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Family barrister becomes one of the UK’s first hijab-wearing judges

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Raffia Arshad wants ‘to make sure the sound of diversity is heard loud and clear’

Raffia Arshad — Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Muslim woman has become one of the first hijab-wearing judges in the UK.

Raffia Arshad, 40, was appointed a deputy district judge on the Midlands circuit last week after a 17-year career in law. She practises as a barrister specialising in family law at St Mary’s Chambers in Nottingham.

“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,” Arshad told the Metro, adding that the positive reception she has received is the most rewarding aspect of her appointment. “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.”

Arshad has since acknowledged on Twitter that there are also two tribunal judges in hijab.

Arshad graduated in law, accounting and finance from Oxford Brookes University in 2001. She was called to the bar a year later and joined St Mary’s, a national specialist in family law, in 2004. The mother-of-three focuses on child law, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and any cases raising Islamic law issues.

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The newly appointed judge says she now wants “to make sure the sound of diversity is heard loud and clear”.

Arshad told the newspaper that as a young girl she questioned whether a working-class woman from an ethnic minority background would succeed in law. She said the defining moment in her career was when a family member advised her to not wear her hijab to an interview for a scholarship at the Inns of Court. She wore the head covering and was granted 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’,” she said.

Arshad told the outlet that she still encounters prejudice and discrimination in the courtroom. She described how she sometimes gets mistaken for a client, interpreter or someone on work experience, most recently by an usher.

“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 said.

The joint heads of St Mary’s said that they were proud of Arshad’s achievement.

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.”

Arshad will begin sitting part-time on the Midland circuit later this year, and will continue to practise from St Mary’s.

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