US lawyer in hijab: Should I try to make myself look less Muslim?

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SHAFAQNA - Zahra Cheema, a Muslim lawyer who wears hijab, is elated over the US Supreme Court ruling that Abercrombie & Fitch had violated a federal ban on religious discrimination when it refused to hire a Muslim woman because she wore the hijab.

She, however, is wary of the rampant discrimination in the country – proud of its freedom of religion and human rights. Tired of routine bias because of her headscarf she now wonders: “Should I try to make myself look less Muslim?”

“Every time I walk into the room, the first thought is, ‘There’s a Muslim,’ ” Zahra Cheema (25) is quoted as saying by The New York Times.

Zahra, the American-born daughter of Pakistani immigrants, was describing the moment when she meets with a potential employer or argues a case in court.

“I worry that essentially the hijab will override all my other merits”, she added.

At the City University of New York School of Law, she said, she was one of only a handful of women who wore the hijab. And as she started searching for work, she discovered that even the most ordinary steps in the process had unexpected wrinkles.

Consider the common anxiety that surrounds the crafting of the perfect résumé. Zahra had to ask herself: Should she include her membership in the Muslim Law Students Association? (Maybe then, employers won’t be so surprised when they see me, she reasoned. Then again, she worried, maybe they won’t call me at all.)

And what about social media? Would law firms ask her in for interviews if hiring managers saw pictures of her wearing a head scarf on Facebook and LinkedIn? After experimenting a bit, she said, the answer was clear: The photographs had to go.

“I get callbacks” when her LinkedIn and Facebook profiles appear without photos, Zahra said ruefully. “The other way, I don’t.”

Even when Zahra had a part-time job at a local library and was relegated to the stacks, and repeatedly passed over for higher-paying positions at the front desk, she kept quiet, Marianna DeCrescenzo, a friend of her, said.

Zahra said the job taught her a painful lesson: Some bosses prefer not to place a woman with a head scarf in the public eye. So for a time, when she was an undergraduate, she avoided applying for part-time work that required dealing with the public.

“No secretary jobs,” said Zahra Cheema, ticking off the non-options. “No receptionist jobs.”

She even considered giving up her dream of becoming a lawyer. But she said she found comfort and courage in her faith. By the time law school graduation rolled around last year, she was sending out résumés and praying for the best.

One law firm manager asked flat out whether she was Muslim or not. “Yes, I am,” Zahra recalled telling her.

Another manager gestured at her clothing and asked, “How does that affect things?”

“It hasn’t up to now,” she said.

In August, Ashish Kapoor, who runs his own law firm here, hired Zahra.

“She does stand out a little,” said Kapoor, who is not a Muslim and who has fielded questions about Zahra from curious members of his staff.

He wasn’t bothered by her head scarf but wondered whether she would feel comfortable working with clients and appearing in court. She quickly proved herself, he said. “She’s very ambitious.”

This month, Zahra started her own firm specializing in immigration and family law, with support from her parents and from Kapoor, who is providing office space and referrals.

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