The Ahmed family in Bowie, Maryland, USA, is remarkable in more ways than one. Between Shukoor Ahmed, 58, and his two daughters – Raaheela, 27, and Shabnam, 25 – the family has contested and campaigned for 11 elections in their district from 1998 onwards. Except for three – including when Raaheela was elected by a decisive majority of almost 32,000 votes to Prince George’s County Board of Education, District 5, in 2016 – they lost all the others.
And yet, determined to represent religious minorities and people of colour, and to use the electoral platform to raise vital social, economic and political issues, they showed up time and time again.
This month, Raaheela will run for reelection, but since her position is uncontested, she is likely to continue for another four-year term. This is the 12th election the Ahmeds will run, and Shukoor is already prepping the girls for the 13th.
The penchant for standing up for causes runs in the family. Shukoor, a technology entrepreneur, traces his ancestry back to India’s freedom struggle and to his great-granduncles Maulana Shaukat Ali and Mohammad Ali Jouhar of the Khilafat movement. Born and raised in Hyderabad, he moved to Saudi Arabia during the 1980s Gulf boom.
In 1985, 18-year-old Pakistani-American Nabeela made her first visit to India to meet her father’s relatives. Her father had migrated from Hyderabad to Pakistan just after Partition, and then with his Punjabi wife to USA in the early 1970s, where they set about raising their four daughters. Nabeela is the eldest.
Having travelled more to India than Pakistan, Nabeela considers herself a mix of both nationalities along with American. Though her family had only modest means while she was growing up, “I felt rich all the time,” she says. “Contentment comes from peace of mind, not worldly possessions.”
Their father encouraged community service, charity and strength of character, and all four sisters grew up to be academically accomplished in either engineering or healthcare.
Since desi parents around the world have always loved matchmaking, Nabeela’s dad and Shukoor’s mom – who are distantly related – decided that their children would make a good couple. And so, during Nabeela’s first trip to Hyderabad, they plotted the matrimonial alliance, getting the two to meet in US in 1986 and then married in 1989.
While Nabeela studied to be a pharmacist, Shukoor did his Master’s in public policy in the early years as they settled down in Bowie, the fifth largest municipality in Maryland and a short drive away from Washington DC. Once the kids came, Nabeela was happy to raise them in the presence of both sets of grandparents while she worked full-time as a pharmacist.
“It was such a blessing to have Shukoor’s parents move in with us. They were instrumental in raising the girls. We never needed babysitters, and Raaheela and Shabnam absorbed the good traits from all sides!” smiles Nabeela, now 53.
She shares stories of the games the girls played with their grandfather: “He’d ask them, ‘Tell me everything you know about truthfulness,’ teaching them how to articulate impromptu from the heart.” Shukoor’s brother and sister too spent a decade each living with the family, and Nabeela only has words of gratitude for their contribution in her daughters’ lives: “It takes a village to raise a child.”
In the meantime, while Shukoor decided to make a career in information technology, he was also drawn to public life. “Since we were going to be in this community for the rest of our lives, I thought it was important to be part of community building,” says Shukoor, whose technology startup V-Empower was picked by Deloitte as the fastest growing private company in 2007 in Maryland and was ranked 263 of the top 500 companies nationwide by Inc. magazine the same year.
Always opinionated about issues, Shukoor became a youth leader in his faith community early on even though he is a reformist by nature. He is against animal sacrifice, for instance, though it’s a part of certain traditions in the Muslim community. “Why sacrifice animals? It’s not relevant. Sacrifice your stocks or bonds instead,” he says.
Raaheela and Shabnam were five and three years old when their father first stood for local elections as a Democratic candidate in 1998, and campaigned for him again in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
“After the first one, I got hooked. I enjoyed the process of meeting people, discussing issues and understanding what was going on at the grassroots,” says Shukoor, adding that there are several areas around his municipality that are populated by economically and educationally disadvantaged groups.
He lost each time, but by a smaller and smaller margin, giving his daughters ample practical training in elections and developing a never-say-die spirit all through their youth. “I never faced much Islamophobia,” vouches Shukoor, who believes deeply in the idea of America and has immense faith in its democratic systems.
“In the workplace, there is no such problem. People respect you for your work. It’s only when we go door-to-door campaigning that, sometimes, we face racist or Islamophobic comments telling us to go home.” Despite the few negative incidents, Shukoor optimistically showed up for each election as candidate of Maryland House of Delegates.
In 2012, he passed the baton to Raaheela. “He always told us, ‘You can do it.’ He spoke it into existence,” says Raaheela, who was 18 when she first ran for the county board of education and lost against a powerful incumbent, and 23 when she won in 2016. Her victory to public office as a young Muslim woman of colour was considered significant in a year that Donald Trump was elected the US President with his divisive anti-Muslim rhetoric.
“My win created a movement of sorts among young people, it inspired them to action,” says Raaheela, who graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a BS in finance and BA in economics.
The recipient of a number of awards and recognitions for her academic, leadership, and community service work, she got married just before the Covid lockdown this year after a three-year engagement (Raaheela’s parents continued the family tradition of matchmaking her with a young IT professional from Hyderabad living in Dubai!).
After Raaheela’s 2016 success, Shukoor convinced his second-born Shabnam to give electoral politics a shot. In 2018, Shabnam ran against the same opponent her father had lost to four years earlier. She lost by a mere 42 votes.
“Considering we did our own fundraising and had no sponsors, we had to prove ourselves going door-to-door,” says Shabnam, who is doing her Master’s in public health from George Washington University and is a xenophile and linguist who knows six languages.
Though Raaheela was thrice denied a visa to travel to India, Shabnam managed to visit several Indian cities; she also travelled to Peru as a volunteer, and has served at various non-profits across the US.
“For me, running for elections is not about politics or power. It’s about raising issues and educating people,” says Shabnam. She believes that despite not winning, she was able to motivate people to be more participative – a record eight persons of colour under 35 years of age ran for office in the area’s 2018 elections. “My purpose in life is to bring equity into education and public health, and to make them accessible and affordable,” she says, “which is lacking so far.”
Raaheela adds, “You don’t have to be in a position of power to be a leader. Leadership is about moving people to action and about being a role model. You can do that in many different ways.”
His last (lost) election in 2014, Shukoor has now taken to mentoring young people of colour to run for office. “Four of them won,” he says proudly. “People have this impression about desis being doctors, engineers or professors; they never think of us as political leaders. It’s time to change that.”
First published in eShe’s October 2020 issue
Syndicated to Money Control