The first time I got rejected after applying for an entry level position with a barristers’ chambers, a friend told me it was because the legal profession is too white, too middle class and I am “too brown with a much too Muslim name” to make it. When I did secure pupillage, or when I won certain scholarships or competitions I heard people say “ah, that’s positive discrimination” (what happened to that phrase by the way? It seems to have disappeared).
9/11 took place during my first weeks of secondary school. I’ve discussed this at length before but it basically changed my life. I was called “Osama” or a “terrorist” and later this became the ”Sultan of Kaboom”, amongst other hilarious things. Identity, as a teenager isn’t easy but against that sort of backdrop, it was a ‘cluster field’. Like Dr. Aziz in the E M Forster novel that has inspired the title of this piece (itself taken from Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name) I felt the unique sting and incredulity of false allegations.
Throughout my education and into the infancy of practice though, I’ve often tried to blend in. I've sought to be the joker rather than the joke, or to compromise on things so as to get along. Very few people for example, know how to pronounce my name properly - let alone my full name or what it means. When I was younger, I sometimes found my racial and religious heritage a source of embarrassment, cringing at the words ‘Pakistan’ or ‘Muslim’. It is much easier to be the neutral, home county sounding chap than the second generation Muslim, or that’s how it felt at least.
Of course, I am actually both. That’s why this recent award for Achievements in law’ at the ‘British Muslim Awards’ means so much to me personally. ‘ It touches on some fundamental aspects of my identity. The law, my nation and my faith. I do not contend to possess any particular mastery of, or in, any element but I certainly recognise all three as integral to my make up.
The world we live in now, the place I work, is gearing up to and increasingly heading towards environments couched in diversity and inclusion - which is excellent. It isn’t perfect and there’s a long, long way to go. My children though won’t experience the extent of what I have, just as I did not encounter what my own parents did. That being said, I don’t believe that my heritage has really been, pardon the pun, a bar. Sure, I had moments when I wondered but on balance - my heritage hasn’t held me back, albeit I’ve occasionally felt like I carried it, rather than wanted it.
That’s the irony though. It has gone from sometimes feeling like a burden to being pivotal to my career. Today, the two countries I work in the most (other than the UK) are Pakistan and Malaysia. These are two countries with long historical ties to Britain and Islam. It is little wonder I’ve felt resonance there and forged relationships and deep friendships with clients and people there.
Celebrating different sections of diversity, as this award does in its own way, is an essential part of rejoicing in the wider diversity jig-saw. Itself, an ornate tapestry that encompasses humankind in every permutation and non harmful free choice, representing in technicolour, the picture of a modern and inclusive world. Helping each individual to own their personal identity provides a sense of hope and emancipation which is immeasurably powerful. I will cherish this award and what it continues to teach me about my evolving identity and my professional journey.