First Hijab-wearing criminal barrister is appointed to the Queen’s Counsel

Sultana Tafadar, of No5 Barrister’ Chambers in London, has become the first criminal barrister who wears a hijab to be appointed to the Queen’s Counsel, which is one of the highest honours a solicitor can attain1. The award is grated to lawyers who have demonstrated exceptional ability in advocacy cases of substance, complexity, or significant difficulty or sensitivity in the higher courts of England and Wales2.

Tafadar, of Bengladeshi roots, was born and raised in Luton, London. She studied at University College London and was called to the bar in 2005. She also holds a masters degree in International Human Rights from the University of Oxford3. She received her Letters Patent – the official document denoting the award – at Westminster Palace on Monday 21st March 2022 and called the honour “‘surreal’ in light of the layers of challenges she has faced during her career” but is also delighted to have been admitted to the criminal bar4.

Being appointed to the Queen’s Counsel holds particular significance for Tafadar because she recalls seeing nobody like herself when she started out in the legal profession, particularly in the upper strata5. “Generally at the bar” she states, “there aren’t very many women wearing hijab, and you wonder, ‘Can you actually ever make it?”6. When looking at the recent report published by The General Council of The Bar in 2021 titled “Race at the Bar: A Snapshot Report”, key findings evidence this situation :

“barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds, and especially Black and Asian women, face systemic obstacles to building and progressing a sustainable and rewarding career at the Bar”7.

Such obstacles include workplace culture and pay gaps. For example, Black and Asian women at the Bar are four times more likely to experience bullying and harassment in the workplace than White men8, and when looking at racial and gendered pay gaps, Black and Asian women earn less than Black and Asian men, with Black women earning the least9. When it comes to the Queen’s Counsel (QC), the report findings show that Black and Asian barristers are under-represented in taking Silk. In England and Wales, there are only 5 Black British Female Queen’s Counsels and 17 male, and 60 Asian male QCs and 17 Asian Females10. According to Tafadar: “when you then break down these statistics further, in terms of hijab-wearing barristers that are Queen’s Counsel, there has only even been two11, and she is the first at the criminal bar. Raffia Arshad was the first hijab-women to be appointed Judge, in May 202012.

In discussing her own challenges the legal profession, Tafadar states that she faces “layers and layers of challenges” because hijab-wearing Muslim Women combine race, gender, and religious difference. Tafadar discussed similar workplace issues in 2012, when she explained that some legal chambers were concerned that women in headscarves might be perceived as less competent and more judgmental of clients13. She further argued that being rendered as less desirable to employers is because of the portrayal of Muslim Women in the media as victims or as problems14. When being interviewed by GB News, she challenged perceptions that wearing a hijab was a mark of inferiority for women or a lack in equality. As shown in the video below, Sultana Tafadar shared her own experience of wearing her hijab as “an expression of her relationship with God”, a necessary part of her faith, and not to do with inferiority or coercion.Tafadar hopes that “people see it as a sign of me executing my right to express my religious views and my right as a woman to choose what I wear”15.

Nonetheless , Sultana notes that it is “possible to overcome those challenges […] it is possible to shine”16, but also recognises that this is not the case for all women across Europe, particularly `France, where women are facing discrimination because of the hijab17 (see further Euro-Islam articles: “The never-ending debate on the hijab: Latest trends in Europe”, “Towards the Ban of the Veil for French Women under 18?”, “The reopening of French debate on veil: a national debate without any Muslims?”, and “French politicians react to UNHCR panel opposition to niqab ban”). In April 2022 presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has described Muslim headscarves as “uniform” “imposed by Islamists”18, and plans to make wearing a headscarf in public spaces an offence punishable by a police issued fine. Speaking to RTL radio, Le Pen explained that “people will be given a fine in the same way that it is illegal not to wear your seat belt. It seems to me that the police are very much able to enforce this measure”19. She also plans to use referendums, in an attempt to avoid constitutional challenges to her proposals on the basis that they are discriminatory and an infringement on personal freedoms20. President Macron has opposed this plan, stating that laïcité is not about banning all religious symbols in public, although he does hope that women would “let go of the veil themselves”21.

Sultana Tafadar is currently involved in a legal campaign to end the hijab ban in France. In late 2022 she will make the case to the UN that such bans by the French government amount “to sex discrimination, race discrimination and religious discrimination”22. It is sad and conflicting, Tafadar states, that whilst she can celebrate taking the silk wearing a hijab, other women are denied the opportunities she has. Diversity and representation are really important, she argues, adding that it can help more hijab-wearing women’s dreams of reaching the heights of the profession “become a reality”23.

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