Millennial Afghan-American councilwoman in California makes history

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She’s a millennial. She’s pro-housing. She’s the only renter on the city council.

But what sets Aisha Wahab apart from the rest is that in November, she is believed to be among the first two Afghan women in U.S. history to hold public office – their political victories marking a streak of wins for young, progressive women of color.

“Sure, it’s a little surprising,” the 30-something Wahab said about her new post on Wednesday, the morning after she was officially installed as a Hayward city councilwoman. “I was very, very moved to see older Afghan Americans who were crying, saying, ‘You've allowed us to lift up our heads with pride.’"

While there is no official political tracker on Afghan politicians, Wahab said the apparent unprecedented nature of her win comes by word of mouth in the relatively small community. “If another Afghan woman won, we’d know about it,” she said. 

Wahab’s new political post didn’t come easily, and not without a dose or two of hate.

“We had so many racist comments hurled at us,” she said. “One woman told me to bleach my eyebrows. Someone else said that ‘a vote for Aisha is a vote for female mutilation.’ I also got so many ignorant questions, like am I anti-Semitic? What do I think about Louis Farrakhan? Do I take money from ISIS?” 

The allegations were hurtful and far from the truth. Wahab was born in New York City, raised in foster care until she was about 10 because her parents died, and then adopted with her biological sister by an American-Afghan family where she went to schools in Fremont and Hayward. She said she is not religious at all, and only goes to the mosque for funerals. 

Mayor Barbara Halliday said she was shocked to hear that Wahab was confronted with the bigotry and ignorance, adding that campaigns can be nasty to candidates, no matter what their ethnic background. She welcomed Wahab to the dais as a political newcomer, but said that having a mixed council in Hayward isn’t that unique. 

“Here, diversity is the norm,” Halliday said, noting that three of the current councilmembers are Latino, one is a quarter Lebanese, and the city had its first female Asian councilwoman about a decade ago. 

In Halliday’s opinion, what’s more significant, is that for the first time in city history, the council has a female majority. 

Wahab was the top vote-getter in the Hayward council race in November, ousting incumbent Marvin Peixoto.  On the same night across the country, Safiya Wazir, 27, also an Afghan, was elected to the state Legislature in New Hampshire. 

While there are some similarities, just don’t call Wahab the Bay Area version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28, a young, progressive Latina Democrat who now holds a seat in Congress representing New York. 

“I get that all the time,” Wahab said. “People make that comparison.” 

While Ocasio-Cortez focuses on immigration, Wahab’s main platform is housing for all and finding jobs for people that pay a living wage.

 “I believe housing is a human right,” she said, noting that as an IT consultant in San Jose, she still rents her home. 

A wave of Democrats, including many women, have taken to the streets since the election of President Trump. And Wahab was one of them.

“There was no way that I’m going to sit down when our country is being ripped apart at the highest level of public service,” she said.

Wahab is no stranger to activism and community involvement. With an MBA in business from Cal State East Bay and an undergraduate political science degree from San Jose State University, Wahab is a board member of Adobe Services and the Tri-City Volunteers.  Last January, she was profiled in San Francisco Magazine’s “Resistance” issue for speaking out against a national Muslim registry.  This fall,  she ran her campaign on a grassroots level, knocking on doors and talking to people one by one. She also had a strong social media presence, which caused a spark within younger voters. 

“She ignited more people to get involved,” said councilwoman Sarah Lamnin. “It’s great.”

And that was Wahab’s hope, to get more people involved. Especially in her own Afghan community, where members haven’t historically been politically active. Rona Popal, a longtime Afghan activist helped drive the elderly to the polls specifically to vote for Wahab. Some of them voted for the first time.

“The Afghan community has been here 40-plus years,” Wahab said. “It’s about time we start our second chapter.”