Rabia Siddique is a real life hero. She endured abuse as a child, survived a hostage situation in Iraq and took on the British Military in a discrimination case. Instead of letting them destroy her, she has used all of these experiences to help others. She has written her story in her best selling book Equal Justice. We chat with her about her early life and where she is at now.
Jo Corrigan: Tell us about your early days.
Rabia Siddique: I was born in Perth but spent my early years in India. We immigrated to Australia in 1976. We were the only Indians, mixed Indians as it were, on the street and I went to the local primary school. Two key things happened to me when I was a young child which really influenced the decisions I made later on. The first was experiencing first hand the challenges and prejudices that my Dad experienced as a dark skinned Muslim immigrant. That really gave me a strong sense of social justice and equality.
The second was when I was nine. We lived next door to an elderly couple and we didn’t have any family around so this couple took us under their wing. We called them Nan and Poppa. I didn’t realise, as I was just a little girl, that Poppa was a paedophile and and evil man. He sexually abused me for many months. Like most paedophiles he was very manipulative and able to identify my Achilles heel, which was my baby brother. All he had to do was to threaten to give my brother special time. He knew that was enough to buy my silence. I knew my silence couldn’t secure my brother’s safety anymore when I saw him look at my brother the same way he had looked upon me previously. I told my parents and they were completely shocked but a product of their time and culture. The idea of shame and saving face of the family name was very important, particularly for my father, so my parents made the decision to cover up the abuse and the police weren’t called. I was told never to speak of the abuse again. That left me with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and feeling voiceless.
JC: That is such a terrible thing to have to go through. How did you go on from there?
RS: My parents gave me a number of wonderful gifts as well. The first gift was travel from a young age which I am sure made me more broadminded and tolerant. Also, the gift of a wonderful secondary education. They saved up and sent me to Penrhos, a school that I found really supportive, inclusive and nurturing. Up until then I’d been a very insecure little girl. I resented being different. It wasn’t until I went to secondary school and was being educated with girls from all different backgrounds and religions that I decided that being different was actually ok. I stopped resenting my differences and started embracing my uniqueness. I became more comfortable in my own body, in my own shoes. I started to believe that I was worthy of better than I had received and deserving of equal treatment to everybody else. I started believing that I was capable of achieving whatever I set my mind to.
JC: When did you first decide to go into law?
RS: With a growing and nurturing experience at Penrhos together with my early experience it’s no surprise that I decided on a career in the law from an early stage. I wanted to use the law to help other people, to help others access justice, to help others find their voice I guess you could say.
JC: Tell us a bit about your legal career here in Australia.
RS: I got some wonderful opportunities, starting off at Legal Aid where I quickly specialised as a criminal lawyer and [was] then recruited to the Commonwealth DPP. I am pretty sure I was the youngest federal prosecutor at the time. I had such a fortunate beginning of my career.
JC: What made you decide to leave Perth and practice law in the UK?
RS: I really wanted to work as an international humanitarian lawyer and I wanted to work with victims of war crimes. That meant I needed to go overseas to realise that dream. So in 1998 I left Australia for the UK.
JC: And the decision to become a British Military lawyer, where did that come from?
RS: Within a year and a half of arriving in London the opportunity came my way to be part of the voluntary community expedition to South America. That expedition was supported by the British Military. Some of the friends I made on that expedition were British Army Officers and I found they had a lot of qualities that resonated with me. One of these officers suggested a career as a legal officer in the army to me. When I returned to the UK after this amazing adventure, within a few months I decided I was going to apply.
JC: Was it a difficult process to join the British Army?
RS: I didn’t think I would have a chance. I thought to myself “what on earth would they want with an Aussie, Muslim, female lawyer who had no military exposure”. They must have seen something because I was elected to commission.
JC: You decision to join coincided with significant world events.
RS: Between finishing my legal job in the south of England and starting my military training I decided to take a quick trip home to Perth. The day I was due to board my flight to Perth was the 11th September 2001. [I remember] sitting in the Heathrow Airport departure lounge looking up at a screen watching the second tower fall and then looking around seeing fellow travellers bound for Middle Eastern flights and [who] were in traditional Middle Eastern attire, getting a really hard time from the authorities and the crowd. I had this overwhelming feeling that our world was about to change in ways we couldn’t conceive. My resolve was stronger than ever that somehow I’d been guided down an unexpected path and that what made me unique and different were things that were needed now at this time in our world.
