Bradford lawyer, Asma Iqbal, has been one of the driving forces behind Azeem Rafiq’s racism complaint against Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC).
Mrs Iqbal, a partner at Chadwick Lawrence law firm in Leeds, backed Mr Rafiq, with full support from the firm, to pursue his claim of institutional racism against YCCC after watching a TV interview where he discussed his abhorrent experiences with the club.
Speaking exclusively to Asian Standard, Mrs Iqbal has opened up about why she decided to challenge YCCC on behalf of Mr Rafiq and the impact this has had on her own mental wellbeing.
After completing her law degree at the University of Huddersfield in 1997, Mrs Iqbal began her career in law in Bradford before moving to a firm in Leeds and then joining Chadwick Lawrence Solicitors. “In school, I liked being able to use my skills in advocacy to represent and fight for what I believed in.
“I wanted to study law, so I went to the University of Huddersfield, completed my exams, and started my training contract with a firm in Bradford.”
With a career spanning over twenty years, Mrs Iqbal’s speciality is in insolvency – working with companies who are in financial difficulty, a far case from her work with Mr Rafiq.
Mrs Iqbal said: “I don’t often work on discrimination or racism cases as my area of expertise is in insolvency, but my firm has an excellent employment team, with whom I worked very closely with on Mr Rafiq’s case in the Employment Tribunal.”
Mrs Iqbal took on the case because of the investigation into YCCC and the unfairness that she spotted with Mr Rafiq’s attempts of reporting racism and bullying within the organisation. She said: “My involvement was to support and help him with the investigation for institutional racism. The employment case came later.”
Revealing the allegations to international and British media outlets in September 2020 and submitting a legal claim a few months later, it took a full year for the summary of the report made by YCCC to be published and only a redacted version of the report was released following a Court Application.
On Wednesday 10 November, The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee has confirmed that they have received the full report from YCCC and that it has been shared with Mr Rafiq and his legal representatives. The parliamentary enquiry is set to take place on 16 November 2021.
The process to get YCCC to take responsibility for its failings in dealing with racist and bullying behaviour was long, and Mrs Iqbal said that there “was no way of preparing for a case like this” and that it was a “rollercoaster” for both herself and Mr Rafiq.
Mrs Iqbal went on to say: “You can’t prepare yourself for a case like this. I know when people make allegations against any organisation for institutional racism, there is historically not many precedents of success, so I guess you go into such a process knowing that it is going to be tough and that there will be challenges.
“When my client first made a disclosure alleging bullying and racism, My client he was not believed. This was therefore not the first time that Mr Rafiq had spoken out about the issue. This case was going to be a challenge, I was not reinventing something new, it was already there and had been reported by Azeem Rafiq through every channel that he could think of within the organisation I was now acting against.”
Bringing YCCC down was not something that Mr Rafiq and his legal team set out to achieve. Mr Rafiq opened up initially to change the way racism is dealt with within YCCC, as to which he was looking for a change in culture and to ensure this did not happen again to future generations. They decided to proceed with legal proceedings when YCCC refused to take responsibility.
Mrs Iqbal said: “I am a partner in a Yorkshire law firm, and we take pride in the fact that we are known as ‘Yorkshire’s legal people’ so dealing with a case like this in a dignified manner was at the forefront of my mind, it had to be – and I think we’ve done well in achieving that.”
She also added: It was never about me or us. It was about the bigger picture – achieving the culture change that we so desperately wanted to achieve.”
The case, which was settled out of tribunal, has set a precedent in Yorkshire, that sportsmen and women who come forward about their experiences of racism, abuse, and failings by the organisations that they play for, will be believed and their voices will be heard. “The issues weren’t limited to one
county”, says Mrs Iqbal. “We have to recognise that the issues exist among other cricket clubs and counties, at whatever level.
“I am hoping that what we have achieved here sets a good platform for people to feel like they can come forward and speak about their experiences ”.
“I’m also hoping that organisations hold up their hands, take responsibility and fix the issues of racism as and when they are highlighted. Not accepting that racism exists in their organisation is what becomes the issue.”
Mrs Iqbal is open to representing other people who have gone through a similar horrific experience as Mr Rafiq. She said: “Of course, I’d be open to helping anyone who has experienced racism in an organisation.”
Lord Patel said that there will be an opportunity for people to come forward anonymously about their experiences at YCCC through a hotline that they are opening on Monday 15 November.
In a statement, Lord Patel said: Setting up an independent whistleblowing hotline will allow there to be a safe space for people to come forward, secure in the knowledge that their complaint will be taken seriously, and I am happy to say that we have been able to put this in place within the week.”
On 30 September 2021, Mr Rafiq’s sister, Amna Rafiq has also made a complaint against YCCC. Not being able to speak on this specific issue, which has only recently come to light, Mrs Iqbal states that racism is prevalent in many sports. She said: “We’ve known about concerns of racism and how our players feel and how they have to cope with it in football for decades.”
“In cricket, it is a bit different. It has always been there, but it has not always been at the forefront of discussion. When I was doing my research, I went right back to the earliest callouts of racism and that was from Imran Khan, the now Prime Minister of Pakistan, in the 1990s.”
Mrs Iqbal comes from a working-class family, where her dad was the sole breadwinner for her and her seven siblings and mother growing up. She said: “I don’t come from a privileged background so I know how hard parents work to support their children in sport and other areas at their own expense with limited resources. Ultimately, when a child is not selected on grounds of merit it is demoralising for the child and their respective family..”
When working on Mr Rafiq’s case, Mrs Iqbal would receive multiple calls from parents whose children have been excluded from opportunities because of their background, which Mrs Iqbal describes as “heart-breaking”.
The solution to be inclusive and support young people in cricket is to look at the selection process at the youth level. “There is a lot of work to be done, but the grassroots level can create a level playing field and much work is needed in this area.”
Taking on this monumental case has not been easy on Mr Rafiq or his legal team. Mrs Iqbal said: “Balancing work and personal life has been difficult, even more so as a woman.”
“I know as women, we try to be the best lawyer, the best wife, the best mother but then you think I’m not getting any of that right, I’m my own self-critic. However, you’ve got to make and own the situation you are in and know that you are getting some of it right, you are not going to get it all right all the time.
“I couldn’t do my job without my husband’s support. Where I have had those moments of extreme stress and I have not been able to give home life that dedication that I would have liked, he has stepped in and taken that pressure away and I am so grateful for that support.”
When not working on legal cases, Mrs Iqbal dedicates a significant portion of her time to voluntary work which she believes is a “responsibility of each of us when we are blessed to be in fortunate positions, that we don’t forget our roots and give back to society.”
Mrs Iqbal has been part of an initiative created by The Prince’s Trust, The Mosaic Charity, to mentor school children, since 2015 and is also a corporate partner and ambassador for One in A Million Free School, supporting children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Asma has also been part of the Covid Response Team and the Marcus Rashford Free School Meals Initiative and previously sat as a board member for Wakefield Bondholders, a non-profit organisation that supports local businesses in Wakefield and the five towns. Asma also sits on the BAME Committee which is part of the WNY of Commerce.