My family sought asylum in the UK when I was 9 years old. This was my parents’ second displacement – my mother left behind a medical clinic she had worked tirelessly to establish, and my father, yet another large collection of books lovingly gathered. They brought with them heaps of resilience and a solid determination that their children should have a better life.
I did not speak any English when we arrived and, having been a pretty assertive and vocal child, losing my voice was a challenge. With a new-found love for reading, I quickly improved through noting down words I did not understand and translating them.
Every once in a while I was reminded (much to my embarrassment) that English is not the most phonetically consistent of languages. Those years taught me that the ability to communicate effectively is a profound privilege – even more so when speaking on behalf of others, in particular those whose voices are marginalised.
Education has huge traction among the Iraqi diaspora in the UK, and like many young Iraqi refugees of my generation, I applied myself to my school work with unabashed enthusiasm. Applying to Oxford was my first little leap of faith in myself. Despite having the necessary academic track record, it nevertheless felt like a bold move for a girl like me.
The enduring support of my New College tutor, Dr Dori Kimel, gave me plenty more faith along the way. During my time at New College, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of women being allowed to join a college that, despite its name, was founded in 1379. I was the only undergraduate in my college that wore a headscarf. Oxford was taking real strides to address diversity, but there was some way to go.
The Iraq war took place just as I was starting university. For the first time, “going back home” was a real possibility. I travelled to Iraq in 2004 to meet my extended family. Iraq had been a country bereft of hope, and it was humbling to witness so much courage in the face of such adversity. Values like the rule of law took on a whole new meaning when I witnessed first-hand the devastating consequences of their absence. Until 2003, my grandmother had still held on to the hope that the son who had disappeared in 1979 was still alive. She eventually learnt that he had been executed as far back as 1984. In the chaos that followed the Iraq war no one was able to tell her where his remains had been buried.
Mid way through an LLM in public international law I had the opportunity to travel back to Iraq and assist the Legal Advisor to the Prime Minister of Iraq during the negotiation of the Iraqi-US Status of Forces Agreement. This experience cemented my interest in pursuing a career as a barrister. After stints as a research assistant at the Law Commission of England and Wales and as a judicial assistant to Lord Justice Maurice Kay, then Vice President of the Court of Appeal, I took a punt on Brick Court Chambers. Once again, it required a little faith and an openness to not quite fitting what I perceived to be the mould.
In my first week of pupillage, I was asked to draft a speech for the ECJ hearing in Commission v Kadi. Within that first term, I travelled to Luxembourg to attend the hearing with my supervisor, Maya Lester QC, and a glittering array of other barristers and legal experts. That set the tone for what has so far been a fascinating and challenging few years of practice. Beyond the interesting nature of the work, I have been deeply touched by the generosity of spirit at the English Bar, and I have found many open doors amongst the barristers and clerks in Chambers (and beyond) when in need of support or advice.
Students interested in pursuing a career at the Bar often tell me of concerns that their differences from the stereotypical barrister may hinder their prospects of obtaining pupillage and ultimately tenancy. A necessary (but by no means sufficient) step in ensuring diversity at the Bar is the creation of fair and rigorous processes to ensure that recruitment decisions are based on merit rather than privilege. Like many other Chambers, Brick Court has taken significant strides to address the legacy issues that continue to hinder diversity at the Bar. Fair recruitment training was put in place long before it became a BSB requirement and a focus on anonymised and standardised assessments during pupillage provides a more robust basis for decision making.
Furthermore, a genuinely family friendly atmosphere, supportive clerking and one of the most generous parental leave policies at the Bar have meant that not a single woman has left Chambers after having a baby, and women excel at every level of seniority. More of course needs to be done, in particular in changing the overarching narrative: diversity is not only about tolerating difference, but about celebrating the unique contributions that different people can make. For example, being a centre for international dispute resolution, London is a city where having additional language skills and an insight into other cultures can be a real asset.
This year marks 100 years since women were permitted to practise as lawyers in this country. At the Law Commission, I had the privilege of working with Dame Frances Patterson DBE. The Bar was a very different place when she started her remarkable career, which was tragically cut short in 2016 when she lost her battle with cancer. Like many other women of her cohort, she paved the way for women like me.
Maya Angelou’s incredible poem Our Grandmothers contains the line I come alone, but stand as ten thousand. Women striving for equality no longer come alone, but we continue to be emboldened by the countless women who made us who we are today. I carry the legacy of those like my mother who gathered up loved ones and sought refuge and hope; I can lay down the roots denied to them, and pursue dreams their sacrifices made possible.
I try to express my enormous gratitude to all those who helped me along the way by paying it forward and doing what I can to support younger women at the start of their journey. As a mother of two girls, I am determined that they should grow up with the boldness to take up as much space in this world as they damn well please.
Zahra Al-Rikabi is a barrister at Brick Court Chambers. The Women in Adversity series will continue next week.