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Head Held High in Hijab: The Motivations and Aspirations of Raaheela Ahmed

Head Held High in Hijab: The Motivations and Aspirations of Raaheela Ahmed

  • Hijab is a symbol of empowerment and I like standing on my own power, says the young activist who won re-election to Prince George's County Board of Education in Maryland.

Young, motivated and inspirational are the first thoughts that come to mind as I sit down to talk to Raaheela Ahmed, the elected representative for the Prince George’s County Board of Education, District 5, Maryland.

Ahmed, a lifelong Prince Georgian and a product of Prince George’s County Public Schools, is not new to politics. A daughter of immigrants – her father is originally from India and her mother from Pakistan – Ahmed says, “It’s really because of abbu (father) that I decided to run for office in the first place.”

Ahmed adds, “He got the public service bug. He wanted to run for office, and he did.”

Ahmed’s father, Shukoor Ahmed, who immigrated to the U.S. in his 20s ran for state representative from Prince George, Maryland. “He ran for the first time when I was 5. My sister and I were very involved in the campaign – we went on parades, holding ‘vote for my dad’ signs. He lost that election and decided to run four years later. Lost that election too. He ran four times and each time my sister and I got more and more involved in his campaigns. We went from walking in parades to helping him fold and stuff mail to going-to-door and finally manning polling stations and recruiting volunteers.”

And although her father was unsuccessful in his various election bids, he proved to be the wind beneath Ahmed’s wings. “When I turned 18, my dad looked at me and told me it was now my turn to run.”

Ahmed confesses that she really didn’t want to run. “I was very hesitant and a lot of it was because of the experiences I faced on the campaign trail growing up.”

Ahmed faces xenophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, racism amongst others.  

One such painful experience she recalls vividly took place during her first campaign. “Somebody told my mom that ‘I’m not voting for any Arab!’ and then walked into the polling booth.”

Ahmed first ran for the Board of Education position in 2012 as a young 18-year-old and nearly won. She then ran again in 2016 and won her seat by 57% of the vote from a whopping 32,000 supporters. Recently, on Nov 3, 2020, Ahmed won her re-election bid to the Board of Education.

Although her father was unsuccessful in his various election bids, he proved to be the wind beneath Ahmed’s wings. “When I turned 18, my dad looked at me and told me it was now my turn to run.”

Talking of her campaign experiences, Ahmed also recalls a cordial eye-opening conversation with a constituent about the efficacy of wearing a hijab on her campaign literature. “It was very interesting because it got me to understand how because folks don’t know what expression of faith means to different people, they may not understand them.” 

Ahmed believes that these interactions are unique to her as a brown, hijab-wearing politician. “I don’t think people would say the same thing to a Jewish man for wearing a Yamaka or a Sikh man for wearing his turban.”

Ahmed, for whom faith is very personal, does wear a hijab. “For me it was not running for office that led me to wear a hijab. It was a personal decision that I made very early on. It is a way for me to develop a stronger relationship with my higher power. By wearing a hijab, I am able to check myself and am reminded of the values I carry. Hijab is a symbol of empowerment and I like standing in my own power.”

As to how she turned her political loss into a victory, Ahmed, who holds a dual bachelor’s degree in Economics and Finance from University of Maryland, says, “What changed was that I developed a few more experiences in the interim period. I got my degrees. I served on a board. My age and experience level increased and all of that helped. But the biggest factor that helped was being able to reach more people with my vision.”

Ahmed knocked on over 12,000 homes and attended dozens of community events to better understand the needs of the community. 

Ahmed adds, “I lost in 2012 by a small margin — 3 percent — and it was the first time that our community had seen such a closely contested race for this position. At the same time, people’s expectations from their elected officials changed. They wanted more accountability from their officials. They were willing to take a chance on alternative candidates. I contested during this wave in 2016. Another thing that helped me was that folks remembered I had run before. They would tell me, `We want someone that is persistent!’ So, having that name recognition in place in my second go-around and then being able to meet more folks on the top of people I had already met previously, was a huge help in getting me elected and re-elected.”

As to why contest for a BOE position, Ahmed, who works full-time for a non-
profit that promotes civic engagement for the youth in college as well and loves “being in education and being able to provide leadership development for youth” says, “Education was a good fit for me. I am passionate about it and I have been able to achieve a lot on the board so far. I feel all the issues I initially ran on have been accomplished so far and I’m excited to move forward to doing more things.”

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One of the biggest things Ahmed has achieved is her central platform piece — getting financial literacy as a graduation requirement for high school students. “This was why I studied finance and economics because I didn’t feel like I had that grounding in high school. I’m from a majority, people-of-color county. Around 60 percent of our students are on free-reduced meals. So, when we talk about building generational wealth, this is a part of that puzzle to fix that inner-generational wealth gap. It’s exciting for me to institute change like this, which will affect generations to come,” says the highly-motivated Ahmed.

From a tight-knit family and community, Ahmed had lots of familial help while campaigning. “My immediate family and even my dadi (dad’s mom) played a significant role. My dadi, doesn’t know very much English, but she was out there at the polls handing out literature,” she says fondly.

Aunts, uncles, cousins all lent a hand going door-to-door handing out literature and manning polling stations. “Campaigning has really become a family affair in the Ahmed household,” says Ahmed, “and the beauty of this is that not just my family, but so many members in the South Asian community, and our faith-based community have now gotten more involved in politics.

As to whether she views her age as a hindrance in her political career, the 27-year-old politician says, “It definitely helps me more than hurts me. I feel I can develop strong connections with folks of all ages. The downfall comes in trying to engage with establishment leaders that see young guns coming in as ‘you need to earn your stripes’. The problem is that to some people I haven’t earned my stripes yet!” 

Looking to the future, Ahmed is not sure she will remain in politics. “What I do hope ten years from now, is that the decisions I have made, have made a lasting impact on future students. My hope is that ten years from now, I will have a child that is in the school district, benefitting from the decisions I made ten years ago.”

Ahmed, however, does have an idyllic dream — “In an ideal world, I would be running my own little mehndi (henna) business on a beach somewhere!”

But minus the dream, Ahmed assures me she will still “be in the youth development space in one way or another in the years to come!”

Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.

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