MEMORANDUM By FATIMA KHAN
Subject: Research regarding duty of candor in a forum nonconveniens (translation: Being honest even when it isn’t convenient)
Question Presented: Are you Muslim?
Short Answer: Hesitant yes. Please see analysis below.
- A lawyer has the duty to duty to disclose all relevant, pertinent and truthful information.
As soon as she asked me if I was Hindu or Muslim I felt paralyzed. The time between the question and my answer felt like an eternity. During that eternal pause I could feel the sweat trickling down my outlet bought polyester shirt. I quickly tried to find an escape route and found myself toying with the idea of telling a white lie. I could have just said something like, “Oh my family isn’t very religious,” or just lied and said I was Hindu, or maybe I should have distracted her and pretended like I was experiencing an unexpected medical emergency. Instead, I did the unthinkable – I answered, “Muslim.”
I was in the middle of talking to a partner at my law firm about why my family was never supportive of a legal career. I told her that most Indians encourage their children to study either “maths” or medicine, anything in between is for failures. She being the ever curious cross examiner began asking me questions about the exotic customs of the Far East, which ultimately led her to ask about religion. At that moment my secret had been discovered. I felt as though I had been found out. I had gone from being the non threatening, exotic, yoga practicing dots not feathers Indian to the enemy.
- Background – The Facts of the Case
I have always been grateful that my grandparents stayed in India post-partition. I have delighted in being able to tell people I’m Indian, not Pakistani, allowing their assumptions to lead them to the conclusion that I’m a harmless vegetarian that watches Slumdog Millionaire and wears saris. Also, it helps that my name is neither Khan nor anything glaringly Muslim for that matter. This has been a particularly useful identity while working as an associate at a prevalently Jewish law firm.
I should have reconciled the issue of being a minority in a very white and heavily Jewish profession while still in school, but it was easy to ignore when studying at a rather diverse university. It was not until I graduated and started interviewing with firms that I began to become increasingly aware of how much I seemed to stick out like a character on the “Which of these do not belong?,” covers of a Highlights magazine. During the application/interview process I started becoming more sensitive about acknowledging my religious affiliation. This made for some very awkward diet coke filled happy hours. Instead of telling people I chose not to drink because of religious reasons I let them assume I was a typical Asian lightweight. When my mentor told me to wear a skirt suit for interviews I let her think I had a thyroid problem which made me feel cold at all times, so I had no choice but to wear modest clothes. Eventually, all of these ridiculous antics and networking events paid off when I landed a job practicing litigation at Steinbergmaneinsky LLP.
I was very excited about my first day at work. After a quick tour and orientation I was shuttled off to an all attorney monthly meeting. Ten minutes after a round of awkward introductions we began to discuss our pro bono assignments. Project one-restitution petitions to Germany for Holocaust survivors, Project two-trust and property management for Jewish families in need, and Project three – Holocaust committee. Everyone was profoundly supportive of all the projects, nodding their heads up and down with complete unwavering approval. I too felt compelled to force my face into that sympathetic and compassionate look. I could feel my facial expression trying to overcompensate for my not being from a Jewish background. The last thing I wanted them to know was that I am a Muslim.
For almost six months now I have become the go to person to send to any South Asian, Hispanic (my personal favorite), or pan Asian bar event for the firm. It is pretty incredible being able to be all these wonderfully neutral identities. Anytime someone asked me what language I spoke I would happily offer up Hindi as my primary language. Urdu? What’s that? I’m Indian I speak Hindi, phew.
- Duty to Disclose – The Verdict
Just as soon as I became comfortable with my third eye, the earth shook, the moon split, time began to pass very quickly and suddenly judgment day was upon me. “So are you Hindu or Muslim?,” she innocently asked.
And that’s when I really had to figure out why I felt so nervous and anxious about answering that question. I felt ashamed about my identity. In retrospect, this is such a strange phenomenon because once upon a time I used to wear hijab and proudly claim my Muslimness. Now that I’m older, and clearly not much wiser, I am suddenly scared to identify myself as Muslim. It is tragic.
In the business/legal world it is easier to be silent than to be heard. A large part of the job is about developing a repertoire with the other lawyers and clients. I fear that being Muslim might jeopardize any hope of forging strong connections and alliances with my colleagues. Unfortunately, it seems as though the axis of evil transcends the military world and divides the conference table. This sentiment may be a result of some sort of unique paranoia, but I do wonder if this is a terror other Muslims in the professional world are facing. It is an especially delicate situation for those of us that are just starting out in the legal or business arena since we are constantly trying to impress our superiors and secure these job opportunities.
I want to share this fear with my fellow non-Muslim lawyers and colleagues. In a time where people are hyper sensitive to issues of harassment and impropriety in the workplace, maybe we should recognize how religious differences can breed insecurity, especially when one is a minority. This does not mean firms need start providing us with magic carpets in every office, but it is important that they recognize that this sensitivity and fear exists. Hopefully, the next time superiors or colleagues inquire about religion they will understand why some of us reserve the right to remain silent. I am afraid to admit to being Muslim because I do not want to be perceived as the enemy, nor do I want to deal with the burden of proving the fact that I am moderate and different from the scary ones on TV. This coupled with trying to figure out Bluebook citations makes for a very crazy work experience. See above.