Upping the Ante

3 years ago / by Alpana Varma

Dr. Sadaf Jaffer, the first South Asian American woman mayor in New Jersey, now plans to run for state assembly.

If she wins, Jaffer, whose second term as mayor of Montgomery Township expired on December 31, 2020, could thus become the first woman of South Asian origin and the first Muslim American to serve in the state legislature. She will be contesting as a Democrat from Legislative District 16.

Jaffer told SEEMA over the phone, “To me, elected office is a calling. It always comes down to whether I have the community’s support to pursue an office to represent them.” She added that in contesting she was responding to calls from members of the community asking her to represent them.

“There are not enough South Asian women involved in politics and so we don’t get our perspective represented,” she says. She points out that more than 10 per cent of New Jersey’s population is Asian American, a significant number of whom are of South Asian origin. 

“We need that representation,” she says. “Representation matters and I was proud to encourage increased civic engagement and participation from diverse communities as the first South Asian woman in New Jersey, and the first Muslim woman to become a mayor in the United States.”

She gave an example of how during the pandemic, she got to know that there were undocumented people from minority communities who hesitated to go to food pantries. It turned out that other mayors had never heard of that. As the only non-white mayor in the state, she was particularly tuned in to the concerns and troubles of minorities.

Jaffer discussed how women from the community reached out to her to discuss the domestic violence they endured. She allocated funds and arranged support for them as she found out that the problem was endemic to the community. 

She continues, “There are times when being a mother has informed my advice. For example, when I insisted a shaded structure be created in the playground of a daycare, so that children can play even when the sun is strong. Others may not [understand it]. But I know it from my experience.”

Jaffer is running on the platform of prosperity for all through green jobs and equitable economic policies, promoting civil and human rights and inclusiveness in public health. To help the economy, she wants to focus on innovation and the Made in New Jersey initiative, among other things promoting agro-tourism in the state. 

Jaffer wants increased funding in education while still reducing property tax. To ensure civil and human rights for workers, she would seek to enforce living wages, safe working conditions and equitable schedules. She also stands for increased recruitment of women and minorities in law enforcement. 

According to her, the pandemic has shown the great disparities between those who have resources and access to vaccines and those who do not. She would like there to be more resources and training for those who need it, and consequences for those who create disparities in health care. She also believes that teachers should get priority in the vaccination process.

On the abysmal representation of South Asian women in state and how the recent special elections in New York district 24 in which four women of South Asian origin contested and none won, Jaffer told SEEMA, “Running is not just about winning. Although we all want to win, the real goal is to get the community activated. You learn so much as you raise issues. It is all about building a movement.” 

Jaffer herself lost the first time she ran in the local elections, winning the second time around.

“It’s trial and error. You learn through experience. One should not get discouraged,” she says.

Citing the case of Vice-President Kamala Harris, Jaffer says, “This is a hopeful time for our community and it’s clear that we can make it to the highest echelons of power.”

She also shared with SEEMA her love for wearing saris, 

“Wearing traditional South Asian clothing gives me confidence because I feel I can rely on the strength of my ancestors,” she says. “The attire is part of my identity.” For her swearing-in ceremony as mayor, she wore a red sari.

Outside politics, Jaffer is a postdoctoral research associate in South Asian studies at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. She teaches courses on South Asian, Islamic and Asian American Studies. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a PhD at Harvard University in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. 

She was born in Chicago, to a mother born in Karachi, Pakistan, and a father in Aden, Yemen. Both parents, though, are originally from the Kutch region of Gujarat.