Sadaf Jaffer grew up on the north side of Chicago, where she and her younger brother, Abbas, used to participate in mock presidential debates as children.
“One of my funny memories of growing up is that my dad used to hold mock presidential debates between my brother and I on long car rides, and I was very proud of myself because I won the debates,” she said during an interview at her Princeton University office where she is a scholar of South Asian, Islamic, and gender studies.
“But, I was three years older so it wasn’t really a fair fight,” she said, laughing.
Jaffer attributes her interest in politics to her early taste of trying to come up with solutions to nationwide problems as a young girl. “Even if our solutions were silly and from a child’s perspective,” she says. “I think our parents had very high expectations that they wanted us to think about issues such as: How are we going to fix the environment?
“When I think about my political awakening, and my desire to be part of the solution to the problems our community faces, that memory really comes back to me.”
Jaffer’s brother, Abbas, now works for the Civic Engagement team at Facebook in San Francisco, driving qualitative research on election integrity. So the game must have sparked an interest in politics for him too.
Above: Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker—D, with incoming Montgomery Township Mayor Sadaf Jaffer and her husband, Dan Sheffield, who teaches at Princeton in the Near Eastern Studies Department. Daughter, Zareen, 4, wants to be mayor too. The photo is from Jaffer's swearing in ceremony for her township committee seat in Jan 2018.
Education is important in the Jaffer household. The new mayor has a bachelor’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown; a Phd in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard; a post doctorate in Global Studies from Stanford University; and she is currently a postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.
“I was always interested in public service and different cultures,” she says.
Languages, she speaks, of varying levels of competency, are Urdu, Hindi, French, Arabic, and, of course, English.
One of the things Jaffer says she likes about Montgomery is the many wonderful ways to connect to South Asian culture here, from cuisine and culture to the Hindi School. "I value that for myself and for my daughter," she says. “It’s been great for me to be able to attend South Asian charity events in Montgomery, dinners, and culture shows, including dance programs. But I also love having the diversity of having lots of different cultures.”
Women’s rights in South Asia continues to be an interest for Jaffer, as well as women’s rights in the US and abroad. She says there is a lot of work to do.
“I thought it was important to run for office because I don’t think I should ask others to do something I’m not willing to do myself. If I believe there should be more women in elected office, then it’s important for me to actually put myself out there and run for office.”
Jaffer says she hopes she will present a different perspective and elevate the voices of other women who are interested in serving their communities in similar ways.
Jaffer is quick to recognize her husband, who she says shares all the responsibilities of the household, including taking care of their daughter. “I know he values the example it sets for our daughter, who has told us she is also a member of township committee,” Jaffer says. “And, now, she asks, when is it my turn to give a speech?”
“I certainly could not do this if it were not for my husband’s support,” she says. “Actually, he was the one who first told me, ‘you know, you might be mayor!’ I hadn’t even thought about it.”
YouTube Video of Mayor Sadaf Jaffer
Dan Sheffield, her husband, teaches at Princeton University in the Near Eastern Studies Department. He specializes in the religious, intellectual, and social history of the medieval and early modern Persian-speaking world. He has a Ph.D. in Iranian and Persian Studies from Harvard, and is a specialist in exchanges between Safavid Iran and Mughal India, and the history of Zoroastrian communities.
Jaffer is a member of the South Asian Studies Program within the Princeton Institute of International and Regional Studies. Her research is on an Urdu writer, who was part of the progressive movement — focusing on secular and feminist thought in Muslim South Asia. “If people don’t know their history, they can easily be persuaded that things have always been a certain way,” Jaffer says.
Even with a busy and full life, Jaffer says she still wants to serve as an elected official for the same reason she started Montgomery Mosaic.
“Community building is really what I’m passionate about, bringing people together who might otherwise not know each other,” she says. “This is something we need in our community, really in every community, now, perhaps more than ever.” ■