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Opinion | What It’s Like To Run For Office As A Muslim Woman In The South

In the lead-up to this year’s midterm elections, HuffPost Opinion asked writers to examine the many ways that voting ― a fundamental and hard-won civil right ― is imperiled in the United States. In far too many cases, Americans are blocked from exercising that right. This piece is part of that series, Democracy Denied.

Most candidates running for elected office spend their time talking to voters about the issues.

But I’m a 25-year-old hijab-wearing woman running to represent my district in the Georgia State House, and I don’t have that luxury. Before I can discuss my ideas about improving education, the economy, transportation, health care and equality, I have to spend a lot of time persuading voters that I am a local candidate — a Southerner with strong ties to the community, just like them.

Making the argument that I am deeply invested in my community because I grew up here and that I share many of the same concerns and values as my neighbors can be a hard sell. Republicans across the country have tried to separate us based on our differences, as if people who look like me — the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, a Muslim and a person of color — are the “other.”

This summer, my younger sister, who does not wear a headscarf so she doesn’t immediately come across as Muslim, was having a great conversation with a voter she met while canvassing on my behalf. That is, until she handed the voter my campaign card, which features a photograph of me. Suddenly the voter said, “I am not interested” — and slammed her front door.

While that kind of blatant prejudice is rare, my campaign did feel compelled to create a video emphasizing that I am the girl who ran the bases playing softball at George Pierce Park, graduated from North Gwinnett High School, volunteered at the Suwanee Fest, watched the parade each year in Duluth and earned the HOPE scholarship to the University of Georgia.

Republicans across the country have tried to separate us based on our differences, as if people who look like me are the ‘other.’

Portraying candidates of color as “different” or “alien” is nothing new. Donald Trump famously — and falsely — suggested that President Barack Obama was not an American citizen, demanding to see his birth certificate. And now, with more women, minorities and first-time candidates running for public office than ever before, white male establishment politicians are running scared. In one recent high-profile ad, indicted Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. (R-Calif.) attacked his rival Ammar Campa-Najjar, implying that he is a terrorist “working to infiltrate Congress” and is “being funded by the Muslim Brotherhood.” 

There have been other obstacles for me. As a first-time candidate, I was a bit naïve about what it meant to run for office. I imagined all the fun stuff — marching in parades, giving speeches, talking to voters and going to events. But I also had to quickly learn the nuts and bolts of how to run a campaign: opening a bank account, filing campaign finance forms, building a staff and raising money.

A bigger difficulty was running for a newly open seat as a progressive Democrat in a deep red state — a seat that has been held by a Republican white man since I’ve been alive. No Democrat has so much as challenged the Republican incumbent here in at least 14 years, but now the incumbent is retiring.

During the primary, when I would knock on voters’ doors, people were surprised to see a Democrat. They would say, “Good luck!” as if I were on some totally quixotic mission. It’s been hard to get across the idea that just because it’s been a Republican state and a Republican district for the past 25 years doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

Just because it’s been a Republican state and a Republican district for the past 25 years doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

Recently, we hit another potential stumbling block. Gwinnett County officials decided to reject large numbers of mail-in ballots from people of color—an issue that  resulted in two federal lawsuits. Just last week, thankfully, a federal judge ordered election officials to stop summarily tossing absentee ballots because of mismatched signatures. Still, the threat of voter suppression remains; the state reportedly plans to appeal the judge’s ruling.

Georgia is just one of many places around the country where Republican officials are trying to disenfranchise voters of color. They have enacted “exact match” laws, which can disqualify voters for minor clerical errors, and “use it or lose it” laws, which strike voters from registration rolls for not voting in prior elections. They have also closed or shifted polling places and used handwriting analysis to throw out absentee ballots — all tactics that have been shown to disproportionately impact voters of color.

Of course, moves to muzzle the voices and votes of minority voters are also meant to discourage candidates like me from running in the first place­. They know it will make the race more daunting.

You might think that all of these hurdles would make me the poster child for what a candidate running for a state legislature in the Deep South should not be. But you’d be wrong.

Sure, in any other election cycle, race, religion, ethnicity or age might be a barrier to seeking office, especially in the South. But in midterm elections, where there is a visceral backlash to President Trump’s racism and misogyny, we are seeing a sea change in the types of people who are running up and down the ballot.

Moves to muzzle the voices and votes of minority voters are also meant to discourage candidates like me from running in the first place­.

In my own state, there are a record number of women vying for public office, including my GOP opponent. Among them: Zahra Karinshak, an Iranian-American military veteran who is a candidate for state Senate, Lucy McBath, an African-American gun-reform activist running for Congress, and Stacey Abrams, who is poised to make history as the first African-American governor in the country.

Just seeing who else was running this year made me feel more confident about jumping into my race — and telling my story.

I’ve long been a passionate advocate for the people of this district, especially those who have been historically underrepresented. In graduate school, I founded an organization to engage Muslim Americans in the political process because I saw that people in my community were not voting, and so they didn’t have a voice. As the policy director for a nonprofit legal and advocacy center, I’ve fought for the civil rights of immigrants and people of color by working with legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Given my history of advocacy, it was a natural next step for me to want to represent my district in the state House. In fact, people never asked me if I was going to run for office; they just asked me when I was going to run.

The answer, as turns out, is now. Now is the perfect time to make the case for why someone like me is well suited to represent all voters and why, after a quarter of a century, it might just be time for a change. Even if my hijab necessitates a little extra explaining at the outset. 

Aisha Yaqoob is the Democratic candidate for the 97th House District in the Georgia House of Representatives.

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