South Asian American woman breaks boundaries with historic mayoral election

The city of Montgomery, New Jersey recently swore in the first female South Asian mayor in the United States’ east coast.

Sadaf Jaffer, a Harvard graduate, mother, activist and five-year resident of Montgomery, joins the list of historic elections in 2018.The Pakistani American has dedicated herself to social justice and education.

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Jaffer says her parents’ support encouraged her to be persistent in pursuing her dreams.

“My parents always had high expectations of [her and her little brother] but they were also very loving and supportive of our interests,” she told AsAmNews. It also helped that I was a stubborn child (that’s a trait that stuck with me!) and ultimately succeeded in advocating for my perspective.”

As a child, Jaffer explains that she always had an interest in diplomacy and politics.

“I’ve always been interested in understanding different cultures and serving as a bridge. I guess perhaps this comes from growing up as the child of immigrants and seeing how life could be so very different somewhere else. The experience of culture shock from a young age probably helped shape how I see the world. I think the international interest especially was piqued for me when I went on a high school trip to Turkey. It was fascinating to learn about a place with a Muslim majority where life was, again, so different than I might have imagined.”

Her interests took her to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She soon would be working for the Somerset County State Department and earned a National Security Education Fellowship to study abroad in Egypt, where she later worked at the U.S. Marine Corps Cultural Center. Later, Jaffer took a brief hiatus from her political interests to pursue a PhD in Indo-Muslim culture at Harvard.

“I just became really fascinated by my studies especially understanding South Asia and Islamic Societies.”

After wrapping up her doctoral dissertation, Jaffer and her husband made Montgomery, New Jersey their home.

“My husband and I both work at Princeton University so initially it was the proximity to campus (only about 10 minutes by car) as well as the green atmosphere and tree-lined streets. Initially we rented a place not thinking we were going to have a child but then we did. When we had the opportunity to buy our dream home we found it in Montgomery as well.”

Since she was no longer tied to doctoral responsibilities, Jaffer was able to become more politically engaged and involved with Emerge New Jersey. This group focuses on helping women in the Democratic Party run for office. As a result, voters elected Jaffer to the Montgomery’s township committee on the Democratic Party ticket in 2017. Interestingly, Jaffer ran against all Republicans. Her victory paved the way for two more Democratic candidates to join the township committee. In Montgomery, township committee members choose the mayor and deputy mayor for one-year terms. Her rise to the mayor’s office surprised many.

“For me the primary goal has never been simply winning. As someone with a background in education I wanted to encourage civic engagement and education for all. I always saw my campaign as a way to bring more people into their political system and to elevate their voices and concerns. I also thought it important to show a candidate who shared the values of many people in our community including respect for diversity and inclusion,” Jaffer says.

An even bigger surprise for Jaffer was being the first female South Asian Mayor.

“It’s exciting to be the first, but the attention has been a surprise. I’ve been so focused on my local context I didn’t really think about what my victory would mean beyond my town. I’m happy to serve as an example for others that the public sphere and politics are for everyone. We need those diverse voices and experiences to make our communities stronger. If you don’t like how things are going, get involved. You will definitely make a difference.”

During her time in office, Jaffer says she hopes to “improve communication from the township to residents and also clarify how people can get their questions answered and their concerns addressed. I’m also interested in increasing diversity and inclusion in our local boards and commissions.” She continued, “For me the primary issue is whether there are people who share my values in elected office and making sure that I trust the judgment of my elected officials. At this time I will focus my energies on serving as the best Mayor I can. I would have to assess my options if in the future of there is an opportunity for elected office at another level and community stakeholders encourage me to pursue that opportunity. A friend and mentor of mine, Dr. Ayesha Chaudhry, taught me that we should use our privilege to lose it. Ultimately holding elected office isn’t about gaining power and influence for myself. It is about spreading the power and influence to more people in my community.”

In addition to her mayoral duties, Jaffer continues her educational interests as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at Princeton University in South Asian Studies. There, she teaches classes on South Asian, Islamic and Asian American studies. Furthermore, she is the Somerset County director for the South Asian American Caucus of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. When pressed about how she balances everything, Jaffer comically explained:

“I’m only half joking when I say that I don’t sleep much. [Ha-ha.] I suppose I’ve always been very active and engaged with clubs and activities. When you take on a major responsibility you have to step back from some others. I also couldn’t do any of this without the support of my husband Dan. We all wear many hats, it’s just a matter of what we prioritize. Also, in a place like Montgomery, local elected office is a part-time role. I think this is important for people to realize so they know they don’t necessarily have to give up their career to serve.”

Jaffer concluded by offering a word of advice to young adults and people of color, interested in diplomacy or politics.

“I always encourage Asian Americans to have a sense of solidarity with other minority groups and to work to improve the lives of all marginalized communities. We must remember that we all benefit from the activism and improvements made because of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of us would not be in this country if it weren’t for the abolition of the racist nationality-based immigration quotas during the 1960s. Solidarity is everything.”