Ashna Rashid: Raising the Bar to England and Wales
Ashna Rashid is a Kurdish lawyer and the second Kurdish-Iraqi woman to be called by her chosen Inn of Court. Despite many life obstacles and challenges, like navigating law school during the pandemic and overcoming imposter syndrome, she made her dreams happen.
I would like to share my unique story of becoming the second female Kurdish Iraqi barrister in England. I want to recount each chapter of my journey, from how I became interested in this noble profession, to how I fulfilled my dream of becoming a barrister. In doing so, I also hope to challenge the conformities that Kurds, (especially ones living abroad) have set for themselves in not striving for a stimulating profession. I urge other Kurds to raise the bar for themselves just as I did despite facing the all-too-common struggles of cultural conflicts, family disapproval, and (worst of all) self-doubt.
The term ‘barrister’ (broadly known as ‘lawyer’) is mostly unfamiliar to those living outside the UK and is quite often mistaken for ‘barista’. But no, barristers don’t make coffee for a living. They sure do rely on it though, take it from me.
To put it quite simply, a barrister is a person who is qualified to advocate in higher courts of law, and after completing all the necessary training, they have the right to an audience and represent clients in various courts of law. They advocate on behalf of a client and their roles differ depending on whether they work in the civil or criminal division.
Finding my Ambition Despite Life Constraints
Throughout my childhood, I became accustomed to the notion that women were subordinates in society. Especially in the Kurdish culture, there was a very clear-cut division and labeling of gender roles: men were the breadwinners, and women were the homemakers. Later on, I stumbled upon the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy which was developed by the renowned sociologist, Robert K. Merton. His key finding was that when others set an expectation/prediction for someone, it becomes a reality because it causes that person to behave in a way that reinforces the expectation that had been placed on them.
After understanding Merton’s framework of the self-fulfilling prophecy, it was a major wake-up call for me. This was because, throughout the majority of my life, everything had already been determined for me. Such as what I wanted to be when I grew up, where I could or couldn’t go, and what type of friends I could have, among other things. How was I supposed to have my own ambitions and dreams if I was so constrained in what I could do due to these expectations? I knew I had to find something I was passionate about so that I could be in control of my future, rather than conform to what was expected of me. I wasn’t going to fulfill the prophecy that women are subordinates and should settle to be homemakers.
Then I thought back to when I first moved to the UK at the age of 6. It was a whole new world for me. The first difference I pointed out was the vital importance of abiding by laws and how it was taken so seriously. For instance, something as simple as not wearing your seatbelt in the car and how you could be fined up £500 (around $677.64) was a complete shock to me. No way would the police ever tell you to wear your seatbelt in the car in Kurdistan, let alone fine you. In fact, from what I remember, they rarely wore it themselves. Although this may seem like a trivial observation, it was a defining moment for me. It showed me how rules and regulations can shape a country. Upon this realization I had finally found my ambition – I wanted to pursue a legal career.
However, when I was 14, I was faced with the most difficult form of advocacy before even considering becoming a barrister. The daunting process of having to convince my parents that no, I don’t want to become a doctor, I don’t have to become an engineer or a pharmacist. It comes as no surprise that in Kurdistan a career in law doesn’t have the same value and significance as it does in the UK. As a result, it was very difficult to convince them. Except, in the UK (and pretty much anywhere else), a legal career is a well-respected profession that carries a great deal of responsibility and necessitates years of hard work and dedication. Thankfully, after many debates and arguments, my parents finally agreed to let me study law at university.
Lesson #1: Don’t let cultural conformities or expectations limit your choices in how you live your life. Build up the courage to set yourself a life goal or ambition that you are willing to sacrifice your time and effort for.
Law School and Tackling Imposter Syndrome
Now that I had discovered my passion for law and persuaded my parents to allow me to pursue a legal career, I was faced with yet another challenge: navigating the strenuous process of law school.
When I was doing my A-Levels I knew that to become a barrister, I first had to complete a 3-year undergraduate law degree, called LLB Hons (“LLB”). Followed by a 1-year postgraduate degree, which is the Bar Practice Course (“the Bar Course”). Though, first and foremost, I needed to select a decent law school and my first choice was the University of Law (“ULaw”) in Leeds. I was eager to begin my legal journey and felt prepared to do so.
However, my academics got off to a shaky start as I didn’t manage to get the A-level grades for ULaw’s entry requirements. When I first saw my results, I recall thinking “That’s it, I’ll never get accepted. I’ll never be able to follow the legal career I’ve wanted for so long.”. Nonetheless, I decided to apply anyway and during my interview, I was open and honest. I told them my struggles and why I was unable to attain the required grades and they gave me an offer on the spot. In 2017, I began the LLB at ULaw and quickly became integrated into the community. In my second year, I was even featured in their 2019 prospectus (I’m on page 18!). By 2020, I finished all my exams and ended up achieving first-class honors. I later realized that ULaw offered me a place because they had faith in me, even when I didn’t have faith in myself, and they were right.
Mid-2020, I decided to do the Bar Course with a master’s degree. Receiving a first in the LLB boosted my motivation to go all in. Although this meant that it would make things even more difficult, and it did, a lot!
Due to the pandemic, all the classes were held online. The workload was overwhelming to the point I couldn’t keep up with it. I couldn’t make enough of a connection with my peers to express my difficulties and seek closure. Halfway through the course, things became worse. It began to wear me down and I found myself having a mental breakdown at the end of each week, wandering in circles, and asking myself “Why am I struggling so much? The others seem to be getting on fine. Maybe I’m not cut out for this?” It was like I had only just realized what I had gotten myself into, and I felt like I was a fraud.
Fortunately, I came across an article on LinkedIn, written by a former bar student from the previous year. She explained that she had struggled a great deal with imposter syndrome during her time on the Bar Course. Yet, she ended up achieving an “outstanding”, which is the highest achievable grade. It was a Godsend! It was as if someone had slapped me in the face. I wasn’t the only one feeling that way after all. If I made it on the Bar Course just like my peers, then surely, I was not an imposter or a fraud. It made me appreciate how hard I had worked for my spot on the Bar Course and how important it was for me to keep trying, no matter how demanding it was.
Lesson #2: Once you have set yourself a goal, push through and don’t give up, no matter how out of reach it may seem. Tackle your imposter syndrome even if you fail on the first try, keep trying.
A Dream Come True!
By the end of 2021, I had finished all my exams, including my masters, and managed to pass every exam on the Bar Course on the first try. I cannot even explain the joy I felt at the sight of my grade transcript. For once in my life, I was speechless. That rarely happens because I always have something to say, anyone who knows me can attest.
On the 25th of November 2021, I was called to the Bar of England and Wales by the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, a mandatory ceremony that appoints bar students as barristers. At the age of 23, I had finally made my dream come true. I attended the call ceremony with my wonderful mother whom I couldn’t do this without. But more importantly, I could have not done it without believing in myself. Sadly, it took me a long time to appreciate that because I was so used to criticizing myself at every opportunity I got. Nonetheless, I raised the bar for myself and in doing so I was called to the Bar. I now hope to continue my training and start off my legal career.
This brings me to the final lesson.
Lesson #3: Self-appreciation is vital. Remember to reward yourself for your efforts and achievements. If you believe in yourself, then so will everyone else.
PS – You might be wondering. Who was the first female Kurdish Iraqi barrister? Zerian Karim, who was called to the Bar 4 months before I was and whom I am so very proud to call my friend.