Mary Jobaida moved to Queens from rural Bangladesh on November 16, 2001, just weeks after the September 11th attacks. At the time, she wore a burqa, but said she experienced little Islamophobia because she was enveloped by her black and Latino neighbors in Long Island City.
“This community here, they have accepted me exactly the way I was,” said Jobaida. “They did not insult me for being Muslim right after 9/11. They were very protective.”
This month, she is facing off against Assemblymember Cathy Nolan in the June 23rd Democratic primary—the first time in 10 years Nolan has been primaried. (Absentee voting has already begun; early voting will begin Saturday.) Jobaida said those early experiences as an immigrant fundamentally shaped her politics in America, prompting her to oppose gentrification and become a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter.
She’s not alone. At least eight Bangladeshi New Yorkers are currently running for office, in local, state, and congressional races. These include a number of women who identify as feminists and Muslims and who do not feel represented by centrist Democrats or the machine.
The goal, says Jobaida: “To demolish the establishment.”
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As of 2018, the Bangladeshi population of New York was 84,248, according to Howard Shih, a census expert at the Asian American Federation. Nationally, 90% of Bangladeshi Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, according to the National Asian American Survey, higher than any other Asian subgroup. The community also had the lowest favorability ratings of Trump, and was overwhelmingly in support of raising the minimum wage as well as taxes on the rich.
Thahitun Mariam, a co-founder of the recently-formed grassroots group Bangladeshi Americans for Political Progress (BAPP), said many young Bangladeshi Americans support Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tiffany Cabán, who fell short in her bid to become the Queens district attorney last summer. Additionally, the Director of Organizing for AOC’s landmark 2018 campaign was Naureen Akhter, who also created Muslims for Progress and was a founding member of BAPP. Ocasio-Cortez in turn reached out to the community in her campaign ads. Ironically, currently, one of her primary challengers is a Bangladeshi New Yorker, Badrun Khan.
According to organizers and candidates, two major historical events set the stage for the community’s political emergence.
The first was Bangladesh’s Liberation War, or War of Independence, from Pakistan. That took place in 1971 and helps explain why the notion of self-determination is not an abstraction in the distant past .
“We get to choose what our future looks like,” said Mariam. “For [older immigrants], that meant having a free Bangladesh. And for us, that means straying away from systems rooted in white supremacy.”
Jobaida was born a decade after independence and said her generation grappled with the tumultuous early years, when one government would dramatically change textbooks issued by the previous one and the official narratives.
“We grew up questioning, ‘What is history?’” she said.
The September 11th attacks had a more recent and immediate impact on New York’s Bangladeshi residents. Tens of thousands of Muslims were entered into the federal NSEERS registry, leading to thousands of deportations and a profound sense of disempowerment.
However, Mariam said older male members of the Bangladeshi community, commonly called “Uncles” didn’t aggressively fight for civil liberties or push back against the political establishment for fear of being labeled ‘radical.’
“We became Muslim apologists,” said Mariam. “Our communities had to defend ourselves, saying ‘We’re not those Muslims.’”
In recent years, a younger generation of activists emerged, many of whom questioned “the Uncles” within the community and saw them as steeped in patriarchy, less inclined to reach across racial lines and more inclined to serve as gatekeepers.
“The first fight was to go against the Uncles’ generation,” Jobaida said.
By the Trump era, according to Mariam, many in the older generation saw that their faith in establishment politicians had not paid dividends. This realization paved the way for a new leadership, which had largely grown up in the U.S. and was less inclined to be accommodating in their politics.
For example, one of the candidates on the ballot this month, Moumita Ahmed, had a tweet go viral when she recounted a harrowing childhood experience from the Bloomberg era. (Ahmed is a Bernie Sanders delegate and candidate for district leader in the 24th Assembly District.)
“My dad was stop & frisked for having a Muslim name. He was detained w/o a phone call to his family for hours. We couldn’t report him missing. That night I went from hospital to hospital to see if unidentified bodies were admitted. I was 12! #MyBloombergStory”
But perhaps the most visible member of the new wave is Shahana Hanif, a Brooklynite running to succeed Councilman Brad Lander. Her campaign has been covered in the Dhaka Tribune, an English-language newspaper published in the Bangladesh capital, Teen Vogue, and The Cut—“What to Wear When You’re 28 and Running for Office”),.
“I was diagnosed with lupus at 17 and immediately looked to my community for care and a sense of belonging,” she told Gothamist/WNYC.
Hanif began connecting with other women in the Bangladeshi community experiencing healthcare issues, and wondered how mosques dealt with illness. The more she read and inquired, the more she embraced ideas of “the Global South,” a term of resistance uniting those from developing and formerly colonized countries. She also identified what she saw as political shortcomings among the older generation of Bangladeshi immigrants.
“I had not seen Bangladeshis pursuing the fight to build working-class solidarity, and to build coalitions across communities of color, and join the fight for freedom,” Hanif said.
Other Bangladeshi candidates include Joy Chowdhury, an Uber driver and labor organizer hoping to unseat Assemblyman Michael DenDekker; Mahfuzul Islam, who is challenging Assemblyman David Weprin; and Shaniyat Chowdhury, going up against Congressman Gregory Meeks. All are running in Queens.
While the community is largely concentrated in New York, community organizer Nabilah Islam is mounting a congressional race in Georgia and has been called “Atlanta’s AOC.” Like many of her New York comrades, Islam is the child of working-class immigrants. This is something that has fostered a kinship at the precise moment that protests are raging across the country and the community is trying to push away from model minority stereotypes and toward something new.
“The younger generation, they feel like Malcolm X,” said Jobaida. “By any means necessary, we need to end this discrimination.”