A Historic Win for Brooklyn’s First Muslim Woman Elected to NYC Council, Shahana Hanif: “This Seat Has Only Been Held by White Men”

Shahana Hanif speaking to her supporters at a victory party after being elected to City Council. (Twitter)

Shahana Hanif, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants and community organizer, made history last month when she became the first Muslim woman elected to New York City Council, one of the first South Asian reps, and first woman of color to represent her Brooklyn district.

At the age of 17, Shahana Hanif was diagnosed with lupus—a chronic illness that impacts predominantly women and women of color and receives little funding. As such, women have a hard time receiving adequate, supportive health care for the illness.

Hanif says this diagnosis was “the calling for me to enter into an arena. When I saw how impacted … young people are treated across the hospital, in our home, in our communities, I was filled with rage. … Lupus was the catalyst for me to really understand the city’s broken health care system, navigating a very nebulous health journey,” Hanif told Ms

Throughout her time in and out of the hospital, Hanif realized the accessibility barriers in New York City. Although the city has some form of accessible transportation through a paratransit service, it is often difficult to be approved and is notorious for being incredibly late to pick up passengers. After having both hips replaced and suffering from the pain of lupus, Hanif felt stuck—unable to adequately move and be a part of the city.

During Hanif’s frequent trips to the hospital, she also uncovered language barriers apparent in New York hospitals. While sick, Hanif was forced to take on the responsibility of translating documents and medical interpretation to make sure that her parents understood what was going on with her health. “The urgency on language access was also something that was brewing in me where I was like, why isn’t the health care system taking more responsibility to make sure that families understand and feel supported and are equipped to to survive this journey?”

At first, Hanif channeled her rage about these problems through writing, founding the Muslim Writers Collective chapter in New York and through feminist organizing, founding Naree O Shongothok, or the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective. Since then, she has broadened her impact, declaring in September of 2019 that she was running for Brooklyn’s District 39. 

Running “with an intersectional lens” and “with the work of Asian South Asian feminists,” Hanif’s campaign ended in July with a historic win—with the highest voter turnout in all of the city. Ranked-choice voting results resulted in a 3,900-vote lead for Hanif over second-place candidate Brandon West, (57 percent versus 43 percent).

Hanif’s election holds many firsts. She is the first Muslim woman elected to NYC Council and among the first cohort of South Asians in City Hall. She is also a part of the 30 women who were elected to City Hall (most of them women of color)—surpassing the goal of 21 elected women to office.

“It feels surreal. I mean, I was in disbelief for many days, because this is a seat that has only been held by white men. And there was a perception because these white men have gone on to becoming Mayor de Blasio,” Hanif said. “There was a perception, as the only woman of color running for the seat, that I must not know what I’m doing, or that I must not be smart enough. Or that it’s simply not my time that I leaped into a position that was ahead of my time.”

Born in Kensington, Brooklyn—the largest Bangladeshi community in all of Brooklyn and one of the many communities Hanif will now represent in office—Hanif was “energized” by the over 1,100 volunteers (90 percent of whom were women) that helped turn out the Bangladeshi vote. 

Hanif ran on an unapologetically left platform. Her beliefs include taxing the rich, shifting funds from police and moving away from carceral systems, creating permanently affordable housing, centering issues of language and disability justice, and instituting the Green New Deal. 

“What I love about City Council is that it’s not far-reaching ideas. The Green New Deal on the block level means a rain garden. And a rain garden prevents flooding, which a couple of weeks ago as a result of just what was not a massive rainstorm out here, our subway system was entirely flooded,” Hanif said. “New Yorkers are experiencing things that the City Council can deliberately improve. And these material changes are critical for our health, our climate and our survival.”

Ultimately, Hanif says she wants to “uplift communities that have not had a voice or visibility through elected representation.” This includes her community of Kensington and those who are Muslim.

“Muslims live everywhere. In our city, we are a growing faith community and have a ton of needs. And so [I will be] connecting with leaders across the city and making sure that the Muslim voice is present in in City Hall, alongside the needs of South Asians.”

Hanif hopes her historic election will help inspire others to fight, just as she has, to make the city a more equitable place. “Finding your voice and breaking any fears you might have is a critical part of getting that seat at the table. I encourage folks to keep at it,” Hanif said.

“Working towards justice and dismantling, deeply rooted capitalist patriarchal society doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “This is my life’s work.” 

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Juliet Schulman-Hall is an editorial fellow for Ms. and a senior at Smith College. She is majoring in English language & literature, minoring in sociology, and concentrating in poetry. Her beats include America's health care system, disability, global politics and climate change, and criminal justice reform and abolition. Follow her @jschulmanhall