From NJ mayor to Congress: Muslim women targets of hate
Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley held a press conference in response to the President Trump's tweets. Associated Press
Sadaf Jaffer made headlines after she became the first female Muslim mayor in New Jersey, and possibly in the nation, in January. Then came the hate.
Hundreds of tweets poured in saying that the new mayor of Montgomery would implement sharia law and warning of a Muslim “invasion” and “jihadist takeover.”
“It was exhausting. How much of this can you take in?” said Jaffer, noting that she spent days going through messages and reporting them to Twitter. “There are some really very dark corners out there and unfortunately our president is really stoking the hatred.”
The bigoted comments directed at Jaffer lay bare the incredible contradiction of public expectations for Muslim women in America. Muslim women are stereotyped as oppressed, silent and failing to assimilate. But when these women take leadership positions in community and government, proving their critics wrong, they are still maligned for being involved while Muslim.
It’s a pattern that has spanned from a mayor’s office in a New Jersey township up to Congress, where two Muslim congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have been called pro-terrorist and un-American, where they’ve had to hire extra security because of death threats, where their every word is scrutinized and, sometimes, distorted.
Still, female Muslim leaders and organizers said in interviews they would not back down because of the backlash they or others have faced.
Changing minds at the local level
Jaffer, who has degrees from Harvard and Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and is a postdoctoral researcher a Princeton University, envisioned a career in diplomacy.
When she grew unhappy with her local representation in Congress, she became involved in local politics. She saw it an effective way to make a difference by interacting with residents and building bridges among communities.
“People are so focused on state and national and international issues that they neglect the local,” said Jaffer, 36. “A lot of our problems are at the local level where you meet face to face.”
In her community, she heard a handful of negative comments alluding to her faith and saw fliers calling her ideas “extreme” and “dangerous." But she said it was mostly outsiders, people who did not know her, who sent her messages of hate.
“I think locally my being Muslim is not really very relevant,” she said. “It’s just incidental.”
Jaffer helped start a New Jersey-based group, called Inspiring South Asian American Women, that promotes civic involvement and public service. She's glad to serve as an example to others.
"I think it’s very hard to do things when you don’t see examples of it before you," she said.
Following the 2016 Democratic convention, Donald Trump commented about Ghazala Khan, whose son died serving the U.S. military and who stood aside her husband as he spoke on stage.
"She was standing there. She had nothing to say...maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say," said Trump, then a candidate for president. Khan said in interviews that it was too painful to speak about her son.
Now, his ire is directed at the outspoken Muslim women of Congress. He claims they “hate our country" and should "go back" to the "places from which they came."
The vitriol has been shared by other elected officials, including Toms River Regional school board member Daniel Leonard, who is facing calls to resign this week after he shared anti-Muslim messages on his personal Facebook page.
In one post, he wrote "my life would be complete if she/they die" over a photograph of Tlaib. Another photo features Omar and the words "Terrorist....100 percent."
A third post is an image of a bruised Barbie doll in a head scarf. "Sharia Barbie, Comes with Jihab [sic], bruises, & Quran, Stoning accessories available for additional purchase." The post was an apparent reference to the Islamic head scarf, actually known as a "hijab."
In Westchester County, Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan, the chairwoman of the American Muslim Women’s Association, said she does not always agree with Omar and Tlaib and the language they’ve used. But she was proud of their election to Congress and their role in breaking down stereotypes.
“It’s a harder task, with (July 17th's) rally and with the president saying four women should go back to their countries,” she said. “It becomes difficult for them to overcome it and for all of us also.”
Still, Hassan did not think the hate directed at Muslim leaders would deter others from getting involved, at least on a local level, noting the diversity of the region.
Jaffer got a hand from Emerge New Jersey which recruits and trains Democratic women who want to run for office.
Other organizations exist that focus on political empowerment of Muslim Americans and help those who want to run for office. Nada Al-Hanooti, a Paterson native who runs the Michigan chapter of Emgage, one of those groups, said more people have gotten involved in politics, upset over how Muslims have been portrayed in the media and treated by the Trump administration.
The two Muslim women in Congress – along with non-Muslims Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley – are helping to bring even more women into the fold, she said.
“When you have four women in Congress that look like us, that have the same beliefs and ideals, that’s going to encourage other people to get involved,” said Al-Hanooti, 28.
Jetpac, an organization that supports Muslim candidates for office, said the attacks on Omar and Tlaib were part of a "playbook" that calls for critics to falsely claim that the leader is anti-Semitic, pro-terrorism and anti-American.
Shaun Kennedy, executive director of Jetpac, said it was too soon to gauge the impact of the backlash against the congresswomen on political involvement. A program for Muslims aspiring to run for office has drawn around 200 applications — 60 percent of them women, he said. Many applicants cite Trump's rhetoric and policies as motivations, he said.
TRUMP'S TWEETS: Attack on 'the Squad' part of long-term strategy, experts say
Kaity Assaf, a 21-year-old Clifton resident who aspires to go into politics, said she was saddened by calls for the congresswomen to “go back to where they came from.”
“It’s very disheartening to hear these comments coming from our own president,” said Assaf, a Rutgers student who co-led the Women’s March on New Jersey in Trenton earlier this year. "We have young people who are looking up to the president."
Assaf started her activism while still in high school, when she successfully lobbied the Clifton school district to designate Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday, as a public-school holiday.
The fact that Muslim women often become a target for hate when in the spotlight does not worry her, she said. In fact, it has made her even more committed.
“It’s better motivation to go after what I want to be, an elected person, actually,” she said. “It motivates me because I want to unite people and bring people together. I want to be a symbol like Ilhan Omar, a symbol of strength.”
In White Plains, high school valedictorian Kalsoom Rashid said stereotypes about Muslims drove her to work harder.
"If you want to break those mindsets, we have to do the work," she said. "That's the point of being valedictorian. It was a goal for me, not just for myself but to show people that we can reach that point."