Perspective: being a Muslim woman at the Bar

Thu, 28 Nov 2019

As the Bar Council marks 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which first allowed women to practise as lawyers, Nabila Mallick of No5 Barrister’s Chambers, speaks about her experience as a Muslim woman at the Bar.

When I was at Bar school I was one of four Muslim state school-educated women - there were 1,500 students mostly male, white public school and Oxbridge. At the time only 23 per cent of the profession were women and only a very small fraction of them at the Commercial/ Chancery Bar. Unsurprisingly, there were very few ethnic minorities, let alone Muslim women.

I knew each of the four Muslim women studying alongside of me; we were attracted by our mutual experience of the struggle in obtaining pupillage and other difficulties.

At that time the profession was under scrutiny for the lack of BAME barristers, and Journalists, particularly the BBC which was making a documentary on the experiences of BAME law students, were actively seeking out stories of prejudice, unfortunately there were many.

It was also at a time where there was open contempt shown to BAME law students because of ‘positive action’ on the part of some chambers. I remember tearing down a poster about a debate on nepotism at the Bar, where a student had scrawled graffiti suggesting that the advantage was not that of nepotism but that of the BAME – I summarise as the language used was far more colourful.

The adverse media attention that placed our profession under the spotlight, seemed more helpful to Muslim men and not so much to women, who were often seen as being unnecessarily difficult in not wanting to conform. For instance, one of us four, would be stopped from entering the Inns dining hall each and every time she attended, because she insisted on wearing trousers, which she wore for reasons of modesty. At the time, the hijab (which I stopped wearing in my teens) was not ‘trending’ as Muslim women chose to be less conspicuous, otherwise who knows what difficulties that would have caused!

I was reading Helena Kennedy’s “Eve Was Framed” that year – a book of how women are discriminated against in their dealings with the law through ‘a web of prejudice, privilege and misinformation’ - where she recounted the stories of her early days, I could not help but ‘identify’. As an example of how triviality can reveal deep seated prejudice, she recounted a tradition at Grays Inn - of which, like her I am member - where on Grand Night dining, it was open to male members to take issue with female attire, leading to skirt measuring and sanctions if the skirts were too short. If the tradition had continued with the same enthusiasm, I wonder how Muslim female pupils would have fared? After all, the Inns can still feel a bit like a gentlemen’s club.

The real challenge for me, like many young Muslim women was the pupillage interviews, and to get the panel to engage with my life experiences, which invariably was so very different to their own.  The only two offers for pupillage were from the only Chambers, where the panel had a female member (in fact it has been the women at the Bar who have been the pall bearers for increased BAME representation). It seemed to be that they were impressed by my having worked in various jobs to support myself throughout University. This was what set me apart from others!

Pupillage itself, was a time of curiosity and fear in equal measure. Sitting up on the High Court Bench with L J Otton during marshalling and dissecting cases in Socratic style with my pupil masters, as they were then called, were memorable moments. However, I hated having to attend afternoon tea in a room of all men, where a female member might occasionally pop her head around the door.

Drinks evenings were worse, I tired of the same old questions about why I did not drink, was it for religious reasons? My auto response that I did not like the taste of alcohol,  was to defuse any further questioning around my faith, such was my fear of being “othered”, particularly because I was the only female out of four pupils for my first six months.

Although my second six pupillage, at a very different set of chambers meant there were slightly more female barristers, I was nevertheless  disadvantaged in not being able to participate in afterhours drinks. I found the only armour I had in increasing my ‘likeability’ was to work as hard as I could!

Pupillage was a difficult time for me, filled with subliminal chauvinism. The worst of it was not even the intrigue that my romantic life held, it was the questioning of whether I could ‘forge’ a career in such a competitive profession, which invariably led to self-doubt.  

I do not know if I was the first Muslim woman to undertake pupillage at the Chancery/ Commercial Bar, I am told by the Bar Council that such data was not collated, which surprised me because of the so called ‘drive’ for improving equality  in the profession over the last 25 years.

Looking through a list of members at the Chancery/ Commercial Bar I noticed a distinct lack of Muslim women. Perhaps it is as Helene Kennedy suggests, whilst writing about women facing iniquitous judgments in legal proceedings in her post cursor ‘Eve Was Shamed’, that progress has ‘halted’? - It would seem so!

I am glad today that I, like many Muslim women, am enjoying successful practice, struggling through the unsociable hours of work as a barrister but balancing it with family life, recognising the importance of our participation in a profession that serves a broad community and to which we have so much to contribute.

Many Muslim women are state school educated. My own comprehensive of over 1,700 pupils ranks poorly on the exam leagues but reported recently in getting a record number of students (many of whom were BAME girls) into the high IQ society Mensa.

We must be conscious not to have restrictive selection criteria that might indirectly discriminate and try to identify that ‘other’ quality. In my case, I am told it is that I combine the intellect with strength, passion and sensitivity. I was fortunate to have a senior barrister (he knows who he is) tell me that I was going to make a good barrister and to never give up no matter how long it took.

I never gave up!

Nabila Mallick is a member of the following groups at No5 Barristers’ Chambers, practicing in the field of Employment and Public Law (immigration, Community Care, Education, Regulatory law)

 at No5 Barristers’ Chambers.

To view her profile please visit: https://www.no5.com/people/barristers/nabila-mallick/

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