Decades ago, when Bushra Amiwala’s parents migrated to the USA from Karachi, Pakistan, to start a new life, little would they have imagined that, one day, their daughter would end up being the youngest Muslim holding public office in the country, and a role model for Muslim girls and women of colour.
Born in Chicago, Bushra moved with her family to Skokie, Cook County, Illinois, when she was nine years old. Race and religion were always at the forefront of her interactions with her peers.
“But it wasn’t until I became older that the conversations became more direct and the disparities clearer,” says the 22-year-old, adding, “I am lucky to have been raised in the diverse village of Skokie, where we were taught to embrace our differences. I believe that truly made a difference in the way my peers and I viewed issues of race and religion.”
Bushra was only 19 when she first stood for elections. Then an undergrad student at DePaul University studying management information systems with a double minor in community service studies and public policy studies, she launched a campaign for a seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
Though she lost the election, she gained a whole lot of understanding of the American electoral system, its politics and the issues that needed addressing. Interestingly, it was her opponent who inspired her to keep going with her political ambition.
Just six months later, she ran for the Skokie School District 73.5 Board of Education. This time, she won, making her the youngest elected Muslim government official in the US at the age of 21. Her term ends in 2023.
“Serving on the board of education, I am at the forefront of the measures put in place in response to COVID and whether schools will be open in the fall or not,” says Bushra.
With her inputs, she has made the system more accessible, transparent and inclusive – such as offering halal lunches in schools. Also, as someone who is involved in the search process to replace school board members and administrators, her youth and perspective may help create a shift in the education system.
As a Muslim of South Asian origin, Bushra has a weight of many expectations riding on her shoulders. And she has shown up to fulfil them. With Black Lives Matter ruling headlines in the country, she has often taken up the issue of racism in her public role, “everything from attending rallies, protests and vigils, to being a part of the conversation offline.”
COVID has hampered many of her efforts but not dampened her spirits. “We must recognise the privileges people of certain races and religious backgrounds have over other groups which grants them access to additional benefits and resources. I personally don’t think I have been prevented from certain rights due to my religious background, but there are privileges I don’t hold,” she admits.
Bushra, who has now completed her Bachelor’s degree, will be starting a full-time job at Google this month, and has no plans to run for public office in the near future.
Advising other young women to “remain positive and well-intentioned, and to dream big and strive for greatness,” she says she has learnt to embrace failure over the years and continues to motivate herself after seeing how far she has come. “It’s easier to keep going when you are looking forward.”