• Being unwed can make social occasions fraught (stock image). (Getty Images)
This is an extract from 'Sweatshop Women: Volume One', edited by Winnie Dunn.
Ferdous Bahar

27 Jun 2019 - 1:29 PM  UPDATED 9 Oct 2019 - 5:46 PM


Fifteen minutes into my interview at John Noble Chambers*, Cathy says, ‘So... tell me about this.’ Her German accent lingers at the end of her sentence as she points to my face and makes a circling motion with her skinny and pale index finger.

Cathy* is the barrister at John Noble Chambers, a law firm which recently advertised for a two day per week legal assistant position. My throat is on my tongue as I watch Cathy’s finger hover a few centimetres in front of my face. Any closer and she would be touching the bit of fabric at the top of my hijab that always pokes out the front. My face feels hot and sweaty. 

What do I do? What the hell do I say to that? I clear my throat, ‘Err... my hijab?’ It’s either that or I seriously messed up my foundation this morning. From the number of hours that I spent scrolling through her LinkedIn profile I know Cathy has been a barrister in NSW for almost twenty years.

Who knew that I was going to leave this interview with a greater appreciation for secularism and the secret messaging of hijabs? 

Even from here I can see ‘Redfern Legal Centre’ and ‘U.S. Consulate General’ on my blue and white CV, which is sitting comfortably beneath her left elbow. And all she wants is for me to talk about my hijab.

Behind Cathy, parallel with her blonde head, are three black and gold volumes of Ritchie’s Uniform Civil Procedure NSW, which lean against some fat black binders and commercial law textbooks facing the wrong direction. On the top shelf, I can see her dirty white barrister wig on a faceless head stand. The wig is as wispy and dry as the hair on Cathy’s real head. Do barrister wigs come with care instructions? If they do, this hotshot definitely isn’t following them. I’ve always wondered what a hijabi would look like wearing one of those barrister wigs. Where would the wig go? Would you have to wear a matching hijab? 

A muscle starts twitching around Cathy’s mouth. She just nods. Great. So it is about my hijab. Progress. ‘Oh, right! What did you want to know?’ I sound so cheerful. I am just chuffed that we are now talking about my hijab in this interview for a legal assistant position at John Noble Chambers. Not. 

Cathy takes my polite tone as encouragement. ‘Well, you know Australia is a secular country.’ Her German accent weighs down each word more pronounced than before as she is speaking slower, enunciating every letter. Does she think she’s talking to a five-year-old? My cheeks hurt from smiling. Cathy continues, her face full of wrinkles, ‘So when you come into the workplace wearing something like that it sends a clear message to everyone.’ 

Cathy raises her thin eyebrows at me. ‘Yes, but where will you er... pray?’

Wow. I’m an idiot for asking. Who knew that I was going to leave this interview with a greater appreciation for secularism and the secret messaging of hijabs? Thank you, Barrister Cathy Fischer, for your service.

As Cathy keeps talking, I take short calming breaths and wonder if I’m about to have an anxiety attack. 

She keeps talking. ‘So really, I want to know how it will affect your work if we decide to take you on here as a legal assistant.’ Cathy sits a little taller in her chair, folds her arms and leans back looking at me with a snaggle-tooth smile like she’s done me a huge favour and now expects me to do the same for her. 

I take a deep breath. ‘As a practising Muslim I pray five times a day so in my lunchbreak I usually pray for about ten minutes.’ I don’t know why I’m being so upfront with her. I’ve never had to mention what I do in my lunch breaks in an interview before. But there’s a hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), that begins: ‘Convey my teachings to the people even if it is a single verse of the Quran.’

I’ve always reminded myself of this lesson when people have asked me particularly stupid questions about Islam. As I talk, Cathy is nodding at me so intensely that a strand of blonde hair falls into her eyes. Maybe she really just wants to learn more. I find myself smiling and nodding along with her as I tell her about the difference between salat and wudu. ‘So ultimately my faith won’t really affect my work at all,’ I finish.

Cathy raises her thin eyebrows at me. ‘Yes, but where will you er... pray?’

As Cathy keeps talking, I take short calming breaths and wonder if I’m about to have an anxiety attack. 

Having just differentiated between salat and wudu and explaining the different salat times, I’m comfortable letting her in on my prayer habits. I answer her like I would a friend. ‘I can pray anywhere really. Anywhere clean. I’ve prayed in Hyde Park lots of times and that’s just a short walk from here.’

Cathy’s eyebrows shoot up once again, almost touching her hairline. Yikes. She leans over closer to me and whispers, ‘You’ve prayed in the park?’

Hold up. Did she just ask me if I’ve peed in the park? I have to stop myself from laughing aloud. I take a deep breath and replay the words of the hadith in my head. If nothing else, maybe this will make it easier for the next Muslim she meets.

‘Yes, I’ve prayed in the park. Like I said before, salat or prayer is incredibly important to Muslims. Praying in the park, in the change rooms at the shopping centre or on a prayer mat on the sidewalk. It’s no biggie. When it’s time to pray it’s time to pray, you know?’

Cathy’s mouth is slightly open and she looks like she’s lost her tongue. I wish I could see the images that my words have conjured in her mind of Muslims taking over change rooms in Kmart, laying prayer mats in all corners of Hyde Park, laying their foreheads on the ground and raising their hands in solemn worship. Cathy closes her mouth and fidgets with her hands a little.

After I hang up, I cover my face with my hands and cry my eyes out.

‘Wow... that is so very enlightening,’ she breathes out, playing with the black strap of her wristwatch. Then she glances at my CV and, as if noticing for the first time, asks me about my experience as a supervisor at a community legal centre. Finally! I feel my guard go down again. Maybe all of that was a test and now we’re back to the real interview?

Thinking that I might still have a chance, I answer her remaining questions confidently.

As I’m talking about the skills I acquired from my experience as a market research interviewer, Cathy interrupts me. ‘Ah, wonderful, wonderful. Well I think that’s enough for today.’ Cathy stands up before I’ve finished my next sentence.

I can feel goosebumps on my arm. I’ve never been interrupted in an interview before. I stand up and offer her my hand anyway. ‘Thank you very much for having me. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.’ Cathy gives me a tight-lipped smile and shows me the door. 

Two days later one of Cathy’s assistants calls me to tell me I didn’t get the role. In my fake, cheery voice I say that I of course understand that these decisions are difficult to make and that individualised feedback is impossible.

After I hang up, I cover my face with my hands and cry my eyes out.

Ferdous Bahar is freelance writer and paralegal.

*Real names have been changed. 

This is an extract from 'Sweatshop Women: Volume One' - a contemporary collection of prose and poetry written by women from Indigenous, migrant and refugee backgrounds, edited by Sweatshop general manager Winnie Dunn. Sweatshop is a western Sydney literacy collective aimed at empowering culturally and linguistically diverse writers through literature. You can buy a copy here. 

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