This is the first in a series of articles written by practitioners about the challenges faced by minority and women attorneys in the profession and strategies to meet those challenges. If you are interested in contributing an article to this series, please contact The Challenge’s newsletter editor, Tracy Prosser, at email@example.com.
I used to resent being asked if I was the translator when I walked into the courtroom. The first few court appearances were the hardest. As I introduced myself at the bench, I could feel the heat of the attorneys’ eyes on me as they paused in their work to look up and wonder, “She’s an attorney.” I felt incredible pressure to get it right. I quickly learned that I had to work much harder than some of my colleagues to gain acceptance or be considered their equal.
It was 1996-97 and I was a newly licensed attorney in Chicago. I am an American Muslim woman of South Asian descent. I am also part of a much smaller minority group: American Muslim women attorneys who cover their hair as a religious duty (commonly referred to by the Arabic term, hijab, a concept that incorporates modesty). When I graduated in 1996, I knew of no Muslim women attorneys who observed hijab. Thus, I had no role models who could completely relate with my experiences.
Over time, I have realized that it is just as much of a learning process for those around me to accept me as an attorney as it is for me to be a pioneer of sorts. Time and again, as I overcame the obstacles, I found that I gained acceptance, respect and friendship.
I have heard some unnerving stories of judges ordering Muslim women (non-attorneys) to remove their scarves in the courtroom. Thankfully, the judges and justices I have appeared before have always been courteous. The same has been true, for the most part, of my colleagues over the years. In my first position out of law school, I was amazed that some of my colleagues reacted more strongly than I did if an inappropriate comment was directed at me or if I was treated differently. I just accepted that it would take people longer to feel comfortable around me since I looked different than them. Yet the support of my colleagues was encouraging and comforting for me.
One of the many supportive people I have met is a judge who called me to discuss my future career goals. At first, it was a nerve-wracking moment when he called me into his chambers. I quickly ran a mental check over the day’s proceedings to figure out what I had said or done wrong. As it turned out, he wanted to tell me that he was pleased with my work and encourage me to set high goals for myself. It was such a wonderful surprise! Moments like these have, over the years, helped to convince me that I belong, that I have a place in this profession, that I can be accepted and treated as an equal.
But I have had a few disheartening experiences as well. Once I was covering a status call for a male colleague and did not know the opposing counsel. The attorney offered no apology for a very late arrival and was rude and dismissive. When I told her I was there for her case, she said, “What are you doing here? Go sit down!” She was equally dismissive at the bench. I remained calm and courteous but left thinking that she was in dire need of cultural diversity training. The incident was all the more troubling because the attorney was a woman. We have all heard stories about women attorneys being treated like secretaries until their male counterparts learn that the woman is really opposing counsel. But for a woman to treat another woman that way was all the more disturbing. She appeared to have a very difficult time accepting that a practicing Muslim woman could belong in a courtroom as a legal practitioner.
Such incidents, however, have been the exception for me. I no longer resent being asked if I am the translator in the courtroom. I simply accept it as a personal challenge and move ahead. These incidents motivate me to go the extra mile and be as prepared as possible. I have learned that if I work hard, I can earn the respect of other attorneys and judges.
Hard work and proving your worth are part of the American way. No minority group has been exempted from this rite of passage. Those of us who are part of more than one minority group simply have a few extra hurdles to overcome. Even with extra hurdles, however, my experience is unworthy of comparison to the historic suffering of African American attorneys. Who am I to complain when African Americans know more about mistreatment than any other American group?
The extra hurdles help make me a better person and a better lawyer so I choose to consider them blessings rather than impediments. I cover my hair, not my mind. And as long as I keep my mind open to the world, work hard and adhere to the golden rule, there is hope that I and other Muslim women who cover their hair will be welcomed with familiarity as equal Americans.