Non-Muslim Lawyer Dons Abaya for 9-11 Trial May 18, 2012

Non-Muslim Lawyer Dons Abaya for 9-11 Trial

Attorney Cheryl Bormann is in the midst of defending alleged September 11th conspirator Walid bin Attash, a member of the so called Gitmo 5.

It was while meeting with her client that the Chicago-based lawyer began dressing in an abaya — a traditional Muslim woman’s garment that covers everything but the wearer’s face — to avoid distracting her extremely conservative client.  Bormann herself is not Muslim. 

She claims:

“I want him to be able to fully concentrate on the proceedings at hand without any kind of interference or loss of focus.”

Bormann defending bin Attash in court (AFP)

As an atheist and a feminist, I generally find the idea of abayas, burkas, etc disgusting and offensive.  I think that they promote victim-blaming in cases of rape and the objectification of women in Islamic countries.  My initial reaction to her choice of covering her body, arms, legs, and hair was that she was  caving into a misogynistic tradition and that she was just encouraging their attitude against women.

Of course, who am I to tell anyone how to dress?  I kind of swayed to the thought that it is her choice to dress the way she wants and if she thinks that it is in her client’s best interest to not be distracted by her slutty, slutty hair, then so be it.  Sure, I find it fundamentally sick, but a lady needs a court victory!  I am pro-sensible clothing.  Maybe this is a really bright move on her part.

And then she said this:

“If because of somebody’s religious beliefs, they cannot focus when somebody in the courtroom is dressed in a particular way, I feel then incumbent on myself as his counsel to point that out and ask for some consideration from the prosecution.”

Nope.  You don’t get to tell other people how to dress, Ms. Bormann.  Sorry.  Your client has an insane, misogynistic, religious philosophy, not an ankle-allergy.  You do what you think is best for him, and if that includes covering your body or doing back flips or setting yourself on fire, that’s all your choice and your prerogative as his legal counsel.  Please do not expect anyone else to bend over backwards to accommodate his irrational fear of women’s extremities.

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  • newavocation

    This reminds me of the quote:
    “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    If this man is so sensitive to how females look etc.  why does he have a female lawyer representing him?  Surely that’s demeaning to him in his mind?

  • PamEllis

    I read about this when it first happened. The news sources that mainly covered it were right wing friendly, but has info.

    Personally, the defendants attorney can dress how she likes, but going overboard like she did would not appeal to me were I to rule on the guilt or non-guilt of the defendants, and the call by her to have other women in the court dress more modestly would piss me off.
    The women in the court are not dressed in bikinis or mini skirts, but in professional attire. Are these men children? 

  • jose


    “…or what?”

  • David McNerney

    The judge shouldn’t allow this – it’s theatrics and it’s turning the court into a circus.

    Which is ironic because this woman is obviously a clown.

  • rhodent

    I don’t see anything wrong per se with what she’s doing.  A defense lawyer should be using every trick they can think of to help their client.  That’s the way our justice system works.

    On the other hand, I think it’s poor strategy.  Wearing an abaya and “asking for some consideration from the prosecution” seems likely to backfire.  She’s essentially othering her own client.  I can’t help but wonder if she’s trying to sabotage her client’s defense.  If so, she should be removed as his lawyer (I’m assuming she was court-appointed, in part because I don’t see these guys choosing a female lawyer).  After all, if these guys deserve a trial in the first place, then they deserve a lawyer who is actually on their side.

  • I_Claudia

    I think it’s perfectly fine for her to wear an Abaya, or a bunny suit, or anything that won’t get her arrested, if she reasonably thinks it will help her win her case.

    Now, if the prosecution lawyer is also a woman, she’s equally within her rights to go for a mini-skirt, Louis Vuitton red heels and a white shirt just one too many buttons undone if she has a reasonable expectation that this will help her case.

    Neither should be obligatory, and neither, within the limits of security (so no Niqabs) should be banned.

  • Atoswald

    I think she’s kidding herself if she thinks this will help him. It certainly won’t help his image in court. And if he is really so offended by a woman’s hair and ankles, he is not going to care what she’s wearing because he will never get past the fact that his lawyer is a WOMAN. Personally, I wouldn’t want this woman as my lawyer. She has compromised herself to accomodate misogyny and bigotry, and has asked others to do the same. Not my idea of a strong defense.

