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From battling court cases for over 25 years to penning two critically acclaimed novels, criminal lawyer Abda Khan, 49, has spent her career working with victims of honour-based violence and domestic abuse in the UK. She is now taking these taboo topics from the courtroom to the bookshelves by using fiction to tackle issues such as rape and modern-day slavery. Here she explains how she is using creative writing to draw attention to largely suppressed topics within South Asian communities and the British publishing industry.
Bradford born lawyer turned author, Abda Khan, tackles taboos at the heart of the British South Asian community head on in her highly anticipated upcoming novel Razia.
Abda, who has dedicated her legal career to helping victims of rape, sexual violence and honour abuse, felt narratives like modern-day slavery explored in Razia were not represented in the UK’s contemporary literary industry.
She said: “I write books to empower women and the unheard voices that often go unrecognised in the UK literary industry.
“I think it is important to create a space in fiction writing where taboo topics can be discussed, as it can be a powerful tool to raise the profile of certain issues like modern-day slavery.”
This contemporary fiction details the experiences of a British Pakistani lawyer, Farah, who stumbles across a case about a domestic slave in London called Razia. Farah is determined to take up Razia’s plight and ends up in Lahore, Pakistan, where she is exposed to the underground world of debt bondage and seeks out human rights lawyer Ali in order to obtain justice.
Readers are quickly introduced to the feudal systems of bonded slavery, one of the most prevalent forms of modern day-slavery within South Asian communities. Bonded slavery or bonded labour is a generational issue, where a person is forced to work to pay off a loan taken out by pervious family members.
Abda decided to write Razia after she came across a BBC article about modern-day slavery, which inspired her to research in to bonded slavery/debt bondage in Pakistan and India. She realised there is no fiction in the UK that depicts the plight of bonded slaves and so decided that she will embark upon telling this narrative.
When the idea becomes a reality. Can’t wait for you to read my @unbounders novel Razia. Out 11 July! Pre-order at https://t.co/QGl4d8p6kF Details of book events coming soon. Watch this space! #newbook #modernslavery #humantrafficking #London #lahore #female #muslim #characters pic.twitter.com/NhYDdvdIIf
— Abda Khan (@abdakhan5) May 20, 2019
Bonded slavery primarily manifests within South Asian countries, like in the brick kilns in Lahore, and Sub-Saharan Africa through domestic labour and fisheries.
It is estimated that the number of modern-day slavery victims in Pakistan stands at 2.134 million, according to the Global Slavery Index. Those embroiled within the feudal system are forced to work in hazardous brick kilns to produce 1,000 bricks daily for little to no pay.
Findings from a recent report published by Anti-Slavery International revealed that the products produced by these indebted slaves are predominantly for domestic consumption, thus allowing bosses to overlook the international standards of working conditions.
Although the issue of slavery is explored within the realms of academia and research, Abda believes that fiction and the use of imagination can be a powerful tool that can be used to foster a debate around pertinent topics.
“A lot of people are not aware of these issues and many people in the UK haven’t even heard of the phrase bonded slavery , and I think the creative industry has a big role to play in bringing it to light because when you write a novel or a play I feel like you’re going to reach a wider audience than you would by simply publishing a report,” says Abda.
Abda Khan signing special copies of Razia at the Ubound offices
The front cover of Abda Khan's upcoming novel Razia
Abda Khan receives advance copies of her upcoming novel Razia
Abda Khan speaking at the British Islam Conference 2019 about the need for more Muslim voices in British fiction
After graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University in 1992 with a Bachelor’s in Law and having worked for number of firms across Yorkshire, Abda set up her own practice, Khan & Co Solicitors, in Birmingham in 1997.
It was her work as a lawyer where she came across women who have had to deal with complex religious, family and cultural barriers that inspired her to put pen to paper and channel the plight of the voiceless.
She said: “Five years ago a woman came into my office about a divorce, but when we started talking it turned out she had suffered a whole catalogue of abuse since she was a child.
“She had been raped as a teenager by a relative and her family had blamed her and brushed it under the carpet, a few years later she was forced into a marriage where she also suffered abuse.
“It was in her forties, while sat in my office crying, that she told me she finally found the courage to get a divorce because she wasn’t happy and hadn’t been since she was a child.”
For Abda this case and many others like this compelled her to write her debut novel Stained, which was published in 2016 and described by Booklist as a “contemporary Tess of the D’Urbervilles”.
Stained examines rape and the issue of family honour in South Asian communities. The novel’s protagonist is Selina Hussain, a British-born Pakistani teenager who is struggling to cope with her A-Levels after the death of her father. However, things take a dark turn after she is raped by a prominent member of the community. Out of fear of bringing dishonour to her family, Selina keeps her ordeal a secret.
Abda hoped that this novel would act as a vehicle to bring the problematic issue of honour-based abuse to the surface, where sometimes the family of a victim would either blame the victim or keep it quiet because they do not want people to know.
It is these hidden voices, like the ones depicted in Stained and Razia, that Abda has often engaged with while practising criminal law for over two decades. Yet, despite reaching out to an array of UK based publishers when Stained was first written she was told “there isn’t a market for a book like this”.
“I feel as if these issues don’t matter to the publishers and literary agents in this country, because for them it is about what will sell well.
“They’re very fixed in their ideas about what is mainstream and what isn’t. They were just not prepared to take the risk on it,” she says.
Although Stained was eventually selected by US based publisher Harvard Book Editions, Abda still felt narratives like Selina’s were not represented in the literary industry and contemporary British fiction.
On the back of the success of her first novel, Abda felt the need to continue to showcase unheard voices. After being told her first novel had no place in the UK fiction industry, Abda crowdfunded Razia with the award-winning publisher Unbound to put the power the back into the hands of the readers to let them decide what deserves to be published.
Razia will hit the bookstores on 11 July 2019 and will be stocked in WHSmith and Waterstones across the UK. It will also be purchasable in e-book form via Amazon.
To pre-order your copy of Razia click here.