In our series of interviews with inspiring women photographed by Kate, Kirsten Lester speaks to Aklima Bibi, 49, who survived two forced marriages, domestic abuse and even death threats to become a successful businesswoman, philanthropist and public speaker for human rights. She was the first Bangladeshi woman to win a court case against her abusive husband in the UK. Chatting about everything from motherhood, role models and finding inner strength, we are, quite frankly, blown away by Aklima’s bravery and determination…

What are you most proud of?

My education. I was prevented from having one for years after I was forced into marriage at 17. I was even beaten up for studying – I almost lost an eye. I moved to the UK from Bangladesh when I was nine and as a woman in my community, you can’t make decisions; you can’t do anything. You’re groomed from the day you are born, and for many years, it was like being in prison. It was living hell. I wanted to escape but as a young girl, faced with pressure from my family and my community as a whole, I felt there was no way out. My husband would even follow me into the toilet to check I wasn’t studying. At one point, it got so bad, I attempted suicide. Eventually, after fighting for divorce in court from two abusive forced marriages and surviving death threats, I managed to start studying to become a human rights lawyer. It took many years, but by 2009, I began gaining qualifications in law and journalism.

Where does your inner strength come from?

I’ve had to survive for my three kids – they come first, no matter what. I have a son from my first marriage who is now a father himself, and two daughters from my second marriage, who are now 17 and 18. I’ve had to protect my daughters in particular – if anything had happened to me when they were growing up, I knew they would’ve been forced into marriage with their cousins, as I was. My strength also comes from surviving what I’ve been through – I am a human being; a woman and I’m not going to be put down.

How do you ensure your daughters’ happiness and freedom?

I have fought for their freedom and I don’t hide things from them. They get involved in my rescue mission work for victims of forced marriage and domestic abuse and help out at my legal consultancy. I hope they will take over my business one day. If they want to do something, I tell them to go and do it, as long as they are respectful and keep their dignity. I make sure they know not to allow anyone to put them down. I tell them, if you want to achieve something, you go and get it yourself.

You’re a strong role model for them.

Yes, I am not ashamed of the BBC documentary I filmed [Aklima spoke to the BBC’s Inside Out programme in 2016 about her abusive forced marriages] or the book I am publishing about my story – my girls are proud of me. If their schools ask who their role model is, it’s not a celebrity, it’s their mother. They say that their friends see me as their role model too. I don’t tell people what to do, but if women are inspired by what I’m doing either through social media, hearing me speak in public or through reading my book, and think ‘well if she can do it, so can I’ then I have achieved something.

You booked your photoshoot with Kate for yourself and your daughter, Amira. That’s a lovely gesture as a mum.

I needed photography for my branding and Amira is about to start her law degree and has also taken up acting, so she wanted headshots. It was an investment, so I booked us Kate’s premier package – the Full Day Studio Elegance and Branding shoot. We had our hair and make-up done by Niki, Kate’s professional make-up artist and we both felt amazing – it was so nice to be pampered. Kate took our individual photos with different backdrops in her studio and around St Albans – she gave me a list of wonderful restaurants where we shot, as well as outside locations. She also photographed us in different scenarios according to the images we both needed. We had photos taken together too; in fact, when my family arrived to pick us up, Kate took some group photos – it was a family event in the end! St Albans is a lovely setting and it was a good excuse for a fun day off – otherwise it’s just work, work, work!

What was your reaction when Kate sent you the photographs?

The photos are so professional. I’m using them across my different platforms – my social media pages, my book launch publicity, my website. Because my work involves many different things, I’ve been trying to narrow it down. My website is 90% complete but the photographs give it a more professional look.

Has having professional photos taken given you the impetus to focus on your personal branding?

Yes, it has. It was so worthwhile. Before, I was so busy, I didn’t get time to update my website but now, with the photos, I can actually finish it. It’s given me that motivation to pull everything together professionally and promote my business. Also, I am about to sign off the proof for my book and I need professional photos for that too, so it really was perfect timing!

What are your plans and ambitions for the future, Aklima?

I want to be able to support my kids, help them to achieve their goals and dreams, like I’ve achieved mine. With my business all set up, I’d like to work remotely. I love travelling and learning about different cultures, trying different food; there are so many countries and people I want to visit but haven’t because I was always too busy.

Has Covid had an impact on your plans?

I’m a workaholic so before Covid, I never stopped to think. During lockdown, I had time to reflect on my life and consider what I want to do. That’s when I decided to find a way to combine business with pleasure and free up some time to travel. I know it won’t happen tomorrow because of the travel restrictions, but I’ve got all these plans. My ambition has always been to create positive change in the world and wherever I am, I will continue to do that.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

In my early 20s, when I was sectioned after attempting suicide due to the constant domestic abuse, I was made to feel like I was crazy within my community. My GP at the time, he said to me, ‘You’re not crazy. That’s what they want you to think. I’ve seen this before, over and over – don’t allow them to do that.’ He had me discharged from the mental health ward and gave me anti-depressants. That’s all he did. It seems like the smallest thing, but his words helped inspire me and gave me the strength to start my journey to take on my abusers and get to where I am today.

Aklima and her daughter booked the Full Day Branding Shoot Package - all photos are taken by KL CREATIVE . Please click here for more information or to drop Kate a message you can email or call on 07837579236

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