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The Arizona Republic: Muslim women’s law firm breaks down stereotypes

by Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah – Sept. 6, 2008 12:00 AM

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – In what may be the nation’s only law firm composed solely of Muslim women, the attorneys represent the ethnic and religious diversity within the Islamic faith: Some cover their hair, some don’t. Some are Sunni, others are Shiite and at least one is happy to be secular.

The six women hope that by founding Amal Law Group, they are helping to dispel common stereotypes held about Muslim women.

“People think that somehow we’re weak and not able to express opinions,” said Janaan Hashim, the firm’s 41-year-old founder, who has mixed Iraqi and Scottish-Irish heritage.

“Or that we’re hidden behind the veil,” said Heena Musabji, 29, of Indian heritage, who tucks her head scarf inside a cute chiffon blouse and prefers a well-heeled shoe.

Maryam Khan, 28, said some people – even clients at times – are surprised she is competent.

“People think that we are prohibited from getting an education and being engaged in society,” said Khan, who always knew she wanted to be a lawyer.

The firm, which opened quietly last year but hosted a grand open house this spring, offers the Muslim community legal services on issues from civil rights and employment regulations to criminal, family, real-estate and immigration law.

With a large Arab community located a short drive away, the Palos Heights, Ill., firm already has begun seminars for Muslims on drafting prenuptial agreements and helping teens avoid traffic tickets. It’s an opportunity not only to teach Muslims about their rights but also to familiarize some with the laws that govern their country.

“They are defeating stereotypes on multiple levels,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American Islamic Relations, an Islamic advocacy group.

“On the one hand, you have Muslims standing up for justice and due process, and on the other hand, you also see Muslim women succeeding in the professional world, leading the community in more ways than one.”

In the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Muslims have been subjected to increased FBI scrutiny of mosque-goers, racial profiling at airports and large-scale detention and deportation of Muslim men following the Department of Justice’s Special Registration program.

It was within that climate that many Muslims decided to pursue law and “defend” their communities, Rehab said. Some of Amal’s principals decided around this time to become attorneys.

One of the women was denied the opportunity to donate blood in the days after 9/11. Others have represented Muslims denied leases by landlords or filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against employers who would not hire Muslims, easily identifiable by their beards or head scarves.

Clients know that when they come to the firm, they will find attorneys who understand the Muslim perspective, said Rima Kapitan, 27, the group’s youngest lawyer.

Hashim hopes that when people see the lawyers at her firm they will realize that not all Muslim-Americans are foreigners.

“We’re part of the American fabric,” she said.

Khan added: “You may not be used to seeing it, but this is what Muslim women in America look like. We’re educated and we’re professionals, and we’re not an anomaly.”

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