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Board changes policy on Mass. bar exam headware

The board that oversees bar exams in Massachusetts will now let test-takers wear religious headwear without requesting permission, after an observant Muslim was mistakenly asked to remove her headscarf earlier this month while taking the test.

Those wishing to wear headwear for religious or medical reasons had been required to ask the board in advance for an exemption to the no-headwear rule. But after Iman Abdulrazzak, who sat for the exam in Springfield, was asked to remove her hijab — her proctor was not aware that she had requested and received permission to wear it — the board changed its policy to prevent miscommunication. The change went into effect Aug. 16.

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“It has always been our intention to allow examinees to wear headwear for religious reasons, and we’ve never denied a request in the past,” said Marilyn Wellington, the executive director of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners. “Iman had notified bar examiners of her headscarf appropriately before the exam, but regrettably there was a breach in communication and her proctor did not know.”

“Now that permission is no longer necessary, that mistake will not happen again,” she said.

Test-takers may also wear headwear for medical reasons without asking permission, Wellington said. For example, she said, someone undergoing chemotherapy is free to wear a wig or a cap during the exam.

All other hats and headwear remain prohibited, a rule established to prevent people from concealing notes or other information that could be used to cheat on the exam.

Abdulrazzak said she was pleased by the board’s swift action.

‘I was pleasantly surprised they were this quick to respond. Since the incident, they have been very kind, even encouraging me to file a complaint, and I’m very grateful they’ve changed the rule.’ —Iman Abdulrazzak

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“I was pleasantly surprised they were this quick to respond,” the 24-year-old said. “Since the incident, they have been very kind, even encouraging me to file a complaint, and I’m very grateful they’ve changed the rule.”

When Abdulrazzak arrived at Western New England University School of Law to take the exam, no one said anything about her hijab, which she has worn since she was 12. But halfway through the morning session, a proctor placed this note on her desk: “Headwear may not be worn during the examination without prior written approval. . . . Please remove your headwear and place it under your desk for the afternoon session.”

During the lunch break, a proctor supervisor called the board and confirmed that Abdulrazzak’s religious exemption request had been approved, and she was allowed to continue the test. But Abdulrazzak said the interruption was confusing and stressful, and may have negatively affected her performance on the exam.

Abdulrazzak said she hopes her experience inspires others to share similar stories.

“This same thing happened to a friend of mine taking the MCAT in New York,” she said, referring to the test required for medical school, “and to a friend taking the teacher certification test in Michigan,” she said.

“I hope people in other states step forward and seek resolution with these examiners.”

A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ibrahim Hooper, called the policy change “a positive development.” He said what happened to Abdulrazzak reflected a misunderstanding, rather than any bias or hostility by the Board of Bar Examiners, and that the organization had taken appropriate steps in response.

“Now, we can move forward and have everyone’s religious rights respected,” he said. “It’s not just Muslim women wearing headscarves, but also Sikh men wearing turbans, Jewish men wearing yarmulkes, Mennonite women wearing bonnets. There’s all types of religious expression.”

Abdulrazzak is still waiting for one more thing: her exam results, expected sometime in October. If she does not pass, she is not sure what she will do.

For now, though, she is cautiously optimistic. She studied as much as she could, she said, and despite the unexpected interruption, worked diligently on the exam.

“I’m hopeful,” she said.

Nikita Lalwani can be reached at nikita.lalwani@globe.com.
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