Remona Aly
Thursday 25 February 2016 The Guardian

Nadiya has won so much more than GBBO

It’s official. Nadiya Hussain has been crowned as our Great British Bake Off queen. The grand finale delivered dramatic camera angles, priceless one-liners and a healthy dose of blubbering. One of the highlights was when Mary Berry gently wiped away Nadiya’s tears and described her as “sheer perfection”.

It’s difficult to escape the current national obsession with the Luton-born 30-year-old – it feels as if nearly everyone wants a slice of her. Nadiyamania includes a Tumblr site called The Many Faces of Nadiya Appreciation, an image mimicking the Barack Obama “Hope” poster from his 2008 presidential campaign, and 55,300 Twitter followers – which rises with every pinch of her baking powder.

Nadiya’s appeal is quite simple. She is the quietly brilliant girl next door, and someone you want to be mates with. As wholesome as GBBO itself, she is what we might define as “quintessentially British”. Deeply humble – tick. Self-deprecating – tick. Unintentionally funny – tick. Good at Victoria sponge – mega tick. Or as one fan simply tweeted, “She’s just so flipping lovely.”

While Nadiya admitted she was slightly nervous that “perhaps people would look at me, a Muslim in a headscarf, and wonder if I could bake”, she seems to have united, and charmed, public opinion. Well almost. Amid the waves of loyal fans, there were some less than savoury members of our society who wanted to turn up the temperature on prejudice and division. A Daily Mail columnist, Amanda Platell, accused the Bake Off team for being too politically correct, saying that one white contestant, Flora Shedden, didn’t have a hope with her chocolate carousel and that “if she’d made a chocolate mosque, she’d have stood a better chance”.

Yet Nadiya has managed to defuse the negative, politicised and stereotypical discourse surrounding Muslims in one beat of a whisk. Such is her resonance that even David Cameron – whose Tory party conference speech lists pet hates that can be construed as Muslim-related, including another dig at madrasas and his declaration that “this passive tolerance has turned us into a less integrated country” – backed her to win.

Nadiya’s popularity has demonstrated how the vast majority of people in Britain embrace diversity and inclusivity, and are certainly not going to dismiss her based on religion, race or attire. That an Asian Muslim woman in a headscarf can win a thoroughly British competition proves that “Britishness” is a broader and more open concept than some would like us to think. It proves that whether you choose to wear a headscarf, a turban or a bowler hat, Britain is not limited by homogeneity but strengthened by diversity.

In fact, some of our most iconic Brits are, shall we furtively say, not as strictly English as the term might suggest, though they sure are as English as fish and chips (which are Jewish and French/Belgian in origin respectively). Our little island has been absorbing different cultures and backgrounds for a good few centuries and more. But we don’t have to go that far back: Ben Elton, whose father was a Jewish refugee, helped shape British wit; Freddie Mercury, a Parsi born in Zanzibar, fronted one of the most legendary British bands of all time; and Helen Mirren, whose grandfather was a Russian diplomat turned London cabbie, is one of Britain’s finest actors. We Brits are good at embracing and owning genius, wherever it stems from.

I recently heard a British Asian Muslim say we should be grateful to our “host” community. I know what he was trying to say, but I had an issue with it. We are not guests at an afternoon tea. We are the hosts, laying the table spread – Nadiya is testament to that. Her final piece was a Great British wedding cake that married her British and Asian identities together in a stroke of genius: the cake proudly wore British red, white and blue colours formed with sari material and jewels from her wedding day.

While Nadiya is the most popular GBBO baker to date, with the charming anaesthetist Tamal Ray a close second, their combined appeal meant that this year’s finale was bound to break previous records – last year’s season finale was the third most watched show, beaten only by two World Cup football matches. In addition to GBBO’s winning set-up of the brilliantly witty Mel and Sue, poker-faced Paul Hollywood and traditionalist Mary Berry, the success of GBBO is greatly helped by the fact that baking is universal, apolitical, and inoffensive. Nothing brings people together like a good sponge and, of course, a nice cup of tea. And its inclusivity factor has been reflected in the competitors, with Nadiya having the extra edge of being a non-stereotypical British winner – as an Asian Muslim woman in a hijab, she both represents and transcends all her identities.

In a way, Nadiya has broken her own glass ceiling. While black and Asian women face even more challenges than their white counterparts to be successful in their careers, we have witnessed Nadiya rise to fulfil our collective aspirations for her. Her final words have moved a nation more deeply than many leaders can manage, she’s inspired people of all backgrounds to believe in themselves and in a greater, more inclusive British society for all.

God bless our gracious Queen Nadiya and long live the Great British Bake Off.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 8th October 2015. To view it click here.