How Aisha Wahab Beat The Naysayers To Become California's First Muslim State Senator

Wahab tapped into what she learned growing up in the foster care system to win her race and become the first Afghan American elected to the state Senate.

Aisha Wahab knows what it means to advocate for herself, especially when no one else will. After her father was murdered and her mother died at a young age, she was placed in the foster care system.

At times, she felt alone.

“For kids in the foster care system, every adult around them pretty much failed them,” Wahab told HuffPost. “Hence they’re in the system.”

Wahab considers herself one of the lucky ones after she was adopted by a couple in the Bay Area. Being a foster kid taught her to stand up for herself, she said.

“I truly want people to believe in themselves when no one believes in them,” Wahab told HuffPost. “I genuinely want the majority of people, especially little kids, to know that you’re not alone.”

She tapped into the same perseverance when she decided to run to represent California Senate District 10 against Fremont Mayor Lily Mei. She said she was surrounded by naysayers who claimed she didn’t have a chance. But Wahab won, making her the first Muslim and the first Afghan American elected to the state’s Senate.

Wahab is among dozens of Muslim Americans who made historic gains in local, state and federal races during the 2022 midterms by notching more electoral wins than ever before. More than 80 Muslim American candidates won their seats in over 20 states, according to a report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Jetpac Resource Center, a nonprofit that works to increase Muslim representation in U.S. government and politics.

In 2021, 71 Muslim Americans were elected, according to the groups’ numbers.

“A lot of people did not necessarily believe in our campaign,” Wahab told HuffPost. “The fact that we can take on a mayor, the fact that we come from a smaller city, where ... you were the first this or the first that, or you’re too young. We got a lot of that.”

Aisha Wahab rallies Afghan Americans at a vigil near City Hall on Aug. 18, 2021, in Hayward, California.
Aisha Wahab rallies Afghan Americans at a vigil near City Hall on Aug. 18, 2021, in Hayward, California.
David Weigel/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Wahab and her sister were adopted by an Afghan family in Fremont, home to one of the largest Afghan communities in the United States. But her family struggled with the rising cost of living. In 2011, her parents lost their business and their home was foreclosed on.

After being priced out of Fremont, Wahab and her family moved to Hayward, where she became a community organizer and an advocate for affordable housing. That same year, she was elected as Alameda Public Health commissioner and served as the chair of the Alameda County Human Relations Commission. In 2013, she was selected to join the White House Roundtable of Afghan-American Leaders and served as a board member for the Afghan Coalition for 10 years. In 2018, Wahab made headlines as the first Afghan American woman elected to public office in California when she won her seat on the Hayward City Council.

Thousands of new Afghan refugees have resettled in California, where there is already a thriving Afghan community, especially in Fremont, where a commercial area commonly known as “Little Kabul” has become a cultural hub. Wahab’s win, she said, is also for them.

“I’m very proud of the heritage. I think the culture is wonderful in so many ways. I also know it’s deeply misunderstood, and also portrayed very incorrectly in so many different ways,” said Wahab.

“We’re very proud to be able to bring some joy to people’s lives and give the larger community a win,” she added.

But during her race, Wahab said, her ethnic and religious identity was used against her. People made Islamophobic and racist comments on social media. When she was campaigning and knocking on people’s doors, people told her they’d never vote for an Afghan or a Muslim.

“It was very frustrating to see, especially in the Bay Area,” said Wahab.

Wahab went on to receive endorsements from government officials including California Attorney General Rob Bonta, state Sen. Bob Wieckowski, groups including Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club, and the state’s Democratic Party.

Wahab will now head to Sacramento, where she will be sworn in as a state senator in December. She hopes foster kids will be watching.

“There’s a lot to say & more to come, but I want to take this moment to speak directly to all the kids in #fostercare … our dreams do come true,” she tweeted shortly after her win.

“I was born in this country. I will die in this country and I will continue to serve a country that has been very much a part of my path,” said Wahab. “The whole point of the American dream is to pursue your own dream.”

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