Issue 9, Semester 1, 2019
This article details instances of how an inflexible ‘policy’ culture at Melbourne Law School leads to silence in the face of discrimination. It highlights how, if unchecked, this can cause great harm and perpetuate a status quo that is violent against minorities.
In 2017, a friend happened across an Islamophobic cartoon printed out on level nine in front of a lecturer’s office. It was removed, and the Dean and that lecturer insisted that they didn’t know how it got there. The Dean responded that the cartoon had been removed, and that she believed it was inappropriate. And yet that the cartoon was ever printed out and publicly displayed in the first place represents a lack of cultural awareness.
Last year, a non-MLS Muslim law student who is my friend was approached by a partner at a firm while clerking. The partner declared he supported Israel and asked what my friend thought. This was discriminatory—a person with power visited humiliation on someone in their workplace on the basis of their ethnoreligious identity, knowing that the clerk could not speak freely, and knowing their likely views.
I reported this incident to an MLS staff member in October 2018, asking, asking what could be done to stop incidents like this, to ensure anti-Muslim racism is less of an obstacle for Muslims entering the workforce. I pointed out that the scarce existing research suggests Muslims are more likely to be in prison than working in the legal system, and indicates that Muslims are a severely discriminated group on the basis of name in the labour market.
The staff member said there was little they could do, however suggested meeting the student to hear the story, and suggested that the student seek redress through anti-discrimination and equal opportunity bodies, and any internal grievance procedures of the law firm and through speaking with a staff member of their own law school. This showed a lack of understanding of how people of colour must navigate these circumstances. It makes little sense for a student to divulge personal information to someone they do not know, to jeopardise their career prospects in any way, when this society discriminates against Muslims and criminalises Muslim men in particular. If you already have barriers to your success, there is no way you are going to feel comfortable challenging those with power.
Further, this kind of advice ignores the ways that complaints early in your career can limit progression. Minorities who already struggle to get into such firms should not be left with the options of either harming their own careers or simply bearing the humiliation.
This response also ignored my concern which was specifically regarding systemic anti-Muslim racism in the job market and legal profession. Indeed, I specifically asked what MLS could do to combat this broader issue, not what could be done for this student. In response, I was told my tone was inappropriate and a formal complaint was made about me. This was once more the weaponisation of policies to stop progress. There was an opportunity to comfort a person of colour, to open dialogue, to explore ways that MLS can ensure Muslims feel listened to at the very least. This was not taken.
The truth is that MLS must do something about structural racism, because it can. To do nothing is to perpetuate the status quo--and the use of policies to silence students is to consciously choose to reproduce these harmful outcomes.
Time and time again students have raised concerns about the way faculty has obstructed progress towards assisting minorities, and time and time again the response is that policies are the reason for this lack of progress. If our legal studies have taught us anything, it is that there is always discretion in how rules are applied, and the use of this discretion is a choice.
After the Christchurch massacre, the invitation to receive mental health assistance through a system that is under-resourced and ineffective was offensive. It was devoid of human touch and ignored the ways that MLS might be a place where Muslims and other minorities feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. In response to this article, MLS leadership have invited Muslim students to a drop-in session. I requested that this session be for all minority students, but that request was denied. Here, now, is an opportunity to listen, and to engage meaningfully with students of colour at MLS.
Going into the drop-in sessions, we will be making these recommendations and urge you, at the very least, to provide a response as to why they are not possible.
1. Ensure students leave MLS understanding the complexity and significance of issues of racism, including Australia as a settler colony built on genocide and white supremacy. Too many students are ignorant about these issues--making it likely they will perpetuate them.
2. Invest in researching minority experiences of the law, including prison populations.
For example, Muslims are likely disproportionately represented in prisons--yet Muslims are not treated as a discrete ethnoreligious category, so this cannot be verified. We cannot combat the issues caused by anti-Muslim racism if we do not even acknowledge the issue.
3. Empower minority students to make change so that MLS and the legal sector are welcoming and inclusive.
This includes giving its most senior staff cultural training so that student concerns are not dismissed, students who make criticisms are not intimidated and are engaged with in open dialogue, and minority students are meaningfully consulted to implement change--for example through a permanent consultative body at MLS. It includes advocating for more inclusive practices, so Muslims don’t have to go to cocktail nights and Friday night drinks to get the same opportunities as everyone else.
4. Target ethnic minorities in their complexity and take action to ensure the law does not discriminate against us.
You can formally adopt a working definition of Islamophobia at MLS and lobby so that the legal sector and legislation reflect the reality of anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia, and consult with other minorities for similar change.
Or you can do nothing and perpetuate the status quo, which is violent against minorities. It excludes us, discriminates against us, impoverishes us, and kills us.
Asad is a Fourth Year JD Student.
A Note from the Dean
3 May 2019
The drop-in session for JD and MLM Muslim students was held on Wednesday 1 May 2019. As set out in this open letter, the conversation on Wednesday revealed a number of issues of concern. We believe the conversations were productive. Some of the issues raised are and will continue to be the subject of work internally. Others will be taken up externally: for example, with the Council of Australian Law Deans and legal professional bodies. We would like to thank all students and staff who took part in the broad-ranging discussion.
Professor Pip Nicholson
DEAN OF THE LAW SCHOOL