Fostering a more diverse legal profession is a critical part of building and maintaining public trust and confidence in the legal system.
In a guest blog for the Bar Council, Christianah Omobosola Babajide highlights how the Bar can support barristers and staff during Ramadan.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is one of the holiest months in the Islamic calendar. It is a time when Muslims reflect on their spiritual journey, connect with their faith, and grow closer to God (or Allah – the Arabic word for God).
During Ramadan Muslims are required to fast from dawn until dusk and abstain from food, drink, and other physical needs. Ramadan is a time for community and togetherness because Muslims break their fast and share meals with friends and family. Ramadan is also about personal growth, spiritual reflection, and giving to those in need.
There is still a surprising lack of awareness in the UK about Muslim practices and beliefs, and as we enter the first week of Ramadan, it is important to highlight how the Bar can support Muslim barristers and staff throughout the month.
Most Muslims continue their daily routines as usual, but the physical realities of long journeys and court days can take their toll and the month is a marathon, not a race. The best thing chambers and colleagues can do is be understanding.
Fasting during Ramadan is a personal and religious choice, and it is always essential to show respect to colleagues. Barristers and staff should avoid making comments that may be insensitive or dismissive of religious practices.
There are exemptions to fasting such as travel, ill health, pregnancy, nursing and monthly cycles. The 7BR barrister and advised as the first ever Muslim women Crown Court judge Maryam Syed has said: “Over the years, I have often been asked if I’m fasting and why not, if the answer is no. This can be a very personal question. Fasting can make you tired and being around food or drink is difficult, but it’s something that is well known to those who fast. Awareness of these issues by those surrounding you can only be a good thing.”
Creating inclusive spaces
Having flexibility during Ramadan can make a difference – chambers can support Muslims by encouraging working from home, coming in late or pursuing other flexible options that works for their schedule and adjusted sleeping patterns.
Shaheen Mamun, solicitor and one of the Top 100 Influential Muslims for Championing and Celebrating Diversity, highlights that fasting in the workplace can be a challenging experience for Muslims, especially if their colleagues are not aware of their religious obligations during Ramadan. It can be difficult to focus on work while feeling hungry and thirsty, and some Muslims may experience fatigue or decreased productivity during the day.
Clerks should try to understand that barristers might prefer to work shorter hours than usual to focus on their faith during Ramadan and barristers requiring adjustments during this time should try to communicate why they need the flexibility when raising the issues with clerks and head of chambers.
Founder of Bridging the Bar, Mass Ndow-Njie, says: “Be clear what the nature of the fast is, how the fast is carried out, during which hours, how this will impact on your sleeping patterns and concentration levels.” He adds: “Communication is key because your employer or chambers ultimately wants to get the best out of you, and so once the ‘why’ has been communicated, there shouldn’t be any conflict between you and your employer or chambers.”
Creating welcoming spaces
Chambers and employers should consider publishing a guide to Ramadan for their workplace as this can serve as a starting point and help raise awareness and foster understanding amongst colleagues from different backgrounds.
Solicitor and founder of Diversity+, Naeema Yaqoob Sajid, recently published a free eBook called ‘A guide to Ramadan for the Scottish legal profession’, which is a factual and personal account of what Ramadan means to her and the eBook includes tips on how employers can cultivate a friendly and inclusive workplace during Ramadan.
Maryam suggests “including religious holidays like Ramadan in chambers’ diary”. Similarly Mass, upon joining 7BR Chambers, suggested the creation of a designated multi-faith prayer and contemplation room in chambers and this suggestion has been swiftly implemented.
Muslims are required to pray at least five times per day and during Ramadan there are additional prayers which Muslims are likely to observe. For some Muslims, it can be difficult to take prayer breaks especially when they fall within working hours. However, chambers can cultivate a culture of acceptance by creating a prayer room to help Muslims (and observers of other religions) to feel welcome and supported at work.
Arooj Sheikh, a magic circle trainee solicitor suggests it would be helpful if the prayer room “can be next to a place with a water supply as we perform ‘wudu’ a cleansing ritual using water, before praying.”
