As Muslim Lawyers Mark the Close of Ramadan, Diversity in Focus

Muslims around the globe mark Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan today. And Muslim bar associations starting last month marked their first Ramadan in three years where they were able to gather members and the greater legal community in person due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Making up for lost time on face-to-face interaction, Muslim lawyers reignited their mission of mentoring new and first-generation lawyers.

The group’s April 19 legal community iftar dinner became an opportunity to reconnect with other affinity bar associations, said Zaheer Maskatia, president of the Capital Area Muslim Bar Association and a Department of Veterans Affairs attorney.

“My vision for CAMBA is as we grow our diversity within our group and as we improve the organization, also we’ll partner with other organizations, other minority bar associations,” Maskatia said. “It’s no accident that we have so many bar associations here as guests.”

Iftar is the dinner where Muslims break their fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan that this year spanned from April 2 to May 2, culminating in Eid al-Fitr.

The iftar is usually a fundraising event with a law firm or venue sponsor that welcomes local legal professionals of all stripes. CAMBA’s iftar was sponsored by Kirkland & Ellis LLP in downtown D.C. and attracted 100 guests, some who were members of sister affinity bar organizations.

Network Access

This year, being back in-person may have elevated the connection between members, said Shirin Afsous, a Greenberg Traurig LLP litigation associate.

This year’s iftar is the first she spent with others outside her family due to the pandemic, Afsous said. A member of CAMBA, she is also the president of the Iranian American Bar Association’s D.C. chapter.

“The pandemic has definitely hampered growth,” she said. “But the remote technology that became very available during the pandemic helped make virtual events much more accessible to law students and diverse lawyers because law students and diverse lawyers can access different events and programs regardless of where they’re located.”

Though the pandemic was rough without the in-person interaction, Afsous said the support she’s received in her Big Law experience has motivated her to go out of her way to support younger lawyers.

“Not having that confidence impacts every part of a young lawyer or law student’s life because if you feel like you can’t speak up, then you’re not going to,” she said. “That’s going to impact what work you get. It’s going to impact your relationships in the office. It’s going to impact how your colleagues interact with you. It’s going to impact negotiations, salary, advancement.”

A woman wearing a hijab stands outside the U.S. Supreme Court, Oct. 11, 2017 in Washington, D.C. after the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed one of two cases challenging the Trump administration’s effort to restrict travel from mostly Muslim countries.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Diversity Is Growing

Firms are much more diverse than they were 20 years ago, said Rahmah Abdulaleem, the executive director of the nonprofit Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. She started her Big Law career in 2000 and found herself the next year giving her firm what she called a “Muslims are great people” presentation after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I do think firms have come a long way in terms of acknowledging there are Muslims,” she said. But she added Muslim lawyers who started in the field in recent years are still not too far removed from cultural assimilation practices like having to use Americanized nicknames like “Mohamed being called Mo, Samir being called Sammy.”

Fridays, the Islamic worship day, were when Abdulaleem took time off for Jummah, the religious service at mosques where Muslims pray and an imam delivers a sermon. But if she had a lot of work, Abdulaleem would close her office door and listen to the service online.

Wearing a hijab or praying in her office as a Muslim in Big Law was not as big of an issue as being a Black woman, really a woman, she said. The concerns she hears from Muslim women may be an issue for other women in law, she said.

“It’s not something that affects just Muslims. All women feel uncomfortable when they’re in a room with a man,” she said. “As long as mostly men are in charge of law firms, you’ll have to deal with that as a junior associate since you’re stuck in a room, or a cab, with an unrelated male.”

In Islam, women and men are usually segregated in public settings such as the mosque.

By the time Abdulaleem left King & Spalding LLP in 2014, she said she remembers being the only woman left standing in her 60-member associate class that was about half women.

Few Role Models

Organizations such as the American Bar Association and the National Association for Law Placement that regularly collect identifying data on lawyers said they do not have data for Muslim lawyers. But many attorneys felt they didn’t have role models like them.

Immigrating as a toddler from Pakistan to the East Coast, Sana Siddiqi said she did not know any lawyers in the U.S. growing up. Siddiqi is a longtime government lawyer who serves as CAMBA’s social media and communications director. Like Afsous, she had family members who had been educated abroad. So, following the traditional American legal career path of attending law school to taking the bar exam to clenching the first job was something she had to research on her own, she said.

“We didn’t necessarily have lawyer representation in our Muslim communities that we were in,” she said. “I love being a part of an institution that can help provide these legal role models, or just mentors, to the community, so our younger generation can look at us and have more information.”

That information includes how to negotiate a salary as a lawyer in the law firm versus being a lawyer in a government agency, she said.

Representing the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia, Catherine Cone said the CAMBA iftar was the first of its kind she attended and made her aware of the common goals both groups have.

“For example, obviously professional development panels seem to be a shared point of interest, among other things,” Cone said. “First-generation struggles.” A housing attorney at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Cone said she identifies as a first-generation lawyer.

CAMBA, like other bar associations, assisted people impacted by the Muslim travel ban under the Trump administration in 2017. The group often helps pro bono clients who may not speak English or be newer immigrants, according to Maskatia, particularly when those clients are navigating the criminal justice system as a practicing Muslim or experiencing discrimination because they have a Muslim name. Food insecurity and poverty are also on the association’s radar, he said.

As an adjunct professor at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, Abdulaleem said she’s seen students during Ramadan she hadn’t seen since the start of the pandemic who are now practicing law.

“I think it’s very important for minority law students and minority lawyers have a sense of community, especially when we are a small percentage of the legal community,” she said. “When we have other people understand when we’re fasting, what it means to have your head covered, when you have different names people aren’t used to. I think having that community bar association and having those connections are so powerful.”