Sadaf Jaffer: Finding Common Humanity

Sadaf Jaffer is a member of the 2018-19 MALA Young Leaders Fellowship. Fellows participate in digital seminars, dinner discussions, and other MALA events. As part of the program, Fellows reflect on their multiple layers of identities – as daughters, sons, professionals, athletes, and so much more – and share those reflections into the MALA story collection. Personal stories can be a powerful catalyst for change – challenging stereotypes, building bridges, and inspiring action. In a country as diverse and complex as the United States, the identities of Muslim Americans remain layered and contested. We all have stories to tell: stories that deserve to be collected, conserved, and celebrated. We are honored to share the stories of our Fellows here.

I see myself as a human being first and foremost.

This is important to me because much of my work is about finding the common humanity across cultures, literatures, and political divides. Beyond that I identify as a South Asian American Muslim.

These parts of my identity have evolved over time. For much of my younger years I believe I was trying to find myself and see what stuck as the core of my identity. In college, I studied Arabic and went to live for a year in Egypt. I thought going to a Muslim-majority country I would feel at home. Yet in reality there was a vast difference between my South Asian upbringing and the experience of living in the Middle East. I also got a taste of the anti-South Asian sentiment and Arab supremacy that some people feel regarding Muslims from other places.

After college, I went to live in India for two years. Though at first I felt quite at home, over time I again realized how American I am in my sensibilities.

Yet Muslim identity in the United States can be fraught. I have been asked so many times why as a Muslim woman I don’t wear a headscarf for example. Yet this constant questioning about Muslim identity by both Muslims and non-Muslims has only inspired me to work harder to teach within the classroom and without about the diverse expressions of Muslim identity across time and across the world.

I see the American dream as an aspiration. It was never a perfect reality and many people have been left out of its promise. To me, living the American dream means fighting for those who don’t have the same rights and opportunities and to make sure that we constantly struggle for greater equality and justice in our society. This is why I decided to run for office, this is why I do so much of the organizing and political work that I do.

Freedom to me comes from the opportunity to pursue an excellent education, something I was provided by the Chicago public schools. It also means having agency to choose your life path and partners. This right is so often denied to women and so it is something I am especially focused on. Freedom is the right to live free from fear of oppression by the government.

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