Bar Exams, Religion, Women's Issues

Muslim Woman Harassed Over Religious Headwear While Taking Bar Exam

From earthquakes to power outages to going into labor, we’ve written about almost every kind of bar exam horror story that exists on this earth. But we’ve never seen or heard of one that has been motivated by alleged religious bias — until today.

Everyone knows that things like hats, hoods, scarves, and visors are not allowed to be worn during the bar exam. But religious headgear, like Sikh dastars and Jewish yarmulkes, is permitted, as long as special written approval has been obtained before the test from a state’s board of bar examiners.

When there’s a miscommunication somewhere along the line, things don’t always go as planned. Yesterday, a proctor in Massachusetts passed a distasteful note to a Michigan Law graduate of Muslim faith during the morning essay session. We have a copy of that note…

It seems that this bar examinee was wearing a hijab, a scarf meant to cover the head and chest, and she had received prior permission from the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners to wear it for religious reasons. Nevertheless, a proctor interrupted her with this note while she was taking the exam:

“Headwear may not be worn during the examination without prior written approval.” But the woman in question reports that she had received such approval (as of Monday).

The young woman took the exam at the Western New England University School of Law. We have absolutely no idea why this proctor couldn’t wait to bring up the issue until after the morning session was completed. To interrupt a test taker during the bar exam with a religious issue — one that she thought was already taken care of, and one that was sure to make her even more anxious than she already was — is not only insulting, but cruel. We suppose the term “Masshole” exists for a reason.

The young woman, who was understandably upset, spent part of her lunch break “calling the Bar office to convince the proctors [she] was all set.” Did we mention that this young woman may have been fasting for Ramadan, which fell during the exam this year?

We reached out to the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners to see what the resolution was, and spoke to Executive Director Marilyn Wellington:

This was an unfortunate miscommunication. We withdrew the request that she make adjustments to her headgear, and she wore her religious garments throughout the entire testing day. The miscommunication was corrected as soon as we were made aware of it.

This was a very unfortunate miscommunication, and it could have dire results for the Muslim woman involved. Not only is it incredibly embarrassing for the Massachusetts Bar, but it could be viewed as an affront to Islamic religious customs. We can’t even imagine how the state Bar would handle the situation if this woman were to fail the exam as a result of this religious note-passing absurdity.

This woman’s story has been shared more than 350 times on Facebook, and the Muslim community from around the world that’s seen it is shocked and outraged. Just as the women in Pennsylvania weren’t hiding answers inside their tampons, this woman wasn’t hiding them inside her hijab.

We’ve reached out to the woman who received the note, but we’ve yet to hear back from her. If and when she gets in touch with us, we will update this post. For now, we wish her the best of luck on the exam.

UPDATE (8:30 p.m.): The young woman who was involved in this incident reached out to us this evening. Although she prefers to remain anonymous, she’d like to clarify several points, the first of which is the fact that she does not believe this situation was caused by any racial or religious animus on the proctor’s part. She does not think the proctor intended to “harass” her, but rather, chose an incredibly inconvenient time to implement the “no headgear” rule. She shared her thoughts with us via email:

There are three major problems that I hope the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners address. First, the proctor saw me walking into the room and we were about 30 people in total. If she was concerned I didn’t have authorization, she should’ve asked at the outset and I would’ve gladly explained.

Second, the requirement for prior authorization to wear religious headgear is unnecessary. I also took the Connecticut bar exam and they took no issue with my headscarf. The requirement is a bit strange.

Lastly, if they require the prior authorization, they should make that clear in the application. I strangely discovered the requirement in the “security policy” link that was included in an email sent a month ago. The email had general exam information and other links. The only conspicuous requirements involved medical accommodations. I’m lucky I found it, because some other women who wear the headscarf are now telling me they had problems too when they didn’t discover the requirement in time. Nevertheless, I was successful in getting the authorization, but when I called Monday to ask for proof of the authorization to take with me to the exam site, they said it was not necessary and that they would make sure the proctor knew that.

The whole process is cumbersome and inefficient. I don’t think the proctor was trying to single me out. She was obligated to enforce this unnecessary and overly stringent rule. I do however think it was unwise to interrupt me in the middle of the morning session to tell me I had to take my headscarf off in the afternoon session. I could’ve straightened things out during break. By giving me the strange note in the middle of typing my essays, I was thrown off for at least ten minutes. I just hope this doesn’t affect my bar exam results.

We agree that rules like these are burdensome, but if they must be in effect, they should be properly enforced, and that is certainly not what happened in this case. Hopefully Massachusetts will be able to handle situations like these more appropriately in future administrations of the exam.

Earlier: Prior Above the Law coverage of bar exam horror stories

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