Where are my black sisters? The intersection of religion, race and gender in the AAP legal community

15 June 2020

I am a hijabi (head-scarf wearing Muslim) Palestinian-British lawyer who has worked in the progressive Inquests/Actions Against the Police (AAP) field for the past 7 years. I started out as a paralegal, became a solicitor and am now a pupil barrister. I have met, or know of, many of the lawyers whose talent and (often unpaid) hard work props up this niche but vital corner of the legal system.  Working as an AAP lawyer is beyond rewarding and the people you get to meet, clients and colleagues, are inspiring. As a hijabi AAP lawyer, this area can also be isolating and unwelcoming at times.

I’ve grown used to being the only Muslim woman in the room. Beyond that, there have been so many little incidents highlighting my ‘otherness’ that it would take up a few pages to recount them here. On the more benign end of the scale, I have sat and smiled during a court break as a lawyer (with whom I had never spoken before) spoke to me out of the blue to tell me what a big fan they were of Malala Yousafzai. On the more hostile side, I have had a colleague talk in front of me about how worrying it was to see a lone Muslim woman at a gig she went to, because my colleague suspected that she might be there for a sinister purpose.

But if I have found it so, what then of my black Muslim sisters? What has been the experience of my Somali or Sudanese or Nigerian hijabi sisters who have hit Britain’s ultimate jackpot of being Muslim without the benefit of my beige skin, coloured eyes and middle-class white accent?

Well, I can’t tell you, because I have never met one.

I don’t just mean that in 7 years I have never come across a judge, or a QC, or a senior partner in a law firm. I mean I have never met a single black hijabi solicitor or barrister working in this progressive human rights legal field. Perhaps my experience has been unrepresentative. Take a look at the websites of the foremost AAP law firms and chambers and tell me if you think that is the case.

I can’t tell you why, but I can tell you it isn’t due to a lack of talented black hijabi sisters.

I was friends with black hijabi sisters at university who were talented, hardworking and eager to become lawyers. They never got a foot in the door, despite the benefit of a prestigious degree. Mentoring at school level, I have met many bright, articulate young black sisters who don’t make it into the prestigious universities. I don’t think that the experiences I have had once in the profession are irrelevant to the insidious atmosphere that excludes black hijabis, sitting as they do at the intersection of Muslimness and blackness.

I can tell you about the disparity this has created between the lawyers who populate our field and the clients most in need of our services. This gulf was most painfully apparent when I worked on the Grenfell Inquiry. The scale of the tragedy means that there are hundreds of individual participants, tens of organisational participants and probably close to a hundred lawyers altogether contributing in some capacity to the ongoing Inquiry. In terms of women victims and survivors, I would estimate that a majority, or close to a majority, were Muslim and a sizeable proportion of those were black hijabi sisters. I do not think that this demographic was coincidental to the treatment of the residents of Grenfell and the resultant fire. Over on the lawyers’ side of the Court, however, there was not a single black hijabi sister.

On the recent 3rd anniversary of Grenfell, I once again watched videos of the talented, eloquent and charismatic Firdaws Hashim, who died aged 12. I remember watching them for the first time and feeling the crushing weight of the loss of such a bright young spark. Her friend commented in one of the videos that she was so talented, she could have been anything she wanted when she grew up. But, in modern Britain, could she? Could she have become an AAP lawyer? The truth is, I have seen no evidence that our profession hires, supports or promotes women like her.

What does that mean in a profession which holds other organisations to account for systemic racism? What does it mean to be part of a legal community which advocates for the rights of women like Firdaws, but cannot seem to give them a seat at the table? Is there a link between these women being objects of, but not participants in, the legal system and the judgments I have read which are patronising or orientalist in their framing of Muslim women?

I am proud to be part of the AAP legal community and its wonderful tradition of progressive legal action advancing justice and human rights. In many ways, it exemplifies the best aspects of this profession. But there are difficult questions we need to ask ourselves. Chambers and firms alike need to recognise the scale of the problem. In my view, they need to approach diversity with greater specificity and more understanding of the nature and impact of intersecting identities. Until we consciously make space in our profession for black, working class hijabi women, we are not fully living up to the ideals that we espouse.

Mira Hammad is a pupil barrister at GCN Chambers accepting instructions in AAP, Inquests and Crime.

This fabulous artwork ‘Beyond the Veil’ is by artist Farah Sabhoon, who explores politics, faith, identity and her British, Mauritian and South African heritage through her art. You can find out more about her work at www.farahvisualarts.com.

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