When Raaheela Ahmed knocks on doors to meet potential voters, she covers her black headscarf with a floppy hat so people won’t be distracted from what she has to say. She greets high school students as “y’all” and confides, with a disarming laugh, that she sometimes sneaks to her office gym to pray.
Poised and self-confident at 22, Ahmed is one of a group of young Muslim women, all children of immigrants, who are entering electoral politics in the Maryland suburbs. Eager to help counter the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has been part of the 2016 presidential contest, they say they feel emboldened by their American upbringing and the encouragement of male Muslim mentors.
“My dad was always involved in politics. I remember carrying signs for him in parades,” said Ahmed, who grew up in Bowie and is seeking a seat on the Prince George’s County Board of Education.
Her father, Shukoor Ahmed, 53, an engineer from India, ran unsuccessfully five times for the Maryland House of Delegates and is managing her campaign. “He tried so many times, but he was forever an outsider,” Raaheela Ahmed said. “I speak with less accent, so people take me more seriously.”
Prince George’s and Montgomery counties have diverse and growing Muslim immigrant populations, from Pakistani doctors in Potomac to Somali cabdrivers in Riverdale. In Montgomery, community leaders estimate there are 98,000 Muslim residents, though no official statistics are available.
While some affluent Muslims have become important political donors, most maintain a low profile. Few have run for office in the state, and almost all who have are men. There is one Muslim city council member in College Park and one in Takoma Park, one Muslim member of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee and one Muslim state delegate, Democrat Hasan Jalisi of Baltimore County.
But a younger generation of Muslim American women is testing the political waters, urged on by ambitious men like Shukoor Ahmed and Hamza Khan, 28, a Democratic activist who chairs the Muslim Democratic Club of Montgomery County.
This spring Khan managed the campaigns of Rida Bukhari-Rizvi, 32, a policy analyst from Burtonsville who ran for the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, and Nadia Syahmalina, 34, an Indonesian American financial manager from Rockville who ran in the Maryland primary to become a delegate for Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention.
Both women narrowly lost, and Syahmalina said she will focus her efforts for the rest of this year on turning out the vote for Clinton in the general election. In interviews, both she and Bukhari-Rizvi said they were energized by their first forays into partisan politics and eager to do more.
“I was reluctant at first, but Hamza urged me to run, and it became more than a seat on a committee,” said Bukhari-Rizvi, a Pakistani American who wears a white headscarf and is part of the Shiite sect of Islam. “We have never been given a voice before, but I’m part of a new crop of Muslim American women who are well-educated and well-spoken. We can help combat Islamophobia, and we can carve out a future for others. If no one gives us the mantle, we will take it.”
Shiites are a minority in the U.S. Muslim population of about 3 million. There are many more Sunni Muslims in Maryland, too, with subdivisions along ethnic, political or linguistic lines. There is a also a smaller population of U.S.-born Muslim converts.
Khan, a Pakistani American, grew up in Montgomery County and said the Muslim elite there has long been dominated by South Asian entrepreneurs. He is actively working to open the political arena to other Muslim groups, and especially to women.
“We have nearly 100,000 Muslims in the county, from many countries and walks of life, but their political influence is zero,” he said. “Few of them have faith in the democratic process, and many come from patriarchal societies. This is a battle to empower Muslim women.”
Syahmalina, the Clinton supporter, comes from a moderate Muslim community and does not wear a headscarf. Although active in Indonesian culture and causes, she said she had thought of politics as “dirty” and was nervous when Khan persuaded her to run.
When the results of the April 26 primary were announced, she was astounded to have finished fourth among eight candidates.
“I was way down on the bottom of the ballot, and I have a long name,” she said. “I thought I might get a few hundred votes, but I got 37,000!”
Syahmalina said she has a “passion for change”and wants to “bring a different face” to the national conversation about Muslim Americans, reflecting her Indonesian heritage. “We are not all South Asian and Middle Eastern,” she said.
Raaheela Ahmed, Bukhari-Rizvi and Syahmalina all said they want to offer voters a reasonable, appealing image at a time when they say U.S. politics has become poisoned by anti-Muslim fears. As professional middle-class women, Hamza and others said, they may seem less threatening to voters than their male peers.
“With women, there is a trust factor. People tend to open up more to them,” said Zainab Chaudry, who is Maryland state director for the Council on American Islamic Relations, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Although she is younger than Bukhari-Rizvi and Syahmalina, Ahmed has more political experience. She ran for the Prince George’s school board in 2012, when she was a college student, and was appointed to the University of Maryland Board of Regents for 2014-2015.
A financial consultant, she presents herself as a mainstream liberal despite her conservative attire. Her campaign fliers call for better school safety, parental engagement and financial accountability.
At her recent meeting with immigrant high school students in Hyattsville, Ahmed delivered a pep talk on how to overcome self-doubt and succeed in life. Asked whether she had felt threatened or insulted in public, she shrugged.
“This is the [Donald] Trump era. There is a lot of ignorance, and people make judgments,” she said. “I am a U.S. citizen with a good education. I am also a Muslim, and I wear the hijab. . . . I don’t want people to see just my faith when they look at me. I want them to see the real me.”
In an interview at her home in Bowie, with her parents beaming nearby, Ahmed said she had grown up surrounded by South Asian relatives, with everyone speaking Urdu. But she also described herself as an American girl, born and raised in Prince George’s, who connects easily with black and white voters alike.
In 2012, she ran a close second behind the school board chairwoman, Jeana Jacobs. This year she won the April 26 primary, coming in ahead of Jacobs and another candidate; she will face off in the November general election against Cheryl Landis, 61, a career school system employee.
“Nobody thought I would win in the primary, not even my parents, but I got twice as many votes as I did the last time,” Ahmed said. “A lot of people remembered me when I knocked on their doors. I think they feel like I am home-grown.”