Checking in with colleagues
Turan Hursit, a barrister at Old Square Chambers, recommends that clerks “check with your barristers before you send them on a nine-hour round trip to a distant court. Not only may it interfere with fasting and prayer times, but it is also an exhausting journey for somebody experiencing 16-plus hours without food or water.”
Regular check-ins are key, especially during the first week which is the hardest. Amreen Mussa, a commercial property solicitor at BP Collins suggests clerks have a “chat beforehand to see what sort of work is upcoming during the first few weeks of Ramadan.”
Pupillage interviews this year fall within Ramadan and chambers should try and avoid having a cultural blind spot when it comes to making arrangements for interviews. Chambers can take account of various individual needs and take a flexible approach. For example, this might be by offering the option of remote interviews.
Aspiring barrister Haleemah Sadia Farooq noticed that “my interviewers during my pupillage interview were not aware and it showed me that though not ill intended, they are not diverse in thought and clearly not aware that billions of Muslims are currently undertaking Ramadan.”
Haleemah also recalls attending nearly all of her pupillage interviews in-person last year on the same day during Ramadan. She found the experience challenging and has said: “I think the icing on the cake was when I finally got into the interview room, I was offered water which is a standard practise and a regular formality, but I found it slightly disrespectful. It’s not a difficult conclusion to draw that someone with a headscarf may be fasting.”
Participating and hosting events
Anyone can support the #RamadanChallenge or the Fast2Feed campaign, which encourages non-Muslims to fast alongside Muslim colleagues. Alternatively, you can donate meals to people in need; showing support can help make a difference.
In 2022 the Chief Operating Officer at Cloisters Chambers, Cherno Jagne, raised £16,032 by running 150km whilst fasting during the month of Ramadan and raised £11,110 in 2021 by running 100km to provide food packs for refugees fasting in camps in Greece and Lebanon. This year Cherno is completing five10km runs whilst fasting to raise fund for those devastated by the earthquake in Turkey and Syria.
The meal when breaking the fast is known as ‘Iftar’ and hosting an Iftar gatherings at work is a great way to support inclusivity and build a sense of community at work. Turan Hursit has said: “A few of my clerks recently suggested an Iftar dinner in chambers and I was genuinely touched that they’d thought of it.”
Ramadan is an opportunity to educate, and chambers can also consider hosting or facilitating ‘Lunch & Learn’ sessions on Islamophobia in order to cultivate open and honest conversations based on mutual respect. Although an hour isn’t sufficient to learn all there is to know on the subject, it is a starting point.
Commercial barrister at Keating Chambers, Abdul Jinadu, advises against chambers holding alcoholic events during Ramadan: “Whilst it’s not always possible, it would be nice if chambers could recognise the fact that Ramadan is taking place by avoiding social functions that require drinking during Ramadan.”
Be curious, be an ally!
Turan suggests that showing an interest in Ramadan shows that her colleagues care. She says: “I personally love explaining the meaning of my faith and the rationale behind its practices, provided that the person on the other end of the conversation is respectful of what is being explained.”
Much progress has been achieved in religious acceptance but there is still a long way to go regarding facilities, catering and safe spaces for honest dialogue. Some chambers have a quiet room/prayer room, but many leading chambers still don’t have one.
Is there any reason why all chambers shouldn’t have a quiet room/prayer room for their members, subject to having the space available? Chambers shouldn’t stop at facilities; they should also consider catering to include halal food options at events and meetings, and also provide nice options for non-alcoholic drinks.
Chambers can always do more when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusiveness. Abdul has said: “the Commercial Bar isn’t the most culturally diverse place in the world so there’s less pressure for people to be progressive and diverse.” This arguably applies to other parts of the Bar and now is a good time to suggest that people need to be more culturally sensitive.
When asked how the legal profession can move forward, Abdul says: “We have to be conscious of the fact that our numbers aren’t sufficient, whether it’s being Muslim or a person of colour; all we can do is try and persuade others. People should be persuaded because it’s the right thing to do as opposed to because they’ve been mandated by somebody else. Eventually, our numbers will grow, people will become more aware and sensitive about these issues.”
Christianah Omobosola Babajide (she/her) is a Marketing and Events Executive at a leading barristers’ chambers, and has over five years of legal writing experience.