In a photographers’ studio, two successful professional women in brightly coloured frocks and golden earrings are having their photos taken. On the right is Rubina Pabani, head of short form at ITN Productions (“I work in podcast and video, pitch, put teams together”), currently on maternity leave for her first child. On the left, Poppy Jay, investigative documentary producer-director of 24 Hours in Police Custody and the Bafta-nominated Queens of Rap. But their day jobs are not why we are here. We’re here – there is no way of sugar-coating this – because of their sex lives. As well as holding down impressive media careers, Poppy and Rubina are the tell-all hosts of the podcast Brown Girls Do It Too, which has just started its third series on BBC Sounds. Their subject matter? Sex. Specifically, sex as experienced by British South Asian women.
“Oh, we’re definitely not sexperts, we’re sex clowns,” says Rubina, 34. “We’re the silliest, most open person in the room, the one that encourages everyone to join in, to be silly and free…”
“She’s filtered that for you,” says Poppy, 36. “She usually says we’re the most perverted uncles at a party. Or we’re like white van men in brown girl skin.”
Sex clowns? Perverted uncles? White van men? Or just happy to talk about what sex means for them? In contrast to many in their community, for these women no sexual subject is off limits. Listeners know that Rubina has gone off masturbation since having a baby, that Poppy does not like porn, that Rubina once left a newly purchased sex toy on a train, that Poppy, recently out of a 10-year relationship, is internet dating for the first time and is definitely up for sex on a first date, but only if there’s some sort of connection – “not just dry chat”. Having binged the show from the start, I could give you many more intimate details about them both but, you know, this isn’t quite the place. You’ll just have to listen.
If you do, you’ll be joining a broad audience. Despite its title, Brown Girls Do It Too has been a hit with audiences from all cultural backgrounds. “Well, everyone has sex,” points out Poppy. “Most people wank. And a lot of people feel like outsiders. In the second series, we discovered we had a lot of white women listeners in their 40s, who always seemed to listen to us at a supermarket, in the pasta aisle. And they’d be like: ‘You’re both funny, but I sometimes cringe at what you say.’ And I’m like: ‘Hey, we cringe at what we say!’”
“Honestly,” says Rubina, “the reason we were so honest and overshared at first was because we thought no one was going to listen and no one would care!”
Actually, Brown Girls came very close to ending after just one series. The BBC didn’t recommission it, but then the show won two British Podcast awards in 2020, including podcast of the year, so a second series was made – minus the third presenter, Roya Eslami, who chose to leave after the first series. Then Poppy and Rubina appeared on Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton’s much-missed The High Low, which helped bring in listeners, as did the enthusiasm of Deborah Frances-White, host of The Guilty Feminist. “The female podcast community is much tighter than people think,” says Rubina. “There was that stat the other day that said only 11% of podcasts are hosted by women … everyone’s very supportive.”
For this third series, they have a new all-female production team and it’s noticeable that their presentation has improved with every series. Off-mic, they both speak at a million miles an hour, Rubina possibly at a million and a half. They have a noisy, high-octane energy, like teenagers on the lash.
There is also going to be a Brown Girls Do It Too tour, Mama Told Me Not to Come, in the autumn. It won’t be a simple live version of the podcast, they say, nibbling at chicken wings in the dressing room off the studio. Instead, it’s more like a sketch show – they both love Goodness Gracious Me – with them telling stories of their childhood and teenage years, and then doing daft skits to emphasise their points. Rapping is promised. “We’re even doing Indian accents,” says Rubina. “Which everyone is going to hate us for.”
Now a bona fide double act, Rubina and Poppy say their connection, fundamentally, is both having experienced late personal liberation after sheltered childhoods and repressed teenage years. Poppy grew up in a Bengali family in Tower Hamlets, east London, the oldest of five girls and a boy. Her parents don’t speak English and she had a strict upbringing. “I was a dweeb with a moustache, a monobrow,” she says. “I wore a headscarf. All my friends were wearing jeans and western clothes, and I wasn’t allowed to do anything. I never did the sneaking out, never changed my clothes before school. I just accepted it. I really was the dutiful daughter.”
At home, she had a lot of responsibility, reading official letters, translating for her non-English-speaking parents: “Being a third parent, treated like a boy.” But when she was with her cousins, she says: “I was suddenly treated like a girl, a second-class citizen, and I couldn’t understand it.”
