Hijab-wearing criminal barrister calls QC appointment ‘surreal’

A hijab-wearing criminal barrister, believed to be the first to be appointed Queen’s Counsel (QC), called the honor “surreal” in light of the “layers” of challenges she has faced during her career.

Sultana Tafadar received her Letters Patent – the document denoting the award for excellence in advocacy – at the Palace of Westminster on Monday.

That was followed by a second ceremony, with her peers, at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Ms Tafadar, who was born and raised in Luton and has Bangladeshi roots, was called to the bar in 2005 and said she later became the first hijab-wearing female criminal barrister.

She said she is the second hijab-wearing barrister to become a QC after Shaheed Fatima – but the first criminal barrister to wear the religious garb to receive the appointment.

Speaking to the PA news agency on Monday afternoon, she said: “It’s a surreal experience.

“I’m absolutely delighted, especially as the first hijab-wearing barrister to have been admitted at the criminal Bar.”

Ms Tafadar said becoming a QC holds particular significance because she saw nobody like herself when she started out in the profession.

“Representation is really important,” she said, adding that it can help more hijab-wearing women’s dreams of reaching the heights of the profession “become a reality”.

“When I came to the profession, I thought, ‘Oh, goodness, I do not see anybody like myself in the upper strata of the profession.’

“Generally at the bar, there aren’t very many women wearing hijab, and you wonder, ‘Can you actually ever make it?’

“So, I hope the fact that I have shows that it is possible, and I hope it opens the floodgates for others to come forward.”

Ms Tafadar referred to statistics showing how just a tiny percentage of the roughly 2,000 QCs are women from black, Asian or mixed ethnic heritage.

A report from the General Council of the Bar into race found that, before Monday, only 31 women with those backgrounds had been admitted to the Bar.

“When you whittle it down again, in terms of hijab-wearing barristers that are Queen’s Counsel, there’s only ever been two and I’m the first at the criminal Bar,” she said.

Asked about the challenges she has faced, she said: “We could be here all day.

“Unfortunately, it is layers and layers of challenges that I face, as a woman, as somebody from an ethnic minority background and as somebody who’s visibly hijab-wearing.

“There have been challenges in court, there have been challenges in the workplace in my previous chambers, but I’m glad to say that it is possible to overcome those challenges and it is possible – having the opportunities – it is possible to shine. ”

Ms Tafadar is involved in a legal bid to end France’s hijab ban and will this year argue to the United Nations that the government there is in breach of international law.

She said while she is celebrating ‘taking silk’ – a term for being appointed QC – the struggle other hijab-wearing women are facing across Europe at the same time is “sad”.

She said: “There are women across Europe and particularly in France who are facing discrimination because they wear the hijab.

“France wants to impose various forms of hijab bans and that amounts to sex discrimination, race discrimination and religious discrimination.

“It’s sad on a day like this and I’m celebrating taking silk wearing the hijab that others across Europe have denied those opportunities that I had.”

In May 2020, Raffia Arshad became the first hijab-wearing woman to be appointed a judge.

Jo Sidhu QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “Diversity that embraces lawyers from different racial, ethnic and gender backgrounds, is to be welcomed and championed if the criminal bar is to continue to better reflect the public we serve as prosecutors and defenders. ”

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