A woman who has been one of the UK’s first hijab-bearing judges says she needs young Muslims to think they can do anything they set their minds on.
Raffia Arshad, 40, began to dream of a career in law when she was only 11 years old – but grew up questioning whether there would be ‘people who looked like me’ and whether a working-class woman from an ethnic minority background would be able to make it into that world. Nearly 30 years on, she is not only a successful barrister, but was selected last week to be a Deputy District Judge on the Midlands circuit.
The latest statistics from judges who reported their knowledge to the Judicial Office indicate that just 205 (6 percent) are from a BAME history, out of 3,210 in courts throughout England and Wales. As of April 1 , 2019, just 1.013 (31 per cent) are male. Speaking to Metro.co.uk, the mum-of-three said she now needs to ‘to make sure the sound of diversity is heard loud and clear’.
She said: ‘It’s definitely bigger than me, I know this is not about me. It’s important for all women, not just Muslim women, but it is particularly important for Muslim women. ‘It’s odd because it’s something I’ve been working towards for a number of years and I always imagined I’d be absolutely ecstatic when I found out. ‘I was happy, but the happiness I’ve had from other people sharing this is far greater. ‘I’ve had so many emails from people, men and women. It’s the ones from women that stand out, saying that they wear a hijab and they thought they wouldn’t even be able to become a barrister, let alone a judge.’
While Raffia is a powerhouse with a 17-year career behind her, she admits she still sees ‘sometimes on a daily basis’ bigotry and bias. The Midlands-based judge, who grew up in West Yorkshire, endured one of the darkest periods in her adult career after her own family member told her not to wear her hijab for an interview for a scholarship at the Inns in Court Law School in 2001. Her prospects of performance would decline significantly if she wore it, her relative would alert her – but Raffia declined to yield under heat.
She said: ‘I decided that I was going to wear my headscarf because for me it’s so important to accept the person for who they are and if I had to become a different person to pursue my profession, it’s not something I wanted. ‘So I did, and I succeeded in the interview. I was given a considerable scholarship. I think that was probably one of the most profound first steps in my career. It was a solid “yes, you can do this”.’
Raffia was called in 2002 after studying in London, and obtained pupilage in Nottingham, entering St Mary’s Family Law Chambers in 2004. She has taught children in private law, compulsory marriage, female genital mutilation and other situations of Islamic law problems over the past 15 years, and has been the publisher of a leading text of Islamic Family Law. Yet though her reputation speaks for itself, as she steps into a courtroom she admits she often gets often confused for a customer or translator.
She told Metro.co.uk: ‘Recently, an usher asked: “Are you a client?” “No I’m not.” “You must be the interpreter?” “No I’m not.” “Are you here on work experience?” “No, I’m actually the barrister”.’ ‘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.’ She added: ‘I think one of the things that holds women back is Imposter Syndrome. There are many times I’ve been in a courtroom and I suddenly think: “Am I good enough?”’
With bigotry prevalent in certain areas of society, Raffia claims that young Muslims would be motivated to pursue their aspirations if they see more individuals in every career that looks like them.
She said: ‘The judicial office are doing their utmost to promote diversity and at the time they appointed me they didn’t know I was going to be one of the few hijab-wearing judges out there. I’ve been appointed on merit, not because I wear a hijab.‘ But now it’s up to me to be that voice for them, to make sure the sound of diversity is heard loud and clear and that it gets to the appropriate places.’
The Joint Heads of St Mary’s Family Law Chambers said they were ‘delighted to hear of Raffia’s appointment, which was ‘richly deserved’. Vickie Hodges and Judy Claxton said: ‘Raffia has led the way for Muslim women to succeed in the law and at the Bar and has worked tirelessly to promote equality and diversity in the profession. ‘It is an appointment richly deserved and entirely on merit and all at St Mary’s are proud of her and wish her every success.’