  • Rich Orman

     Sorry, but attorneys don’t get to dress how they want in the courtroom.  I for instance, have to wear a tie.  Period.  I have no choice.  I have to wear a jacket or suit-coat.  No choice.  I can’t wear a hat, unless I have a specific religious reason to do so (i.e. a yarmulke, etc).  Judg”es (at least the judges I have seen) expect lawyers to dress in “appropriate courtroom attire.  I once saw a male lawyer appear in court without a tie.  The judge got red-faced, stormed off the bench, came back with a tie (a spare one he had in his chambers, I guess), and threw it (hard) at the lawyer, telling him to dress appropriately in his courtroom.

    Women attorneys have more leeway, as there is no standard “uniform” like there is for men attorneys, but there are limits to appropriate courtroom attire nonetheless.  This, IMHO, goes way beyond the pale.  If her client can’t deal with the way American female lawyers dress in the courtroom, I say tough, he should learn to deal with it or be distracted.  Defendants have a right to a fair trial, not a trial free from distractions.  The judge should have told Ms. Borrman to leave the courtroom and come back dressed like a lawyer.

  • kit

    Speaking as a law student, I actually have to defend her actions on the basis of: If her client instructed her to ask the court to do this, then it may have actually been a prudent choice. Sometimes your clients want you to plead some ridiculous things and sometimes you have to plead ridiculous things so your client will follow your advice on other things. They’re instructing you, so you can advise them not to do so but if push comes to shove, well, you’d rather have the client be more reasonable about more important issues. You CAN also withdraw from the case, but withdrawal is limited to very few circumstances and may not have been an option for this lawyer. If my client has the most ridiculous self-defence theory of the case, and he insists it is true, and he insists that I use it, I might think it’s totally ridiculous but I’d still have to use it because it would be prejudicial to his case if I withdrew (depending on how soon trial is) and I couldn’t necessarily cite solicitor-client conflict if he otherwise relied on me.

    In short, none of us know what this lawyer discussed with her client prior to this request. I imagine she tried to advise him not to do so and was instructed to ask the court this anyway. Withdrawing over something of this nature wouldn’t have been allowed under my jurisdiction’s law society code of professional conduct, and I might have been sanctioned if I tried. I don’t imagine her situation is that different. At the end of the day, your client is allowed to make bad decisions.

  • Gryff

    This is pretty much why barristers in most Commonwealth countries, following from UK tradition, wear horsehair wigs and robes – they become anonymous advocates for whomever they may be prosecuting or defending

  • Mark

     Or the lawyer is simply setting her first appeal into motion.

    By making a clothing request for the prosecution, to avoid distraction on a cultural basis, which will be rejected, she will be able to file a legitimate sounding appeal at the end of the trial. Which will be used to delay the death penalty.

    I believe this was done solely to give her client a few extra months/years before he is executed. Quite elegant, really.

    Remember, if her client is guilty, this trial isn’t so much about getting him off, but to keep him alive for as long as possible.  So its all about building instances of oppression, incompetence, mishandles, etc that can then be used to extend her clients life after the verdict.

  • Prosecution could go naked, for a fair and balanced treatment…

  • Patrick

    Agreed.  Part of an attorney’s duty is to advise and facilitate someone else’s moral choices, even if those choices aren’t necessarily wise.  If your client asks you to do this sort of thing, first you examine whether its ethical.  If it is, you inform him of the likely consequences at trial.  If he still wants to do it, you either do it or resign so that someone else can.

  • Mitch W.

    I beg the fates to let the judge be a woman!

  • compl3x

    Stupid, childish tactic. No doubt there will be other women in the courtroom, how is this poor, easily distracted misogynist supposed to concentrate if they’re not all covered up too?

  • Tim

    Whenever UK barristers are asked if they want to retain the requirement to wear their wigs, robes etc, the profession splits almost perfectly…

    The comericial lawyers, the guys dealing with patent infringements, business contacts etc want to loose the wigs so that they can wear a smart dark buiness suit (ties for men)  and look like busuness people.  And in every Patent litigation case I have sat in, the judge starts the day by removing his own wig and “giving permission” (ie, requiring) Counsel to remove their’s 

    The criminal lawyers want to keep the anonymity of the costume. 

