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A Muslim Lawyer Refuses to Choose Between a Career and a Head Scarf

08WORKING-master675 Zahra Cheema, a 25-year-old lawyer who started her own firm, said some potential employers were uncomfortable with Muslims in religious garb. Credit Uli Seit for The New York Times

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. — The apprehension usually hits the night before a job interview or a big court case, as Zahra Cheema, a young lawyer, looks at the colorful head scarves and flowing abayas in her closet and silently wonders: “Should I try to make myself look less Muslim?”

“That’s when I’m feeling the pressure,” said Ms. Cheema, who wears the hijab, a traditional scarf that covers her hair and neck, whenever she leaves home.

She ponders: Should she wear a long, American-style skirt or the more conservative, full-length abaya that she prefers? There are no easy answers for an observant Muslim woman navigating the workplace.

“Every time I walk into the room, the first thought is, ‘There’s a Muslim,’ ” said Ms. Cheema, 25, the American-born daughter of Pakistani immigrants, describing that 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.”

We were talking last week, just two days after the Supreme Court ruled that Abercrombie & Fitch had violated a federal ban on religious discrimination when it refused to hire a Muslim woman because she wore the hijab.

Ms. Cheema was elated, at the decision itself and at how it elevated the profile of Muslim women and the challenges some face when they choose to cover their heads as a sign of piety.

It can be “very lonely,” said Ms. Cheema, describing her journey from law school to a law firm here. She grew up in a predominantly white town on Long Island, and her secular family initially frowned on her decision to wear the hijab, a step she took when she was a freshman in college.

“They were like, ‘Who’s going to hire you?’ ” she said, recalling her parents’ concerns and her determination to prove them wrong.

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. Ms. Cheema 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, Ms. Cheema said ruefully. “The other way, I don’t.”

Marianna DeCrescenzo, a good friend who has known Ms. Cheema since high school, said Ms. Cheema never complained about such experiences.

Even when Ms. Cheema 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, Ms. DeCrescenzo said.

Ms. Cheema 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 Ms. 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,” Ms. Cheema 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 Ms. Cheema.


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