UK's hijab-wearing Queen’s Counsel eyes setting an example for women on achieving goals

Sultana Tafadar slams France over ban on advocates wearing hijab in court, hijab restriction in sports competitions.

UK's hijab-wearing Queen’s Counsel eyes setting an example for women on achieving goals

Sultana Tafadar, the UK’s first hijab-wearing criminal barrister, who also became the first hijab-wearer from the Criminal Bar to be appointed Queen’s Counsel, aims to set an example for women on pursuing their dreams and reaching goals.

Tafadar, who reached the highest mark of excellence a lawyer can hold in the UK, shared her success story with Anadolu Agency.

As a human rights, international law and criminal justice barrister specializing in counterterrorism and national security cases, Tafadar is the middle daughter of immigrants who moved to the UK from Bangladesh.

There are currently just two hijab-wearing Queen’s Counsels in Britain: Shaheed Fatima, a public law barrister, who was appointed in 2016, and criminal barrister Tafadar, who was appointed on March 21 this year.

"Undoubtedly, most of us face challenges at work. Women tend to face certain challenges, women from minority backgrounds face challenges, and women who are visibly Muslim or wearing a hijab tend to face certain challenges," Tafadar said.

Tafadar, who was called to the Criminal Bar in 2005, was born and raised in Bedfordshire, where she attended a local state school.

Less than 2% of lawyers in Britain become Queen’s Counsel, most practicing as barristers or advocates in Scotland.

Meanwhile, becoming a Queen’s Counsel is a tough process in the UK since the lawyers usually need to have at least 15 years of experience for the application. They make an application to be considered, supplying 12 key cases in the last three years, with 12 judges, 12 barristers and 12 solicitors as referees.

There are 1,928 Queen’s Counsels in Britain – less than 2% of the entire legal profession.

'Not an easy journey'

"It wasn't an easy journey. And that's why I'm absolutely delighted to be in this position. It's a very long process. It's a difficult journey," said Tafadar, referring to her success path.

She underlined that if looking at the number of women who have ever been appointed Queen's Counsel, the numbers "aren't that large."

"So only about 575 women have ever been appointed Queen's Counsel. If you look at people from minority Black or ethnic minority backgrounds, at the moment, there's about 34 women that have been appointed. And in terms of women that wear the hijab, there's just two of us. And I'm the first one at the criminal bar," she said.

Noting that achieving the high mark of excellence was quite a "long and difficult process," she stressed that "the odds aren't always in our favor."

"And it's every lawyer’s dream to become Queen's Counsel," she added.

Tafadar said when she just started off, she was the only person at the criminal bar wearing the hijab.

"I used to go to court. And a lot of the time, the courts would go very silent, and they weren't quite sure who I was and what I was doing there. They'd ask if I was the defendant. Most of the time, they'd ask if I was the interpreter," she said.

"And so you have those hurdles to overcome, where people make assumptions about who you are. They make assumptions about your ability, and so it does take time to break those assumptions down. So those are the types of challenges I've faced throughout my career, Tafadar added.

France's ban on advocates wearing hijab

Speaking on France's ban last month on advocates wearing the hijab, Tafadar said "the irony is just quite sad."

On March 2, France's highest court upheld a ban on advocates wearing the hijab and other religious symbols in courtrooms in Lille, northern France. The landmark ruling sets a precedent for the rest of the country.

Tafadar recalled that by being appointed Queen's Counsel, "which is effectively saying I'm in the top 2% of the legal profession," she has done a "very good job" throughout her career.

“I wore my hijab at my appointment to this position. Other lawyers wear wigs, but I am exempt from wearing them. And it's sad because just across the (English) Channel, you have a whole different scenario where lawyers aren't allowed to go to court wearing the hijab, women aren't allowed to realize their capacity and their full potential," she said.

"They aren't allowed to. And it's not just in court, but in all spheres of life. They're not allowed to engage in sports, they're not allowed to engage in public life in professions. And this really amounts to discriminatory practices. This discrimination on the basis of gender is discrimination on the basis of race is discrimination on the basis of religion. And this is also a denial of the freedom of expression," she noted.

She highlighted that there are multiple rights that are being violated in this case.

"It's a bit sad for me to be here, I guess, celebrating and enjoying my achievement but knowing that people across the Channel can't enjoy the same types of opportunities that I've enjoyed."

Submissions to UN

Tafadar said they are making submissions to the UN to highlight the fact that "France has these laws and policies in place, and we want to see what can be done at the international level."

She said "tackling sporting bodies" is another area she wants to raise awareness about.

"Sporting bodies have a responsibility to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to participate, whether it's the World Cup, whether it's the Olympics, and France is hosting the Olympics very soon," she said.

Noting that the Olympics is supposed to represent "tolerance and the coming together of different cultures," Tafadar said "it doesn't make sense to refuse to allow women representing a different faith in the countries hosting the Olympics to participate in the games.”

She questioned how can it be the case that France is allowed to host these games when they exclude people from participating and when they "act contrary to what the values and the ideals of the Olympic Games are."

"I guess what I want to say to women who face all of these challenges for being a woman, for being from a minority background, from being visibly practicing our faith, that there will be challenges that you will undoubtedly face," she said.

Tafadar said it is important to persist and not give up, and "these hurdles can become hurdles that can come down."

"And I hope be an example. The fact that I've managed to achieve this shows that it can be done. We may see things as being impossible, but it's not out of our reach. Unfortunately, there are structures in place that prevent us from achieving that full potential, but it's up to us to keep going and to dismantle the structures so that we can achieve our goals."