At 17, a husband was chosen for her. After they married at 20, Poppy moved into his parents’ house. It didn’t work out: at 23, she moved back into her parents’ home – “And he didn’t come and get me” – before getting divorced at 25. She didn’t speak about this for several years, but does now, as there are “so many Asian women forced to marry someone they don’t want, a cousin, or someone from back home. It is such a normal experience for us. I don’t really even see it as trauma. I talked about it the other day with a friend. I said: ‘I had a forced marriage.’ And they drained their pint and said: ‘Who hasn’t?’” Still, though, she says she was working with someone recently who mentioned that his girlfriend was about to meet the husband her parents had chosen for her, and she could feel the rage rise. “I nearly started to cry; I was like: ‘Give her my number, she can come and live with me.’”
Rubina’s upbringing, in Enfield, north London, was more liberal than Poppy’s, though there was still a gender-based hierarchy: at mealtimes, her father and brother would always eat before her and her mum. There’s a very moving episode in Brown Girls about daddy issues, which starts as a joke about whether they would call a lover “daddy” in the bedroom (neither would) and then moves into an upsetting discussion of not feeling close to their own fathers. “My dad didn’t speak to me for two years when I started seeing my partner,” says Rubina. “He only started again because we’ve had a baby boy. He’s made huge progress. But he’s 75 – we wasted all this time.”
There is a lot to unravel from their past, and they’re still doing the unravelling. Poppy is not only dealing with the breakup of a 10-year relationship, but with the fact that her parents didn’t know she was in that relationship. “It breaks my heart,” she says evenly. “All those memories they’ve lost. He was such a lovely guy and he loved Asian food, and Asian family is all about cooking and having the family around. But I didn’t introduce him to them because he wasn’t Muslim. I’m a part-time Muslim at best, but I’m a Muslim when I see my mum and dad. And I’ve started thinking that I might have enabled this double life. I fuelled it. I lied for so long, I should have been brave enough to say.”
She also, she says, finds it hard to think of how she treated her sisters when she was young. “My parents literally groomed me into raising my sisters the way they raised me,” she says. “I was their head henchman. It was horrible. I was so strict. If they wore eyeliner, they wore lipstick, or they bunked off school … I actually think I need therapy to come to terms with how I treated them.” Two of her sisters cut her off when they found out about the podcast, though they have reconciled now. Her parents still know nothing about it.
Rubina, who met her partner on Tinder, is finding it interesting to parent a mixed-heritage child (her partner’s family are South American). She’s been playing her son Bollywood music, even though she never really listened to it herself before: “I’m culturally appropriating my own culture.” She is an Ismaili Muslim and her son will have a bay’ah (a pledge of spiritual allegiance), but won’t be circumcised: “Just don’t tell my mum!” She and her mum have a good relationship, but she’s determined not to recreate her family dynamic. “I’m 100% equal with my partner, we are in a civil partnership. And I don’t think you have to be a martyr to be a mum. To be a good mum, you have to be: ‘I love my life!’”
Chiming over each other, laughing, joking, Rubina and Poppy are immensely good company. They branch off into why Asian guys don’t fancy them, which podcasts they like (Harsh Reality, Whoreible Decisions) and what they took from the massive podcast hit Sweet Bobby, about a British woman of South Asian heritage who was romantically catfished by someone from her community. They note that when she told her family, the podcast host (who isn’t Asian) was shocked at the father’s reaction. “The dad didn’t want a fuss to be made because of the community,” says Poppy. “Not a surprise.”
“Being disowned is such a popular trope in Bollywood films,” agrees Rubina. “And you watch that growing up – the whole time you know that you’re on this edge with your parents. You do something wrong and they could disown you.”
“That’s sort of what our show’s about,” says Poppy. “Like how much of yourself can you be when you have all these people to try and satisfy? You can’t ever be yourself … The level of poor mental health among South Asian women is so high, comparatively, to other ethnic communities. And I know that things are changing now, people are talking about it. But it’s so slow. It’s like dinosaurs, fossils, oil forming. It’s happening, but we’re like: ‘Can we hurry up and get there?’”
July 17, 2022 at 01:54PM Miranda Sawyer