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How One Massachusetts Lawyer -- Muslim, Female And Black -- Manages Identity And Bias

Tahirah Amatul-Wadud
Joyce Skowyra
Tahirah Amatul-Wadud

In her day job, Chicopee, Massachusetts, attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud does family law -- divorce, custody, child support. But on her own time, she's filed civil rights lawsuits on behalf of Muslim communities who feel threatened, especially African-American Muslims like herself.

In recent years, as the rhetoric against Muslims has intensified, so has Wadud's activism. She's on the board of CAIR -- a national Muslim civil liberties organization -- and the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women.

Wadud, a mother of seven, said she used to want people to see her as a lawyer first, with her faith and personal identity deep in the background. 

Tahirah Amatul-Wadud: I didn't want to be identified as a Muslim lawyer, as an African-American lawyer, as a woman lawyer. I really just wanted to be a good lawyer.

For a while, I would never even disclose that I was working on some of these cases for the Muslim community, because I felt: one, self-conscious. I felt that people would say, “What are you doing? Why are you associating with people [rumored to be involved] with terror?... Why would you do that to yourself?”

So I've evolved from being a little bit more self-conscious about that work, to openly embracing it, because there's nothing for me to be ashamed of.

Karen Brown, NEPR: You wear a hijab, and you'd always been wearing one — so you were already identifiable as Muslim, and as a woman, and as an African-American, and as a lawyer — so what what was different?

That I could speak about it. That I could speak about those demographics — that I could talk about race; that I could talk about religion; that I could talk about “double standard.”

I could talk about the unfair treatment that Muslims get when you compare the Muslim defendant to a non-Muslim defendant, or a black defendant to a non-black defendant. I could actually — and would now — speak about it in public.

Was there something about the political evolution of the country that that gave you that sense, or was it more of an internal decision?

It was a little bit of everything. It was what was happening in the cases that I was dealing with. It was what was happening with the Muslim families that were coming to me for support, including employment advice, advice with bullying in school.

So I was getting this real-life experience from the average person, and realizing that this is a problem. And I'm not doing anybody a service by not talking about it.

How have your other cases — your family cases — evolved, or have they? Do you have just some run-of-the-mill divorce custody cases, or has that part of your professional life been dictated in some ways by your values?

I love my family law practice. My clients are very diverse. Most of them are not my religion. Most of them are not my my race.

Do you get nervous when you meet a potential client, what they're going to think? Or is it self-selecting — people already know what you're about?

Usually, most of my clients know who I am. Or they’ll Google me. They’re not shocked when they see me. I used to say to them: you know, this is what I look like, this is what I dress like, so you know, when you come upstairs, I just wanted them to know.

But I'm at a point, now, where I don't see the shock that I sometimes used to see in their faces. I have a client, who is a white man, who told me recently — and we go back five years — but he told me last fall, he said, "When I first came to your office, I wanted to leave. I said, 'She's not the one for me.'”

And what changed his mind?

He sat down, and we talked about his case, and he got comfortable. And ever since then, we've actually been friends.

Now I'm curious — and I’m trying to think, would I ask a Christian lawyer this question? Possibly not. I mean, I should. But: does your faith dictate any cases that you will not take? Do you deal with same-sex domestic issues?

Well, I always tell people that as a lawyer, when I took the oath that I would uphold the Constitution of the United States of America, the constitution of the Massachusetts, the laws of Massachusetts, that's what I did. And same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts [since 2004]. So yeah, some of my work overlaps in marriages that are same-sex.

And does that conflict at all with the Muslim faith?

The Muslim faith does condemn the act of homosexuality. That's not a secret. So when you look at it like that, if you’re religious, and you believe in the Muslim faith, and some Christian faiths, and some practitioners of the Jewish faith, you’re going to have people who hold true to that teaching.

But in your case, you sit with those contradictions, and you are primarily a lawyer when you are a lawyer?

I’m a lawyer. And we kick butt.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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