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Lawyers in hijab

Lawyers in hijab

By Karin Derkley

Diversity Legal Biography Workplace 


Muslim women are steadily making their way into the legal profession in Victoria.

When Urfa Masood was appointed a magistrate in 2016, it was a breakthrough moment for Victoria’s Muslim community, and especially for its women.

The Sri Lankan born Ms Masood had been practising as a lawyer since 2003, working in criminal and family law.

“She’d done the hard yards at the Bar,” says Rabea Khan, lawyer at IBAC and on the committee of management of the Muslim Legal Network. “For her to make it up to the judicial level felt like another stage of our migrant history. It makes things seem more possible for the rest of us.”

Ms Masood and Ms Khan are among an increasing number of Muslim women making their way in the legal profession in Victoria.

Far from the stereotype of Muslim women as subservient or oppressed, these women are highly educated, outspoken and respected in their communities.

While the Muslim community is diverse, coming from South East Asia, sub-continental India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the Middle East and North Africa, each with their own cultural traditions, the professional ambitions of women are encouraged and supported across the community.

Women make up nearly half the membership of the Muslim Legal network, a support group for Muslim lawyers and half its committee of management.

If there’s any nervousness about women going into law it is from parents fearing their daughters may be discriminated against – especially if they wear the headscarf.

If they’ve had anything holding them back, it’s that they are the first in their immediate community to go into law, or because of potential employers fearing their visibility as Muslims will turn off clients.

Which has made trailblazers like Ms Masood so important – a visibly Muslim woman, respected as an equal in the justice system, showing those who come after her that anything is possible.

She has inspired these trailblazers who hope their success and visibility will encourage other young Muslim women to see that the justice system has a place for them as well.

Azmeena Hussain

In the summer of 2009, newly graduated from law school, Azmeena Hussain cut short a family holiday on the Sunshine Coast to rush back to Melbourne for an interview with a large plaintiff law firm. “Obviously I don’t sound like what I look like,” she laughs, her Aussie accent contrasting with her colourful headscarf. “Because when I turned up for the interview, the partner was taken aback. He spent the entire interview talking about my appearance and my religion, and said he didn’t think clients were ready to work with someone who looked like me.”

Happily, in a subsequent interview, this time with Maurice Blackburn, the partner saw her as an asset. She joined the firm at age 22 and is now a senior associate working in work related injuries.

Ms Hussain says she wanted to be a lawyer from the age of three. Her Sri Lankan-born mother was going through a traumatic divorce at the time, and the only time she appeared calm was after she visited her lawyer. “I told my Mum I’m going to be a lawyer so I can look after you in the future.”

She read everything she could about the law, did well at Sacre Coeur and went on to Deakin Law School. That holiday interview was the first hiccup in what had otherwise been a smooth trajectory into the profession.

Things have changed a lot in the years since she graduated, she believes. Even the firm that rejected her has since gone all out to boost the cultural diversity of its staff. But Ms Hussain says people are still sometimes confronted by her headscarf. “It’s a funny thing. I don’t even notice it, but a lot of people just can’t see past it. What they don’t realise is that I’m really just a very ordinary boring lawyer.”

Magistrate Masood’s appointment to the bench was a huge breakthrough in that regard, she says. “For the first time it felt like it was okay to be a visible Muslim woman and be respected as a professional in mainstream society.”

Ms Hussein says it’s important the justice system reflects the diversity of Australian society, and feels it is her responsibility to mentor young women coming up behind her. But she is looking forward to a time when she is no longer seen differently. “I’m looking forward to the day I’m no longer being thought of as the Muslim woman lawyer and cultural diversity is no longer a big deal.”

Fatoum Souki

When Fatoum Souki was preparing for her admission back in 2009 she wondered where on earth she would find a gown for the ceremony. “I was the only person I knew in my immediate community who had studied law.” At the last minute, Ms Souki remembered the only other lawyer she knew of – Urfa Masood, then a barrister. “I called her, she said yes and I drove over the night before to pick up the gown. It was such a relief.”

Knowing next to no one who worked in the legal profession was just one of many barriers Ms Souki says she faced becoming a lawyer. “I used to think: how am I ever going to make it? On top of being from the Western suburbs, I’m a female from a migrant community, Muslim and visibly so.”

But eight years down the track, Ms Souki has managed to push past those obstacles to build a highly successful legal career, first with the Financial Ombudsman and now with her own all-women law firm in the suburb of Newport.

Her firm Souki Lawyers has grown from herself as a sole practitioner three years ago to a busy suburban practice with two lawyers, two conveyancers, a migration agent and two full-time administrative staff.

There’s a constant stream of clients from both the local Muslim and non-Muslim community, men as well as women, looking for help with commercial and business transactions as well as family law matters, wills and estates and property law. “It’s all built up through word of mouth and hard work and good outcomes. My work speaks for itself.”

For women in the community, her firm has been a lifeline. “A lot of women who come to me say if you weren’t here we wouldn’t have gone to a lawyer, because the legal world is such a scary place for those women. I understand the cultural and linguistic difficulties they’re faced with – and I back it up with good legal knowledge and capabilities.”

Having forged that success, she is happy to have become a role model for an increasing number of young women in her community who are studying the law – and to allay the fears of their parents who are convinced that their daughters will never get a job as a lawyer.

“I tell them that in the law, you are dealing with intelligent people who are able to see past the mainstream media view of Muslims and look past the veil to the person. I tell them that if their daughters are committed enough and work hard enough, they will be able to get past those obstacles.”

Rabea Khan

Rabea Khan says her biggest dilemma growing up was whether to follow her dream of becoming a writer or her Dad’s recommendation she become a lawyer. “Pakistani culture puts a very big emphasis on following professions like the law, medicine or engineering – for women as well as men. My dad suggested that because I was good at writing and arguing, it might be good for me to try a law degree.”

In the end Ms Khan compromised, doing a double degree in law and communications at the University of Western Sydney. She quickly fell in love with the law. “I was always interested in human rights, and I really liked the idea that law could be used to help others and be a real change in people’s lives.”

Her parents were slightly less enthusiastic when her interests moved to criminal law. She was an advocate at the Redfern Legal Centre in Sydney before going to work at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. She moved to Melbourne last year to work in the criminal law unit of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and is now a senior lawyer at IBAC.

“My father probably would have preferred me to work in a top tier law firm, and my mum was a bit worried about me being in unsafe situations. But they were always supportive and understood that I need to do work that is meaningful or I lose interest.”

Even as a non-hijab wearing Muslim woman, Ms Khan says she sometimes still gets mistaken for the interpreter or even the client in court. She has also experienced the discomfort of being part of a marginalised and often ostracised community. “I’ve come across a lot of offensive views about the Muslim community, including that Muslims are overrepresented in the criminal justice system because of their religion. I’ve been told that I was one of the few good ones.”

Those who think there’s a contradiction between the Muslim faith and Australian law are misinformed, she says. “Islam is very clear that if you’re a minority living in another country it is a sin to break the laws of that country.”

Her biggest dilemma now is whether, as a successful lawyer who is also a devout Muslim, she can afford to start wearing the hijab. “People see the headscarf as a political statement. But it’s not – it’s a connection to your spirituality in your daily life. But I worry that if I wear it now, what if I’m treated differently and I am judged by the headscarf rather than being taken at face value – even though I’m still exactly the same person?” 

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