September 15, 2020March 22, 2021 5min readBy Anika Raju
Photo courtesy of Laurent Lawson
Brown Girl Magazine had the opportunity to interview Fatima Iqbal-Zubair, a mother, teacher and advocate running for state assembly in California’s 64th district. In the interview, she discussed her upbringing, why she is running and the importance of South Asian girls and women pursuing their passions, even if it means going against the grain.
One of the greatest displays of inequity in our country is in none other than vibrant, star-studded Los Angeles, California, where million-dollar, celebrity-owned mansions stand only dozens of miles from small, one-bedroom homes in primarily Black and Latinx communities.
After witnessing how such inequities manifest, 38-year-old Fatima Iqbal-Zubair decided to run for State Assembly in California’s 64th district on a platform of education reform, environmental justice, affordable housing, healthcare for all, divestment from police and immigration justice. If elected, Iqbal-Zubair would be the first Sri Lankan, first Muslim and the first woman ever to represent the district. She would also be one of just three immigrants and three teachers in the assembly.
Iqbal-Zubair moved to California in 2009. She spent four years working as a high school science teacher in the low-income community of Watts, Los Angeles, which inspired her to run for office.
“When I started working at Watts, it was around the time when Bernie Sanders was running his first campaign. And so, a lot of the ideas he was speaking of, I heard them, and I internalized them at the same time as when I experienced teaching in Watts, which was all students of color. A very low-income community, [it] has the lowest life expectancy in all of LA. It’s only 3% college graduates.”
Iqbal-Zubair’s students were severely limited in resources to help them succeed. She shared that they didn’t have access to clean water at school or in their homes. Their housing was built on an old steel factory from World War II that contaminated the soil with lead. Added to this environmental toxicity was a lack of funding in public schools, preventing students from reaching their full potential.
“I realized my kids were smarter than I ever was. I’m working with the smartest kids in the world. I really am. Like, it’s this untouched potential in places like Watts and Compton. That’s what really broke my heart.”
Iqbal-Zubair saw her students’ potential and advocated for programs that would allow them to flourish. For example, she started the first robotics team in Watts. But, she wanted to do more. Seeing how the system failed these communities over and over, Iqbal-Zubair felt a sense of urgency to run and enact real change.
Living in multiple countries before reaching adulthood, Iqbal-Zubair gained exposure to different lived experiences which further enhanced her understanding of injustices in society. When speaking of her birthplace Dubai, Iqbal-Zubair didn’t reflect through rose-colored glasses; instead, she acknowledged the grotesque inequities that exist in one of the wealthiest places in the world.
“Now [Dubai] has become this haven of wealth and tourism, which I don’t really like because here’s the truth: Dubai has essentially a form of slavery […]. There are women from Sri Lanka who get funneled in, work in these households almost as servants. I think, barely get paid anything. […]. And then you have gross amounts of wealth. That’s always troubling when people are like ‘Oh, Dubai is so cool.’ […]. It’s cool if you’re really rich, but it’s not cool for the middle class, or it’s not cool for [these women].”
When Iqbal-Zubair was seven years old, the Gulf War broke out, and she and her family sought refuge by moving to Saskatchewan, Canada. Upon starting high school, she and her family immigrated once again – this time to Bergenfield, New Jersey, where she also attended college.
The September 11 attacks happened at the start of Iqbal-Zubair’s freshman year of college, instigating a rise in xenophobia against Muslim Americans.
“Back then I wasn’t wearing a hijab, but my mom was, and I just remember people spitting at her car, drawing things on her car. 9/11 changed so many things for my family, especially my family that looked visibly Muslim. […]. It was really hard seeing my mom go through these things, just going to the grocery store. And then that really impacted me – made me think about the type of America we should have.”
Nineteen years have passed, and xenophobia has only increased under the Trump administration. Seeing the lack of representation in institutions of power, Iqbal-Zubair was determined to change that.
“Being in Trump[‘s] America, it angered me as a Muslim woman. […]. I was like, ‘You know what? We need more people that look like me in politics. Like, there has never been a Muslim in the state legislature? Well, I’m going to do it. You know?’ I’m going to do it because we need representation.”
Growing up with the pressures of immigrant parents, Iqbal-Zubair’s path didn’t always lead in the direction of politics. In fact, upon her parents’ wishes, Iqbal-Zubair went to medical school before discovering what she loves doing most: teaching.
“So a lot of times as Asians, we’re told there’s only three professions we can go into: an engineer, a lawyer, or a doctor. And I think that definitely impacted me growing up. I think my parents as immigrants always wanted the best for me. And I kind of got funneled into that. […] And for some reason, these are the only three professions we’re taught, but education means so many things. You can educate yourself in like, I don’t know, social justice, right? In policy.”
Iqbal-Zubair encourages South Asian girls to do what they love when they grow up, even if it doesn’t adhere to the expectations of their immigrant communities. It’s more pressing than ever that we have greater representation of women of color in office.
“When in office, I hope to lead with full transparency, integrity and accountability to the people of my district and for California — community leaders and organizers, instead of corporate donors, will be at the table when any important decisions are made. I hope to expand our democracy by passing publicly funded elections, ranked choice voting, and expanding voting rights. I also hope to lead on the Green New Deal, public education, guaranteed housing, healthcare for all and criminal justice reform. We can’t wait any longer to fight systems of classism and racism in California. The time is now!”
To learn more about Fatima Iqbal-Zubair and her platform click here. Register to vote here.
Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting.
In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance eventcentered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.
In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships.
Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality.SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.
While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.
Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Dear President Biden,
As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.
Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.
“As privileged members of the diaspora, it’s our duty to challenge the repressive practices of the current regime in India. We stand in solidarity with those … opposed to the government’s attempt to reshape the country into a Hindu nationalist state. https://t.co/RxU9wUy2Zy
Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.
India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders‘ press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index — which examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi.
“If the President meets with PM Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities, there’s a strong possibility India starts pulling apart.” Thank you @BarackObama! https://t.co/RhcMNfiqaR
Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.
This morning in DC, on the lawn of The White House at the welcome reception for Modi.
As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.
— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).