By the Equity & Social Justice Portfolio
With respect to your educational background (Bachelor of Biomedicine at UniMelb) and other professional/personal experiences, what prompted you to join law school?
Zahraa first explained the reasoning behind completing the three years of biomedicine, “[My] parents really liked the stability that comes from [the medical field] and being a doctor.”
Her decision to study law was a complex one, with a mixed response from her family. “I think my dad’s experience with the law was very traumatic, especially in Iraq. He grew up in Iraq and he experienced the central Saddam regime, and he was put in prison for protesting against it.”
“So his experience with the law … scared him and he didn’t want that for us. He was scared of authority and politics, and what politics can do to you. … He just wanted something really secure, and he thought that saving lives would be the purest thing you can do in your life. That was his line of thinking.
“But, you know, you can never force something like that on someone who doesn’t want it. So, as much as I appreciate what he wanted for us and what he thought was best for us, it just didn’t really sit well with me. Instead of pushing me away from law and politics, [these conversations] actually made me love it. We would sit and discuss Middle Eastern politics and how it interacted with US politics, and it was super interesting for me. So, I think his messages have had the opposite effect of what he intended.”
Could you please recall what you thought of law school in your first few months?
“I came to law school with an optimistic outlook. I came from a cohort that I felt was very unaware of its surroundings. … You couldn’t have the kind of conversation that you can have with people here at the law school.”
Zahraa continued, “I really wanted to meet new people, and in the first few months that’s exactly what happened. So we did LMR, which was great because it was in-person. And I had Ian Malkin for LMR and Torts, who was just amazing.”
However, the law school environment did change in March 2020. “Then we moved to online. It was saddening, but not as bad as I thought it would be. I met a couple of people through my online classes, and now we’re still friends and we go out, which I didn’t expect to happen because I don’t really meet people online.”
How has coming to law school interacted with your life outside law school?
Here, Zahraa pointed to a case studied in Principles of Public Law as one of particular relevance, Plaintiff M70. She described what she felt was the difference between external pressures on the government, such as public protests, and internal pressures, by way of each individual lawyer taking action.
“We have done so much in terms of protests, yet so little has changed in the government. So, I think the change may need to come from the inside. We still need protests, and we still need to educate everyone and use protesting as an extra avenue of advocacy, but I think that to make further changes to the law, we have to tackle the system from the inside.
“The law subjects make me understand how everything works. Before studying, I never knew how parliament worked, and I never knew what the responsibilities of the executive government were. I think, slowly, it’s starting to be clear to me, and it has changed my opinion in the sense that I feel everybody has a responsibility to learn how parliament and the government works as it affects everybody in their daily lives.”
Are you involved with any student organisations? Why did you choose to join them?
“I would have loved to be a part of student organisations, but it has been such an overwhelming time with COVID forcing us to study from home and connect remotely in our first year of law school, something that may not be great for everyone. Coming back to face-to-face learning has also been challenging, with many of us second-year law students still trying to get the hang of balancing social life with study life. So I feel as though student organisations are something that I will definitely take up when I feel more grounded.
“I also want to mention that I feel quite alienated at times when student organisations run social events that are alcohol-orientated. It is an environment that I would not feel comfortable in since Muslims do not drink. I love socializing and making new friends, but unfortunately these events can really hinder me from doing that as I do not feel comfortable attending.
“As such, I have opted to participate in organisations that hold events that are not so at odds with my beliefs, such as the Muslim Legal Network (MLN). I feel much more at ease volunteering for MLN since I am able to relate to the other volunteers and ultimately benefit my community.”
How does your identity as a BIPOC person interact with your journey in law school?
“I’m only halfway into my journey in law school but it is clear that I differ from others in my cohort. I remember we had a class in Disputes and Ethics and the teacher put a hypothetical scenario to us in which we were to be the lawyers for a man who was claiming compensation (that he was entitled to) for something – I don’t exactly remember what. The teacher then said that the man had told us, the lawyers, that he had developed a terminal illness and this decreased the amount of compensation he was entitled to. The question put to us then was, do we disclose this to the other side? Or do we keep it to ourselves so that we are able to take that original amount. The poll showed that over half the class (70%) said that would keep it to themselves so that their client can get more money. Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big thing to people, but it was to me. I was shocked. My religion guides me, my morals guide me, and I would have definitely disclosed that new fact about my client. The teacher ended up informing everyone that we had a duty to disclose that new fact about our client.
“On another note, I really enjoy reading articles by people who aren’t white and I get really excited when I look at the reading guide and see one. Unfortunately though, we don’t really get assigned many and so I’m left to worry that I am consuming too much white academic literature and, therefore, gaining a very narrow perspective on the world and its issues. For example, Native Title this year in Property was taught by a white person. I feel that Melbourne Law School can do better.”
What are your thoughts on where you currently are in your journey to becoming a legal professional?
“I’m quite satisfied in the sense that I’ve gotten to the point where I can be in this part of law school. I am currently in my second year, and I know that while a lot of people already have paralegal jobs and are becoming really experienced, I am also doing my best and going at a pace that is suitable to me.
“I feel really lucky to do a legal internship at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness. It has been an amazing experience to be a part of the only Statelessness clinic in Australia. But I also feel as though I have so much learning to do, and this is an exciting prospect. While I am passionate about refugee law, I feel that I want to work in other areas of law too. I am also really interested in international law and I want to work for some international organisations.
“A lot of people, especially my parents, feel like ‘in this field, wearing a hijab will pull you back’, which is no surprise. But, I think that, slowly, we are starting to open up to the idea of Muslim legal professionals. I know some Muslim law firms at the moment have been opened up. There are not many, but there are a couple. It is inspiring to see solicitors wearing hijabs, but I want to go further. My ambition is further.
“Let’s take the issue of statelessness as an example. How do people become stateless? With a focus on the Palestinian issue, I want to work in the international field and on international policies to figure out the root cause of conflict. I feel that we need Muslim representation on the international stage in the West. We need Muslim voices being heard on issues that are affecting them directly.
“In terms of my journey right now, I am not entirely sure how I’m going to get to that point, and maybe I’ll look back on this interview having reached it and think ‘wow, what a journey’. Which is my hope. So, to answer your question, I think I’m satisfied, but I know there’s more work to do.”
Do you have any tips for other BIPOC students?
“Try to find others who are like you, and befriend them. I know I’m always open to being friends with everyone. And, also, try to meet people in upper year levels and befriend them, because they’ve got a lot more experience, they can tell you what subjects are great and what subjects are not, give notes, share opportunities. It is also good to talk to someone who shares your identity at law school.
“And start your exam notes early. Even start from Week 1, if you get the time. Or use the midterm break to summarize. I like to summarise my notes at the end of each week; I like to do this after completing the reading materials and lectures and going to classes and answering the questions. This way, I do not stress as much during SWOTVAC about exam notes.”