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Montgomery Mayor Gives Testimony before NJ Committee on Misogyny and Bias in State Politics

By Barbara A. Preston | Posted August 7, 2020

People who know and support Montgomery Township Mayor Sadaf Jaffer know her leadership is infused with a passion to connect people, and to celebrate the diversity of her community.

Sadaf Jaffer broke several cultural and gender barriers when she became mayor of Montgomery Township. She has become a celebrity in the South Asian community. TV Asia broadcast NJ Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, a Sikh-American, swearing-in Jaffer in 2019. Photo by Barbara A. Preston.

Her political rivals may not like the poems she reads at special events, or her being a champion for the Black Lives Matter movement and for other minority groups in town. However, there comes a time when people cross a line, and a politician — even in bucolic Montgomery Township — has to wonder whether risking her personal safety and that of her family is worth it.

While some in town see it as a badge of honor to have the first Muslim woman mayor in the United States, some are indifferent to her ethnic and religious background, as long as she does a good job.

Some, though, cross the line of decency in their dissent. Jaffer has been slammed in scores of social media posts, Republican political propaganda posters and postcards, and at public meetings.

One person “wished me death,” Jaffer told The Montgomery News. “May unhappiness, illness, and death plague you and your family. Muslims need to be removed from the planet by any means necessary” the person Tweeted to her.

Mayor Jaffer with her husband, Princeton University Professor Daniel J. Sheffield, and their daughter Zareen outside a local candy shop.

Jaffer, 37, decided to speak out about her experience as an elected official who is both a woman and a minority.

She was one of nine people to testify in July at a public online forum. NJ Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg formed the bi-partisan panel to shine light on the working culture women face at all levels of NJ government.

“I never thought we would change peoples’ hearts through legislation. All we can do is make it inappropriate to act inappropriately.” — Loretta Weinberg NJ Senate Majority Leader

Women make up 51 percent of the NJ population but represent only 30 percent of the state legislator. The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers paints an even grimmer picture for municipal-level politicians.

“Of the 490 NJ municipalities with populations less than 30,000, 79 or 16 percent have women mayors,” according to the center. Mayor Jaffer is included in the 16 percent.

Sadaf Jaffer, PhD, was born in Chicago and educated at Georgetown and Harvard. She is a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University, where she teaches courses on South Asian, Islamic, and Asian American Studies.

Jaffer told the state panel: “I have been featured in the media as the first South Asian woman to serve as a mayor in NJ and the first Muslim woman to serve as mayor in the United States.

“Though many people point to my example as one of hope about opportunities in our political system for people from diverse backgrounds, I have also been harassed by people who hate and fear Muslims and immigrants, and reject women’s leadership either explicitly or implicitly."

Jaffer was born in Chicago; her mother was born in Pakistan and her father, in Yemen. She did her undergraduate studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and got a doctorate in Near Eastern languages and civilizations from Harvard University.

Jaffer moved to New Jersey with her husband in 2012. She is currently a post-doctoral researcher at Princeton University, where she is looking into South Asian social media, revising a book manuscript about an Urdu writer and teaching courses related to Islam in South Asia and South Asian American film and literature.

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In her first year on Montgomery Township Committee, Jaffer founded Montgomery Mosaic, a group allied with the national Not In Our Town (NIOT) movement. Despite her work to unite the cultures in her town, she has received threats from some of her own constituents and fellow leaders.

“Fear and derision of Islam punctuate many of the hateful messages that I have personally received, like one that warned my suburban constituents that ‘SHARIA LAW will be arriving FASTER than you think!’

“My opponents sent a mailer out about me (in 2017) calling me “extreme” and “dangerous” and an article about me on the website had to disable comments because there were pages and pages of hate," Jaffer told the panel.

Which of her ideas were “dangerous" was not clear. “I think it was just trying to make people fearful."

“I have faced harassment from members of the public and even an elected official who sent me profanity laden messages, tried to undermine me, and to deny my authority as mayor.

“As a woman and a minority elected official, I often ask myself if I can in good faith suggest people from diverse backgrounds go into politics. I really don’t know the answer to that question. Elected officials need more support and help combating hate online and in person.

There ought to be recourse, mediation, and other processes to ensure that diverse women’s voices continue to be included in policymaking.” ■

Learn more about Sadaf Jaffer:


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