BEING HELD HOSTAGE
JC: Tell us about life as a British Army officer.
RS: Fast forward a few years into my career and I was selected to be the first female legal adviser to deploy with the British Brigade to Iraq. By that stage I was confident in who I was and was determined to always be true to my core values. I also knew that if I was going to deploy to Iraq, then I needed to get back in touch with where I had come from. I learned Arabic and researched the teachings of the Koran and the history of that part of the world. When I went to Iraq I was able to establish very quick and fruitful relationships with the Iraqis, which is why six months into my tour I became involved in an incident that I otherwise would have had no business being in the middle of.
JC: That ‘incident’ you are referring to involved you being held hostage by Islamic insurgents while trying to negotiate the release of two British soldiers. You talk in your book about the event and then the subsequent refusal of the British Army to acknowledge your part in this. What affect have both the hostage situation and the military ignoring your part, had on you?
RS: After the incident, then after I was written out of the whole event, I returned to the UK. I realised through the help of my husband, that all was not well and that I was broken. When I finally got help I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, not from [my] experience as a hostage, but the feelings of betrayal and abandonment by those who should have been there to protect, acknowledge and support. It was a flash back because, yet again, those I trusted were the ones telling me that I didn’t exist and never to speak to anyone about being there.
TAKING ON THE BRITISH MILITARY
JC: In the book you talk about your colleague who was with you in the hostage situation receiving a medal, whereas your very pivotal role was ignored. You ended up taking legal action against the military after their refusal to acknowledge your part, both in your own service records as well as the military records in general. Tell us about that.
RS: The difference was now I was an educated, confident woman. I wasn’t going to accept that. I had spent my whole life trying to bring about justice for others. What sort of hypocrite would I be if I didn’t stand up and get that justice for myself now that I had been so personally aggrieved and discriminated against. After eighteen months of trying to resolve this, after coming up against closed door after closed door within the military, I had to take the last option which was to mount a discrimination case against the military and the government. I knew I had to do that if things were ever going to change.
JC: You are now in the corporate speaking and coaching space. How are you enjoying that?
RS: I feel very privileged to have a profile and to be able to use my voice to perhaps inspire, to motivate and to help people. I love it just as much [as my law career] but in a different way I guess, which is a revelation because the law was what defined me. Who knew ten years ago that I would write a book and that book would become a best-seller, and that people would have a wonderful, overwhelming response to that book? Who knew that it would send me on the path of speaking all over the country and overseas, and doing deeper work with people in resilience, leadership and equality.
JC: Is this a long term plan?
RS: I’d like to keep going because I feel that I am able to reach and help people on a larger scale than perhaps just being a lawyer for one organisation. I am still keeping my hand in with the law. I do some tutoring and lecturing, some work with non-government organisations. But yeah, I can see myself doing this for quite some time. It’s incredibly rewarding.
ADVICE FOR OTHERS
JC: What would you say to others facing challenges?
RS: If you are going to move forward, if you are going to be the best version of yourself and realise your full potential, you have to do the work. One of the first things you need to do, you need to work out what’s holding you hostage and you need to name your captor. You don’t have to physically be held hostage in a war zone like I was. We are all held hostage by things in our lives, be it experiences, phobias, addictions, bullies, partners. We need to identify it, confront it and overcome it before we can move on. After we’ve done that we need to get in touch with what our passion is, what drives us, what that essence is, what gets us up in the morning, what and who really matters in our lives. There is so much we can’t control but we have a choice as to how we respond to things. Some people are more equipped to make that choice than others. If you’re not equipped, we need to self-monitor and say you know what, I can’t help myself therefore I am going to access it. I am going to get the outside help I need.
If you’re authentic, if you make decisions for the right reasons, and you are open to possibilities it’s amazing where the world can take you.
You can find out more about Rabia and her book Equal Justice here.
“There is so much we can’t control but we have a choice as to how we respond to things.”
~ Rabia Siddique ~