Iman Abdulrazzak, an observant Muslim, realized at the last minute that she needed special permission to wear her headscarf while taking the Massachusetts bar exam. She scrambled to fax her request for an exemption to the ban on hats and other headwear. She called the board’s office in Boston repeatedly to make sure it got through.
No one said anything about her headscarf when she arrived at Western New England University School of Law in Springfield to take the high-stakes test to become a lawyer Aug. 1. But halfway through the morning session, a proctor placed a note on her desk: “Head wear may not be worn during the examination without prior written approval. . . . Please remove your head wear and place it under your desk for the afternoon session.”
“I was like, ‘Do I leave now? Is it even worth continuing?’ ” said Abdulrazzak, of Pittsfield, who is 24 and has worn the hijab since she was 12. “For 10 minutes, I was terribly confused. I tried telling one of the proctors that I had authorization — he kind of shushed me.”
She kept working on the test. The problem was cleared up during the lunch break, when a proctor supervisor called the Board of Bar Examiners in Boston and confirmed that the office had approved Abdulrazzak’s request for a religious exemption.
But Abdulrazzak said that the distraction and distress cost her about 10 minutes in the morning session and that she was not able to fully answer all of the essay questions.
“I just tried my best to get down the bare minimum of the answers in the time left and hoped for the best,” she said.
The results of the exam will be posted by Nov. 1.
Marilyn Wellington, executive director of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners, called the mix-up “very unfortunate” and said the board takes responsibility for the mistake.
She said the board may consider revising its rule requiring prior authorization for religious headwear. The rule was established to prevent people from concealing notes or other information that could be used to cheat on the exam, she said, not to inhibit religious practice.
Normally, the Board of Bar Examiners notifies proctor supervisors of any test-takers who have obtained authorization to wear religious headgear during the exam.
Abdulrazzak said the proctor supervisor in her case seemed unable to find a notation of the authorization in her official binder. But she said the supervisor “was really nice.”
“She apologized right away and made sure I had a complaint form,” Abdulrazzak said.
The legal website Above the Law first reported the story.
Wellington said the board is looking into what happened and would take a close look at its policies and training practices “to make sure they make sense and that they don’t result in issues such as this.”
“It shouldn’t have happened, and we won’t let it happen again,” she said.
Quesiyah Ali, a member of the board of the New England Muslim Bar Association, questioned why a proctor would interrupt a test-taker, rather than raise the issue before the test began.
Ali also said proctors should be made aware that asking a Muslim woman to remove her hijab in public is “a violation of the highest order,” not remotely akin to asking someone to remove a baseball cap indoors.
“It would be like a nun being asked to remove a [veil] or a Sikh being asked to remove a turban,” Ali said.
“It is such an intrinsic part of religious identity, it would be extremely distressing to be asked to remove it,” she said, especially in the midst of a high-stress exam.
Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, said that as the nation becomes more diverse, requests for religious accommodation are becoming more common in schools, workplaces, and other arenas.
“Incidents in themselves may be small and may seem not so important,” he said. “But the big picture is, it’s calling us to work out how we are going to deal with these differences in our public spaces as we become more religiously diverse in this country.”
At least one other similar instance happened during the administration of the Massachusetts bar exam two years ago. Hania Masud, 28, a New York lawyer who took the bar in Boston in 2011, said she had not realized she needed a special exception to the no-hats rule in order to wear her hijab during the exam. During a break, she said, she was summoned to the front of the room, where a proctor told her she needed preauthorization to wear her head scarf and that they would address the issue after the test was over.
“I went back to my seat and burst into tears, which was really, really embarrassing; I never, ever cry,” she said. “I was really scared they would invalidate my test scores after taking the exam.”
Her brother, who was also taking the exam, urged her to focus, so she collected herself and tried her best. Afterward, another proctor told her there was no problem. The board never contacted her about it, Masud passed the test, and she never filed a complaint.
Abdulrazzak and Masud said they see no reason why bar exam-takers should need advance approval to wear religious headwear.
“If anything, maybe at the door you could sign a statement saying this is for religious reasons, so it could be used against you if you are lying,” said Abdulrazzak.
Both women sat for the bar exam in other states before taking the Massachusetts exam — Abdulrazzak in Connecticut and Masud in New York — and neither encountered problems. Both states ban secular headwear such as baseball caps or hoods, but religious headwear like a hijab or yarmulke is permitted, and no prior authorization is required to wear them.
“If it’s obviously religious headgear, we allow them to wear it,” said Kathleen B. Harrington, administrative director of the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee.
Rhode Island has a similar policy. In New Hampshire, proctors must approve of any religious headgear at the exam site. Maine does not allow hats, and its policy is silent on religious exceptions.
Deborah Firestone, executive director of the Maine Bar of Board Examiners, said the issue has not come up in recent memory, but the no-hat rule implies that an individual should obtain advance approval to wear religious headgear to the exam. If someone fails to do so, she said, the item may be subject to inspection on site before the test starts.
“It might be time to have a written policy, though,” she wrote in an e-mail.
John J. McAlary, executive director of the New York State Board of Law Examiners, said that on one occasion, a woman arrived to take the New York bar wearing a niqab, a veil that covers the face up to the eyes. Proctors needed to confirm her identity, so a female proctor took her into a private room before the test and asked her to remove her veil briefly so the proctor could make sure her face matched her photo ID. He said proctors now receive training to handle such situations.
Martha I. Hicks-Robinson, bar admissions administrator for the Vermont Board of Bar Examiners, said she would personally examine any religious headgear before the test to make sure it contained no cheating materials, as she once did in the case of a man wearing a yarmulke.
“To interrupt someone in the middle of the exam — we absolutely wouldn’t do something like that,” she said, unless the person appeared to be cheating.