  • Tim

    “slutty, slutty hair”,  I like that.  Ms Bormann is blonde.  Perhaps that makes it worse.

    It isn’t just the Musilims who have the hair fixation.  St Paul said  “Now I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God,”,   “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man…. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.”…  

  • The Abaya is not just a feminist problem. It is designed under the idea that men have no control so women must dress a certain way. Its an equal rights problem I don’t like the reverse side of it  where I am considered a misogynistic rapist because they say men cant control themselves.

  • Sharon Hypatia

    I have to wonder how a faithful Muslim man could move to any non-muslim nation where he would  have to walk amongst millions of women who aren’t properly hidden behind yards of black fabric, thus exposing themselves to all that temptation to sin?
    Whether he was here planning the 9/11 attack, or had come for other reasons, Walid bin Attash seems to have survived this massive assault on his senses and morality  during the time in he lived in the US before his trial.
    Same with all the other muslimmen who immigrate to western countries, then want their women to wear the abaya or niqab. Their women folk are safe but the men are breaking the rules and risking their souls.

  • Exactly. An advocate represents their client in court, not themselves. It doesn’t make sense to hold the views they express on behalf of their client against them.

  • Mihangel apYrs

    Perhaps a blindfold would help  …..

  • Thin-ice

    My guess is that the defendants would NOT have chosen a female lawyer. She was no doubt appointed by the court, or represents the firm that was chosen to defend them.

    So they’re probably extremely pissed off that a women is representing them anyway, regardless of her wearing an Abaya.

  • AxeGrrl

    /end of thread    🙂

  • I feel then incumbent on myself as his counsel to point that out and ask for some consideration from the prosecution

    You don’t get to tell other people how to dress

    She has every right to ask.  And maybe it’s good legal strategy.  And we have the right to laugh at it.  And I hope the Judge does a big double-face-palm before saying “NO!”

  •  I’ve been in dozens of courtrooms as a lawyer. In for the urban courtrooms I can’t think of a single judge  for whom ethnic or religious variations on standard clothing would be a problem as long as it was clear that the clothing was at an appropriate level of formality and was not intended disrespectfully.  For instance, I’m certain that no  urban/suburban judge that I’ve been before, with one possible exception, would object to a sari  on a woman or a Pakistani-style shalwar kameez on a man.  Head coverings can be an issue, certainly.  Some judges would certainly give a man in a turtleneck the side-eye.  But strict uniform for men or women lawyers. 

    I’ve practiced in rural courts too.  No prediction as to what would happen, but that’s just because I’m not sure that the judges would recognize that the intent was respectful the way urban judges would.

  • Arc182

    HA HA HAAAWWW!!! That’s the best solution I’ve ever heard!!!

  • I would think her actions and words would be harmful to her client.  It seems to imply he self-control issues if all the people around him have to alter their appearance and/or behavior to avoid provoking him. 

  • Chak 47

    It seems to me that if his own urges place him in some sort of spiritual danger, it’s his problem, not the problem of the women he encounters.  He always has the option of wearing a mask over his eyes.  For that matter, he could put his eyes out – problem solved!  Nah, much more convenient for him if all the women he ever sees are covered head to toe. 

  • Monika

     In Germany lawyers, prosecutors, and judges wear robes in court, no horsehair wigs, though. For men the aditional rule is to wear a tie.

  • Monika

    Am I mean to wish for lots of women to attend wearing sleevesless blouses and short skits?

  • amycas

    ^^This. Most people don’t realize that every single objection is then used to build an appeals case. If the lawyer doesn’t make an objection, then they can’t use it in an appeals case.  So, if you feel your client has a weak case, just build up as many appeals suits as you can while the trial is on.

  • amycas

    This is one reason feminists say the patriarchy hurts everybody.

  • amycas

     I love walking right passed the conservative (insert religious student organization here) when they have a booth up in front of the student  library at school and I’m wearing a spaghetti strap shirt and shorts*.

    *bonus points for looking “slutty” and having multiple visible tattoos (one is based off of a drawing of a phylogeny tree)

  • Georgina

    She said ” I thought Al-qiyda was decimated” – well yes luv, it was, but that it all it was, it is the other 90% that is the problem. 

  • “I want him to be able to fully concentrate on the proceedings at hand without any kind of interference or loss of focus.”


  • I agree with Graham, why did he hire a female lawyer in the first place?

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