Breaking Racial Stereotypes

A Muslim woman has become the first hijab-wearing Deputy District Judge in the UK.[1] Practicing barrister Raffia Arshad, 40 a member of St Mary’s Chambers in Nottingham, was appointed Deputy District Judge for the Midlands circuit in May 2020.

“I don’t see it as a personal achievement, it is bigger than that” she said. “It’s a huge achievement for anyone from a diverse background.”  She noted that her appointment is “important for all women, not just Muslim women, but it is particularly important for Muslim women.”[2]

Judge Arshad has also said that, as a young girl, she feared her working-class upbringing and ethnic background would alienate her from the profession. The first person in her family to go to university, the mother of three has now practised law for more than 17 years and hopes to be an example of change in the UK’s legal field.[3]

She said she had “broken that stereotype” of what most people imagine judges look like and encouraged others, no matter what profession, to “aim high”.   “I almost feel a little bit detached from it being me. It has become more about making sure I am inspiring others, no matter what background they’re from.”[4]

In 2001, despite concerns from a relative regarding her decision to wear her hijab for a law school scholarship interview, she succeeded in getting into the Inns of Court School of Law. The mother of three later began practicing law from St. Mary’s Family Law Chambers, where she has worked as a barrister for the last 15 years. In addition to authoring a leading text on Islamic family law, her work primarily revolved around children’s law, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and other cases with specific Islamic law issues.

Her journey through law, however, was not without prejudice and discrimination, “sometimes on a daily basis.”  She recounts an experience entering a courtroom as a barrister, where she was greeted by an usher who was unsure of who she was. “Are you a client?” “No I’m not.” “You must be an interpreter?” “No I’m not.” “Are you here on work experience?” “No, I’m actually the barrister.”[5]

She told Metro news: “I have nothing against the usher who said that, but it reflects that as a society, even for somebody who works in the courts, there is still this prejudicial view that professionals at the top end don’t look like me.”[6]

“Don’t worry about what you look like, don’t worry about not fitting into the mould, break that mould and achieve what you need to,” she said.  Judge Arshad also said that although the judicial office and appointments commission were doing their “absolute upmost”, the judiciary “is still not diverse enough”.[7]

Judge Arshad highlighted how women could practice their religion and also succeed at the same time thus breaking stereotypes. One can only hope that her example has further motivated various other hijab-wearing Muslim women to excel in their respective fields and not let their religious identity constrain their career prospects.

There are hardly any hijab-wearing judges in the entire western world. Let’s hope with Judge Arshad’s appointment this will change.

Congratulations on your appointment Judge Raffia Arshad, may you continue to be an admirable example for not just Muslim professionals but all hardworking, determined dreamers around the world.

Najia Robbani is a trainee solicitor at Thompsons Solicitors LLP and a Committee Member of Society of Asian Lawyers

[1] The Independent (May 2020)

[2] The Metro (May – June 2020)

[3] The Times, Newspaper (May 2020) 

[4] The Metro (May – June 2020)

[5] The Metro (May – June 2020)

[6] BBC

[7] The Times, Newspaper (May 2020) 

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