Executive PA Media talks to lawyer, retired British Army officer, former terrorism and war crimes prosecutor, speaker and author Rabia Siddique, about the importance of resilience in the face of adversity and how one person can effect change
If ever there was an Aussie battler it would have to Rabia Siddique.
Life has at every turn thrown her curveballs, and yet through her own perseverance she’s managed to keep her head above water, in times when most of us would surely drown.
At the pinnacle of her career, while working as a British Army officer, in a role she so desperately wanted, Rabia was deployed to Iraq and it’s here that her biggest injustice, as an adult, would occur.
The criminal defence lawyer who was appointed an officer of the British Army after she went on a community aid expedition to South American, supported by the Army, was three and a half years into her career when she was deployed to Iraq.
“It was incredibly volatile, but rewarding too because I had to establish law and order in their country. The tour was going well until about two thirds of the way when everything went pear shaped on 19 September 2005, and it wasn’t just that day, but it was in terms of the way I was treated and the reaction in the following weeks and months.”
That day Rabia was sent in to discuss the release of two British Special Forces soldiers, who had been captured and illegally detained while investigating the inﬁltration of the police force by Shiite extremists at the al-Jamiat, a police compound in the Iraqi port city of Basra.
Despite having no training in hostage negotiation and little combat experience, Rabia was ordered to negotiate their release because talks with the head of the UK brigade’s surveillance unit Major James Woodham broke down.
She visited the cell where the British soldiers were held, negotiated for the removal of their hoods and chains and a set of conditions for the men to be released into her custody. As the document was about to be signed the compound was stormed by a crowd who had been told by corrupt local police that the Special Forces soldiers were Israeli spies.
The soldiers were chained and blindfolded again and Rabia was taken to a tiny office where she was held hostage with Major Woodham, police officers, Iraqi elders and four British soldiers who had been captured while sneaking into the compound. During the crisis she had an AK47 pointed at her and believed she only had seconds to live.
After almost ten hours Rabia and five other officers were rescued by British Warrior armoured vehicles. They went on to a Hizbollah safe house rescuing the two British Special Forces soldiers who had been transferred there and were about to be beheaded.
Back at headquarters Woodham received a hero’s welcome and a standard de-briefing while Rabia was not debriefed and received no acknowledgment of the role she played.
Woodham was awarded a Military Cross for bravery in the al-Jamiat incident while Rabia’s name was left off official reports.
“I felt I’d suffered a great injustice. I was sent in to save to special forces soldiers and I was told to never speak of my involvement and I felt so betrayed, alienated and confused … it wasn’t until my court case two years later that I found out what had happened.
“The decision to write me out came from the British Prime Minister’s office and the day this hostage crisis was unfolding, there was an emergency meeting and they decided that to say a female foreign Muslim lawyer was sent in to save lives of British soldiers … was seen as a political embarrassment.”
“It was a room full of white middle-aged men and I really think if there were different people around the table they would have put a different voice through.”
In a ﬁght for justice she brought a landmark discrimination case against the UK Ministry of Defence, and won.
TRYING TO FIT IN
Things didn’t start easy for this South Australian. Growing up in Australia as daughter to an Indian Muslim father and Australian mother, Rabia always felt like the odd one out. She was taught to be quiet, to ﬁt in.
“It was the 1970s in Australia and that was just the way it was then. It was still a conservative time and we had just started seeing the beginning of Vietnamese immigration, but it was early stages .. it was indigenous or white Anglo-Saxons and so felt I felt like an outsider.”
Then a neighbour who she trusted sexually assaulted her and again she was made to feel like it wasn’t to be talked about.
“It made me aware that people’s lives can change overnight – and what happened with the neighbour and my parents decided it wasn’t something to speak about and that gave me a sense of being powerless, and feeling voiceless, and that was the seed and the inﬂuence in the ultimate decision to go into the law.
“When I matured and came into my own – I knew exactly what I wanted to do was to work in international humanitarian law and I knew the way to get there I had to cut my teeth and traditionally it was to specialise in criminal law.”
After 20 years of legal practice, Rabia returned home to Perth some ﬁve years ago.
“There was so much work to be done in equality and the leadership space .. I thought we’d moved on in Australia and to see that the culture and community had regressed and there’s a sense of entitlement and ignorance mixed with arrogance .. and overt racism and sexism. It stunned me and shocked me.”
She says it’s taken a long time to settle back here, but she wants to help create change and now spends her time as a humanitarian and speaker to ensure just that.
“I’ve been lucky to work with so many different aspects of the community and when I work with EAs and PAs I talk to them about this class of people that unfortunately aren’t and don’t lead and manage from a values point of view … they lead with a fallacy that the way they can rise up is by putting others down.
“I remind them don’t ever forget you have a sphere of inﬂuence as well … and we can all effect change and you can set the tone at work because a lot of decision makers rely on what you do. They have your ear and don’t underestimate the inﬂuence and power and voice you have.”
She says it’s important particularly for women to never sell yourself short and be aware of your essence and what drives you, and if you ﬁnd yourself in an environment of disconnect to your values, you have to ask yourself am I in the right place?
“That’s where the importance of good mentors come in, and while we’re getting better at networking, in terms of mentoring and creating opportunities for each other we need to work on that. There seem to be two types the women who have succeeded; some feel it’s a responsibility to help others, and then there’s those who close the door and say I had to do it hard you do it too. I don’t see that with men.”
Rabia says women are also sold on work life balance and “it sets us up to fail”.
“We need to understand that you can have it all, but not all at once. It’s about choices and priorities. From a practical point of view equality has to start in the home, so my husband is very supportive and hands on but he’s also in a full-on job, but we do everything as a team and we treat each other as equal.”
She says when she ﬁrst came back to Australia with her triplet sons, she thought it was about the lifestyle for the boys, but she’s realised you need to work out what is the best ‘harmony’ for you.
“I thought I had to stop my life and then I realised that it doesn’t make me happy and then thought how can I be the best parent and role model, so I need to be challenged and help and serve others and that’s a value I want to install in my children.
“My children are the centre of my world, but I don’t think it’s healthy for them to be all of my world.”