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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Meet the Pakistani-American Candidates for the New Jersey State Assembly

If elected this November, Sadaf Jaffer and Shama Haider will become the first Pakistani American and Asian women to serve on the New Jersey State Assembly.

By Haya Fatima Sehgal

Sadaf Jaffer (L) is running from NJ assembly District 16 while Shama Haider (R) is a candidate from NJ Assembly District 37.

New Jersey, popularly known as the Garden State, is home to a fairly large population of Pakistani Americans. Although smaller in comparison to New York, it has still produced leaders who have made it to the national headlines, and that also for the right reasons.

We got a chance to speak to the former Mayor of Montgomery township Dr. Sadaf Jaffer as well as former Councilwoman of the Tenafly Borough Council, Shama Haider. Both are running for the state assembly of New Jersey and we say more power to them. Both, from what one would think is an unlikely community, especially in terms of roles in governance and decision-making positions.

Dr. Jaffer started activism as a student in college. Currently teaching at Princeton University as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in South Asian Studies, she describes herself as a ‘solutions-oriented person’. She has often voiced that the role of scholars and activists should be in decision-making positions. Although she was from academia, there was frustration that stemmed from wanting changes and speaking about them but not being directly involved. A question that came up, was why not get involved in public service “to create a positive change’.

“I realized in order to make a change it was important to have elected officials who would listen to activists and who shared their goals and their values. I think it is one of the most impactful things one can do because this is where the power is to make beneficial decisions for the people.”

As Governor Phil Murphy announced his endorsement of Sadaf Jaffer for State Assembly in the 16th Legislative District, he remains confident in her historic candidacy “to provide results for New Jerseyans”.

She has recently completed two terms as mayor of Montgomery Township in southern Somerset County, New Jersey. In January 2019, Jaffer made history as she became the first South Asian woman to serve as mayor of a municipality in New Jersey, and the first Muslim woman to serve as mayor of a municipality in the United States.

Dr. Jaffer’s work on women’s empowerment themes stands out specifically. With a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University in Foreign Service, she also has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University with a secondary field in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. She is on the Board of Directors for The New Agenda, an organization that promotes women’s economic empowerment and combats sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Dr. Jaffer was popularly known in her community as one of the founding members of Inspiring South Asian American Women (ISAAW), a group dedicated to encouraging civic engagement among South Asian American women in New Jersey.

We also had a chance to speak to Mrs. Shama Haider, who is running for the New Jersey State Assembly from District 37. Haider has also previously run for mayor of Tenafly, NJ. She is now serving as chair of the Democratic Party in Tenafly borough. The Bergen County Democratic Organization has also endorsed her.

A well-known community leader, Haider served on New Jersey’s Bergen County Commission on the Status of Women, Bergen County Human Services Advisory Council, and was the Chairperson of the Tenafly Business Development Committee.

She retired as Development Director of Arts Horizons and also chaired the LRBT trust in America. LRBT is a charity that raises funds and serves the visually impaired in Pakistan. Arts Horizons is a non-profit arts education organization that serves over 300,000 children in the tri-state area.

As she succinctly puts it: “I am running for office because I want more Muslim women to have a seat at the table. As a minority I want our voices to be heard and the best way of doing so is by taking part in politics.”

Shama Haider has been invited as a guest speaker at prestigious events such as the League of Women Voters and the Bergen County chapter of the National Council on Jewish Women.

Before emigrating to the US, Shama Haider was also secretary to a previous First Lady of Pakistan, Begum Nusrat Bhutto. She is not new to politics because she represented the first lady on a domestic and International front at many levels.

Shama is very confident of her victory in the elections this November. Her campaign is in high gear and is picking important endorsements from key political players in her district, including Tenafly Mayor Mark Zinna.

Governor Phil Murphy and the State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg endorsed her last month. The latest endorsement came from Councilman Daniel Park of Tenafly on April 1.

What stands out is that both Sadaf Jaffer and Shama Haider are highly qualified and ambitious individuals with a long public service record and a passion to serve their communities. A women’s empowerment standard would indeed be set by these two as they would be the first Pakistani American and Asian women to serve on the New Jersey State Assembly if they win.

The writer is known for her articles on cultural impact.

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