Being a criminal defence lawyer is a part of my identity that I am still growing in. In my early days, a senior lawyer told me that in order to succeed I should always be humble and be aware of what I don’t know even more than what I do know. With that in mind I continued being my humble self as taught by my Pakistani immigrant parents.
Another piece of “advice” I received was not to let my hair down in court. At the time I did not think much of it and thought the woman recommending this was experienced so it must have some value. Looking back at it I realize how disoriented that advice was. I have spent a good portion of my life trying to hide my “difference”. Of course I did not get too far with it given my brown skin, immigrant baggage, attempts at hiding my accent, drinking juice at socials rather than alcohol and forever feeling alienated because of my failed attempts.
Did I really spend all those years struggling to first get into law school and then getting through it so that I could hide myself and just blend with the crowd, which is heavily dominated by white men in the criminal defence bar?
Because of the intersectionality of my identity I am always aware of my appearance. Whenever I enter into a space, even before anyone knows anything about me, they judge me. Everyone assumes that I am a court interpreter, a paralegal, an agent, and the ever-golden Mr. XYZ’s assistant – standing next to a white man, a brown woman can only logically be his assistant, right?
I have great respect for the law and the rules of our courtrooms. But, I do not need a lesson in etiquette. If you’ve ever met a Pakistani person, you know that rules of etiquette are drilled into us by our beloved parents. So, it is my request to senior counsel that when you are giving advice to junior lawyers who look up to you, please be mindful of the power of your words. Please do not provide advice that teaches young, racialized women to minimize themselves or play it small. I wonder now if that lawyer told me not to put my hair down because it’s kind off big, curly, wavy, frizzy. Would straight blonde hair be more “courtroom acceptable”? Would that make you more comfortable? This is how we internalize the white gaze. But, I now have the maturity to know that it is not my duty to make you comfortable with my presence. I do not need constant permission to take up space. I have more than earned my spot.
On the second advice that I received, while it is wise to always be aware of what you do not know, that advice does not get you very far in putting your hand up for new challenges like telling your boss (if you work for someone) that I am ready to do my first trial. Of course, our learning should never jeopardize our clients whose interests are our top priority, but in our profession of advocacy you have to advocate for yourself even when it is very uncomfortable. Something they do not teach us in law school.
So, let your hair down – if you feel like it. Or leave it up. Or do whatever with it. At the end of the day, you will be remembered for your advocacy, preparation, organization, collegiality and much more beyond your brown skin and ‘brown people’ hair.
This article originally appeared on the OBA Womens Lawyer Forum articles page.
About the author
Hamna Anwar is a criminal defence lawyer who takes pride in serving the marginalized, disenfrenchised and racialized members of our society. Hamna is an executive member at the OBA Women Lawyers Forum, OBA Criminal Justice Sector and Women in Canadian Criminal Defence. She does pro-bono work at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic for their Criminalization of Women Program and mentors young women in their journey of becoming lawyers.