By Arnab Mondal
Bushra Amiwala, the daughter of two Pakistani immigrants, became the youngest Muslim elected official in the country at the age of 21 in 2019.
She was a DePaul University freshman when she ran for a seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2017. She lost in the Democratic primary but decided to run again for the Skokie School District’s Board of Education in 2019, which she won.
In this interview, Amiwala discusses the challenges she’s had to face as a Muslim American woman, as well as the prevalent issues in her constituency.
How did you get into politics at such a young age?
Amiwala: I was always really involved in civic work, volunteering at my local food pantry and different nonprofit organizations. Coming from an Islamic background, philanthropy and giving back to the community was always something that was taught to me.
Before the 2016 presidential elections, I found out that a lot of my friends were voting for Donald Trump to be president. I was shocked because I knew my friends were good people, yet they were supporting this person who was running a campaign on hateful rhetoric. It wasn’t adding up. That’s when I knew that I had a pretty narrow view in scope of what politics meant in the United States.
In 2016 on Sen. Mark Kirk’s campaign, I did field work. I was almost 18 years old at that time. Going door to door, talking to voters, I learned a lot doing that side of things. People in his campaign asked me to run for public office when I turned 18. I had never been asked to do something like this before, but I considered it a viable option for me as I knew I could make a difference.
As a young Muslim woman, did you run into any challenges during the elections?
Amiwala: When I first ran for the Cook County Board in March 2017, my biggest challenge was that people called me “the Muslim teen running for office.” I tried running away from that identity because that scared me. I knew that that was putting a target right on my head. So instead, I played up that I was a woman. I wore a lot of makeup and really nice political clothing. I wanted to distract people because I myself had yet to embrace that identity. I wear the hijab, and it was at the forefront of every conversation. I used to be really insecure about all that stuff. Haters kept saying that I wasn’t Muslim enough, or I was “too American.” I tried to please everybody, and it drove me insane.
How did you address these challenges?
Amiwala: I stopped listening to the haters. I stopped listening to criticism that was only meant to put me down. But if it was helpful criticism, I embraced it and took advantage of it.
What are the prevalent issues your constituency faces?
Amiwala: The biggest issue in my community is corruption. Money in politics is the most corrupt thing I’ve ever seen. Campaign finance reform is something I’m so passionate about because I never had personal funds to run for office. I raised the money on my own.
Property tax is another issue. It helps fund our school system. As a Board of Education member, I see the limited budget that we have to work with. And I see the financial burden that property taxes have had on my family. So, it’s a really thin line to draw. We have looked into other state and federal options for funding, but sometimes you just can’t please everyone.
Given the current political situation, do you encounter a lot of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim sentiments when you’re addressing the issues of the community?
Amiwala: I think my community is much smarter than that. I live in Skokie, and I don’t think Trump’s words affect them at all.
You’re a senior at DePaul University. How do you balance your studies with your responsibilities as an elected official?
Amiwala: I’m in a lot more night classes than day classes, which keeps me busy and free during the day. With my elected title, I have to go to only one board meeting a month. So, it’s very easy to balance the two. I always say that we make holding public office seem much greater than it actually is. I want it to be attainable for young people. I want to make it seem easy because I want them to know that with hard work, you can do anything.