An Afghan women’s rights activist who arrived in the UK as a refugee having survived a Taliban assassination attempt is standing in a council election in the hope of giving back to the community that welcomed her with open arms.
Marzia Babakarkhail, 56, a former judge, believes if she wins a seat on Oldham Council in Greater Manchester it will send a message of hope to women and girls looking for female role models who defied the odds.
The outspoken campaigner told The National that fighting for vulnerable people, especially women, has been the hallmark of her work for decades – a passion that made her a target for the Taliban.
After narrowly escaping death when the hardline extremists tried to silence her, she arrived in the UK in 2008 as a refugee determined to rebuild her life. Fourteen years on, Ms Babakarkhail is hoping to win a seat on her local council to use her skills and voice to improve life for her community.
Women helping women
Born and raised in Pol-e-Khomri, a city in northern Afghanistan, she decided to pursue a legal career when she was 17 after taking inspiration from a local female judge. She went on to work as a family court judge from 1991 to 1998.
The day she took the job in her home city she became one of only 26 women judges in Afghanistan. After witnessing how the country’s legal system discriminates against women and favours men, she began to speak out against such injustice and set up the Afghan Women’s and Cultural Association (Awaco) to fight for gender equality. She also opened a shelter for divorced women in 1994, while the Taliban were in power.
Many had been cast out from their families due to the shame of a broken marriage and lacked the resources to provide for themselves and their children. Ms Babakarkhail enlisted the help of her female friends, who offered workshops to help the vulnerable women acquire useful skills and learn how to read and write.
While her endeavours earned the admiration of the women, it also drew the wrath of the Taliban. In a furious bid to silence her and bring an end to her efforts to empower women, the militants stormed and ransacked her family home while she hid in a back room.
“They’re just crazy about power, they don’t like women with power,” she said. “My work was not popular with the Taliban.
“They came into my house and tried to find me and shoot me. They were in my house for two hours.
“I never keep silent, that was the reason they came to kill me. That was the reason they were not happy with me, because of my work, my view or my passion.”
The threat was enough to make her and her family flee to Pakistan – but trouble followed them across the border.
Ms Babakarkhail was forced to flee her country but would not give up her passion for helping others and established a school for refugee children. She became a prominent and vocal critic of the Taliban, who tried to kill her in a hit-and-run in Peshawar.
Despite surviving the brutal assault, she spent six months in hospital and still suffers from her injuries.
New life abroad
The former judge arrived in the UK legally in 2008 and applied for asylum. While she was prevented from seeking paid work, she used her free time to volunteer and in 2009 was granted refugee status.
“When I arrived in this country I couldn’t speak a word of English,” she recalled. “I decided to learn the language because this country gave me safety, security and the power to have my voice.
“I have survived a lot of things. My journey here has not been an easy one.”
Ms Babakarkhail is a student at Oldham College, where she was awarded for her significant contribution to college and community life in 2015. The following year she was granted British citizenship. She also works as a part-time case worker for Labour’s MP for Oldham Debbie Abrahams.
The former refugee hopes to win enough votes in the Oldham Council election on May 6 to represent the Failsworth East ward. While acknowledging it would be a “big step” for a female former refugee from Afghanistan to represent the community, Ms Babakarkhail is determined to give back to the people who “gave me the power to have my voice”.
“My journey has not been an easy one. I want to give something back and I have a plan to tackle crime, keep the streets clean and work with elderly people. I will knock on people’s doors and ask them what’s going on.
“If the Taliban think they are succeeding and they finished us – no. We are still here, we’re still trying to work and trying to empower ourselves and empower women around the world.
“The Taliban can force me out of my country but they cannot force me to change my mind,” she said defiantly. “I believe I can achieve and fight injustice all of my life.”