‘I Didn’t Know’: Overcoming Religious Bias to Better Serve Clients

By Jennifer Andrus

‘I Didn’t Know’: Overcoming Religious Bias to Better Serve Clients

9.27.2022

By Jennifer Andrus

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What an attorney doesn’t understand about the religious practices and customs of their clients can hurt their ability to best represent them. How to overcome that challenge was the subject of a recent program sponsored by the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Children and the Law and the Family Law Section.

The program focused on understanding culture and customs for those of the Islamic, Hindu and Hasidic Jewish faiths.

“We come from over 50 countries and occupied territories worldwide. There is not a single Islamic culture,” said Sareer Fazili, an attorney and practicing Muslim in Rochester whose family came from Kashmir.

But the five pillars of the faith do remain constant throughout the world, said Fazili who was one of the presenters. All Muslims believe in one God, prayer five times daily, fasting during the month of Ramadan, giving based on income and a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

As far as customs, Fazili says attorneys should know that men will not look a woman in the eye, keeping a downward gaze as a sign of respect. Women generally won’t shake hands with men who are not related to her.

In a courtroom, a defendant may look downward and speak softly as a sign of respect. This may be interpreted as acting evasive, which is not the intent. If an attorney doesn’t know what is proper, Fazili says it’s fine to ask questions. “Every time, I tell people just ask and I will tell you if I can or can’t do something,” he said.

Anindita Chetterjee Bhaumik, a licensed clinical social worker and a practicing Hindu, detailed the pillars of her faith including belief in one God with several manifestations, reincarnation, and karma. She explained that there are many Hindus who may not practice the faith by regularly attending temple but still celebrate holidays.

Bhaumik says karma is the theory of cause and effect, meaning that good behavior is rewarded, and evil deeds  punished in this life or the next. Abusers may use the belief in karma to silence victims in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“The abuser implies that the victim deserved it, and the survivors feel that they must have done something egregious in past lives to warrant the abuse,” she said.

The shame associated with bad karma may prevent victims from seeking help because they fear that the shame will extend to the entire family.

Julie Kay, a senior legal strategist with Footsteps, a group providing services for those who choose to leave ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, said the Hasidic Orthodox sect grew in followers after World War II and the Holocaust. Followers wanted to maintain traditional dress and customs of the faith. Marriages are often arranged, and women are praised for having large families. Kay represents women who are seeking divorce, which is complicated by the conflict between religious and secular law.

“Even in cases of domestic violence, there is a lot of pressure to resolve this within the community,” she said. “Don’t go to the police;  instead go to the rabbi. Some of that is changing, but there is still pressure not to shame your family by getting law enforcement involved. Local police are more aware of the situation now.”

Kay says both men and women who choose to leave struggle with their Jewish identity and often are cut off from family and work. Many of her clients are young adults with little education for whom English is not a first language.

“It’s becoming more widely recognized that Hasidic schools do not provide much by secular education and that is a struggle for a lot of people who are leaving,” she said. “On average boys have a third grade level in secular studies and girls have a 5th grade education. It can be very hard when you are leaving the community because the community supports itself. Those supports evaporate when somebody leaves.”

The panelists offered several tips for court officers and attorneys to better understand cultural differences:

 

The entire 90 minute event is available on demand here.

 

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