Bushra Amiwala on Making History, Microagressions, and the Hijab

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Bushra Amiwala makes it hard to believe she’s 24. While studying at DePaul University, she made the decision to run for public office in her hometown of Skokie, IL. When she was elected to the education board, Amiwala, who is Pakistani-American, made history as the youngest Muslim elected official in the United States. Now, nearly three years later, she’s already looking ahead at reelection and a potential future in Congress. That, she makes easy to believe.

Amiwala’s identity offers inspiration to many, and she routinely hears from young Muslim people from across the country who have been empowered by her accomplishments. “It’s really exciting to see the spillover effect of that,” she says. “It humbles me.” Humility and modesty are important to Amiwala, who has worn a hijab since high school. Her decision was partly informed by a desire to correct misinformed stereotypes and assumptions about the hijab – to embrace her cultural and religious identity and, in turn, nudge others towards embracing it, too. “It sounds almost naive to talk about it now,” Amiwala says, “but that’s honestly what it was.”

The demands of Skokie School District 73.5 range from addressing administrative turnover to overseeing cleaning protocol amid the pandemic. She attends meetings once a month, but she’s also on the board’s equity committee, which bears a separate meeting. Students sometimes stop by these meetings and speak to the impact of certain programs or curriculum. It’s a nonpartisan, part-time role, so Amiwala primarily works as an account manager associate for Google, where she also leads allyship trainings.

In honour of World Hijab Day on Feb. 1, POPSUGAR spoke to Amiwala about her political inspirations, aspirations, and the hijab’s significance in her personal and professional life.

POPSUGAR: Since you were elected at such a young age, how do your friends feel about your political journey?
Bushra Amiwala: There’s always a dissonance between seeing me at the professional lens and then seeing me as a peer and friend, but if anything, it’s really motivated and inspired my friends, not only to care about the electoral process, but it’s also encouraged a lot of them to truly be the best version of themselves when it comes to their professional careers and take ownership over what they do.

I definitely think that it has served as an inspiration for not only my friends and my peers but people in the community that see me. I know that because I get emails, DMs on Instagram, and messages on Facebook from people who maybe were a freshman when I was a senior in high school, saying, “Because of you, you inspired me to go for this challenge, and now I’m the head production for my school’s play.” As a young woman in politics, I didn’t even think I could influence the theoretical sphere. It’s really exciting to see the spillover effect of that, and it humbles me.

PS: Is there a particular exchange that stands out in your memory?
BA: I can name five different people who have reached out across the country – young Muslim people who ran for public office because they saw me do it and believed that they could do it as well. I don’t think any of them ended up getting elected per se, but I had chats with all of them about what I wish I had known. There’s only so much that I can do on my own at a microscale and to see it translate at that caliber, and at that scale nationally, is such an amazing feeling.

PS: Who are your biggest professional inspirations?
BA: I actually had the chance to meet one of them in November: President Barack Obama. I had a two-hour sit-down conversation with him. It was myself and a couple other community activists in the Chicago area: we had a community roundtable with him.

He and Michelle embody so much resilience, and that trait of resiliency is one that I’ve seen every political leader I admire: Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – all of these people have so much hate, and negativity, and conservative media, and all of these different external factors working against them, yet that does not stop them. That trait of resiliency is one I really hope to emulate, because I feel I have my fair share of external factors working against me as well.

PS: We’re speaking days before World Hijab Day, so I’d like to get into that aspect of your identity. Broadly speaking, what does the hijab mean to you?
BA: To me, the hijab means modesty. The hijab, in a practicing form, should be emulated by both men and women. It’s to act in a modest manner, it’s to dress in a modest fashion, and modesty is emulated through actions as well. In my life, I consistently dress in a modest manner, which can be particularly challenging sometimes, but really rewarding in its own way knowing that it’s tied to my faith.

I began wearing the hijab on a sort of part-time basis when I was a freshman in high school. I really wanted to be an embodiment and reflection of what a Muslim woman entailed. I was hyperaware of stereotypes people held for Muslim women – whatever those traits may be that were tied to “oppression” – and I wanted to reject those traits by being myself. It sounds almost naive to talk about it now, but that’s honestly what it was.

That was the goal: I’m about to be educated with the generation of change. The future lawyers, doctors, presidents, teachers, change-makers. If I can inspire them, and rewrite this preconceived notion before it becomes permanently ingrained in their minds, than that’s a job well done for me. And I became that. I became the national debate champion at Harvard University while in high school, I was elected onto homecoming court with my peers, and all with the hijab on.

PS: You mentioned that it has provided some challenges. Would you elaborate on that?
BA: A quick story on the note of being the debate champion at Harvard: when I was getting my championship trophy, the judge at the time said to me, “You should be so proud of yourself. This is an incredible feat, and you are so articulate for a Muslim woman.” That person wasn’t affiliated with Harvard – these judges come from all around – but it reminds me that those types of microaggressions will follow me no matter what I’m doing and how great I’m doing it. That’s what I’m viewed as first. That person’s preconceived notions will always be at the forefront, and that’s the biggest challenge.

How do I get viewed as an everyday person who tries to represent all communities? Especially in this elected role, it’s hard for people to see beyond that. It’s hard for people to see beyond my religious identity. So instead of putting it in a box and ignoring it, I’ve come to embrace it. The flip side is that makes people uncomfortable. I don’t know what that fine line or what that balance is. It’s still something that I’m exploring and coming to terms with.

PS: In light of those challenges, did you ever consider not wearing the hijab while running for office?
BA: That’s a great question. I would say no, but something I want to call out too is that the way I wear the hijab, you can see some of my hair. So a lot of the criticism that I received was from other hijab-wearing women in the community, unfortunately. They would say, “Well, you’re not even wearing it properly.” Which I understand, but again, coming back to my original point, hijab means modesty. When you’re faced with a comment like that, the question that I would want to pose is, “Do you want me to stop wearing it altogether? What do you want me to do?” That’s what upsets and hurts me the most, but by no means did I ever let it impact me or influence the decision to not wear it or to take it off.

PS: I imagine your line of work, especially during a pandemic, can be draining. What keeps you going? What do you turn to?
BA: I turn to this sense of feeling like, “Wow, look how far I’ve been able to come.” That serves as inspiration to myself as to why I should keep going.

I’m currently evaluating whether I would run for a second term or not. I’ve been elected for three years now, and next year would be the election. So I’d have to start campaigning by Q4 of this year. There’s still so much work needed to be done. There’s a vast amount of work that has yet to be touched. Those conversations haven’t started yet, not just in my district, but nationally. Until I see that, I have to keep going. The need is still there, the demand is still there, and that’s where I personally will step in. Outside of being on the board of education, I have a day job. I could easily choose to not do this in my free time. There’s so much we put up with as elected officials, but the work still needs to be done, and that’s what keeps me going.

PS: Five or ten years down the line, where do you see yourself?
BA: I see myself in Congress in five, 10, or 20 years. I don’t know how many terms I’ll spend in Congress, but I definitely will be there at least for a term or two. I wholeheartedly believe that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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