place in the UK sun.

The projection of Konnie also means that, for once, the focus of attention is on young Bangladeshi women — not on their Indian counterparts. Indian women are more numerous, much more middle class and have had a head start in the educational stakes. But Bangladeshi women are coming up fast on the rails. Konnie’s success means that for this week, at least, Bangldeshi women have scored a win over their Indian and Pakistani sisters.

Konnie “took to the red carpet in a satin gown with a plunging neckline that would have made a previous generation blush,” noted the Daily Mail, which prides itself on spotting significant new trends in fashion and society. It said Konnie “bared more than a hint of flesh as she waved to fans” and published appropriate photographs from the best angles to illustrate its point.

One observer told the paper: “Konnie and her killer dress were the talk of Leicester Square. It was an unbelievably daring gown. It was pretty obvious that she couldn’t have been wearing a bra with such a low-cut number and people were joking that she must have been using sticky-backed plastic to hold everything in place. Whatever her secret though, Konnie really stole the show.”

Just to make it clear that Konnie wasn’t a bimbo, the Daily Mail emphasised: “Miss Huq is the daughter of Bangladesh-born parents. The Cambridge graduate has been nominated for a Bafta for her presenting. She neither smokes nor drinks and is widely regarded as the perfect children’s role model despite having had a seven-year relationship (now ended) with former Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon, who left the show after admitting to taking cocaine.”

It so happens that Konnie and her elder sister, Rupa, three years her senior, are well known to The Telegraph. Had it not been for her Blue Peter presenter’s role, which Konnie landed back in 1998, the two sisters could be described as typical “nice girls from a next door good Bengali family”.

Rupa, an academic, is the more serious one. In 2005, when she ran in the no hope Tory seat of Chesham and Amersham in Buckinghamshire (Tory majority of 11,882) as the Labour candidate, Konnie turned up to support her sister. Under strict BBC rules she could not actually campaign for Rupa, but she hoped that her presence as a celebrity would assist her sister. Of course, Rupa lost but she remains hopeful of getting into parliament as Britain’s first Bangladeshi MP.

The girls were at pains to stress that the stereotype of all Bangladeshis slaving away in “Indian restaurants” was false. Why, both sisters had been to Cambridge, Rupa and Konnie pointed out.

Konnie, who is used to dealing with fans, opened her handbag, selected one photograph from the pile she carries at all times, autographed and scribbled a kiss on it and handed it to The Telegraph. Then she left for Japan for Konnie travels a lot.

A year or so later, she was photographed coming out of a nightclub. The top of her dress had slipped in the manner made familiar by Page 3 girls. But in Konnie’s case, was it an accident? Her experiment with her slinky dress last week suggests perhaps it wasn’t. After all, Liz Hurley first came to prominence when she wore a Versace outfit barely held together with pins when she accompanied her (then) boyfriend, Hugh Grant to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994.

Konnie, who is anxious to move on from Blue Peter, might calculate that if a revealing dress is what it takes to achieve a step up the career ladder, it might be a risk worth taking.

Konnie might have reservations about being officially labelled a Bangladesh babe but there is safety in numbers. The new writer, Tahmima Anam (born in Dhaka in 1975 where her father is a newspaper editor), has made an impact with her debut novel, A Golden Age. When it comes to promoting a product, it helps if the subject behind it is also photogenic. No doubt, both Tahmima and Monica Ali, the author of Brick Lane, would express horror — at least, outwardly — at being called Bangladesh Babes (which sounds more like a top shelf magazine for adults), but it is a fact of life that decision makers in Britain have a weakness for Asian babes.

Faria Alam, now pushing 40, does not quite fit into this category. But even so when Max Clifford (now looking after our Shilpa Shetty) fixed it for her to sell details of her sexploits with Sven Goran Eriksson, the England football coach, for several hundred thousand pounds, it was strangely liberating for a woman who was Bangladeshi and Muslim to talk about intimate matters that are generally considered taboo. Had her father been alive, he would have killed her, Faria admitted at one point. She appeared on Celebrity Big Brother (the series previous to the one featuring Shilpa), got speedily evicted and more recently fell into a trap set up by the News of the World and was shown demanding £8,000 for sex. With her notoriety, she could have demanded a lot more.

Although Faria’s case has to be taken into account when painting an honest portrait of young Bangladeshi women in Britain, hers is the exception that proves the rule.

Even before Konnie had arrived at the BBC, Lisa Aziz, daughter of a Bangladeshi father and an English mother and with looks which reminded some of the young Sophia Loren, had made her mark as a television presenter. A generation later, the future looks promising for British-born Bangladeshi women currently going through university or those who have graduated in recent years.

When Bafta staged its Bollywood weekend last year, the media was skilfully managed by Mary Rahman, 28, who set up her own PR company after reading English Literature at Queen Mary College, London, and doing her MA in Media and Communications from the London School of Economics. Mary, born in Britain into a Sylheti family, today does PR for clients who include Sadler’s Wells and the Royal National Theatre.

“I want to do work that is challenging and culturally diverse and that I believe in,” she declared. “What is happening is empowering for a whole generation of Bangladeshi women. Many, many other girls are coming through. I find that very encouraging.”

In fact, there is a “Brit Bangla” website to assist networking and bring together talented young Bangladeshi professionals (as well as Bengalis from India) from all over Britain.

One of the organisation’s founders, Taryn Khanum — in her thirties, she read Environmental Sciences at Brunel University — said that what was previously lacking was a projection of the success story of young Bangladeshi women.

“Konnie is a very good role model,” asserted Taryrn. “She is not being tarty. She is highly intelligent, she has been at the BBC for many years, she is well respected. Today, Brit Bangla has 1,000 members. Konnie is one of our greatest supporters.”

The success story of young Bangladeshi women in Britain is one that Sheikh Hasina, the former Bangladeshi prime minister, might like to ponder as she is holed up in London this weekend, unable to get back to Bangladesh.