Meet Bushra Amiwala, the Muslim teen running to be commissioner in Cook County, Illinois

Meet Bushra Amiwala, the Muslim teen running to be commissioner in Cook County, Illinois
Bushra Amiwala, an upcoming sophomore at DePaul University, is running for a Cook County Board seat. Bushra Amiwala/Bushra Amiwala
Bushra Amiwala, an upcoming sophomore at DePaul University, is running for a Cook County Board seat. Bushra Amiwala/Bushra Amiwala

In Illinois, Bushra Amiwala is running for a Cook County Board seat, challenging incumbent Larry Suffredin for commissioner to represent the 13th district.

The Democratic primary election is nine months away, and Amiwala is just getting started on her campaign for the second-largest county in the country. Amiwala, who is the 19-year-old daughter of two Pakistani immigrants, filed her candidacy paperwork in March and said she plans to submit the required 500-signature petition by fall.

"I believe our generation really does not have a voice at the local level, because one, 13 out of our 17 commissioners in Cook County are onto serving at least their second term, meaning there have not been opportunities for fresh voices to come in," Amiwala said in an email interview. "And two, seeing the physical makeup of those who hold government positions in general is discouraging."

Out of all 17 commissioners on the Cook County Board, there are only two women — one of whom is black.

Bushra Amiwala on DePaul University's campus holding up her 2016 Woman of Spirit and Action Award Bushra Amiwala/Bushra Amiwala

Amiwala, who is an upcoming sophomore at DePaul University, said she decided to run for the Cook County Board seat after speaking to constituents about a county-wide sugar tax that is expected to go into effect on July 1. The sugar tax, passed in November, will impose a tax on sugary drinks that amounts to one $0.01 per ounce. Amiwala said she opposed the tax because it adversely impacts people in low-income families and marginalized communities.

"I realized a perspective of a young person, and someone who has worked in marginalized communities, is needed," Amiwala said. "Because it became clear their voices were not being heard, and they were being exploited."

But there's another reason that motivates Amiwala: The Trump administration's attempts to implement a travel ban, responses to terrorism attacks and Islamophobic rhetoric has left many people in the Muslim community feeling concerned about their future in the country.

"I want to show people that even during one of the most intense Islamophobic periods in history, I am not letting that stop me from getting involved within politics," Amiwala said. "Ignorance clouds judgement and if the only Muslim person people see is on the media after a terrorist attack, then one can expect generalizations, stereotypes and prejudice to arise. However, if a Muslim person is seen as a leader, seen as empowered and seen as an inspiration, then [we are] rewriting some of the predisposed beliefs people hold for Muslim people."

Bushra Amiwala and her brother canvassing for Sen. Mark Kirk's election campaign Bushra Amiwala/Bushra Amiwala

Amiwala said a lot of her high school classmates expressed public support for Donald Trump during the presidential election. She said she was perplexed that people could vote for a candidate that spreads hate speech and presents minority groups in such a negative light. To learn more, Amiwala interned for Republican Sen. Mark Kirk's 2016 campaign.

"I partially wanted to see what the reaction of those who worked on this campaign would be, and also wanted to understand why they supported someone like Donald Trump," she said.

Amiwala said she knows she's at a disadvantage for a number of reasons, namely that she's running against an incumbent and is extraordinarily young. But those challenges don't concern her. For Amiwala, it's not necessarily about winning the election. Her candidacy is for a far greater purpose.

"Even if I do not win the election, [there] is an outcome I expect to see regardless," she said. "I hope young Muslims specifically realize that the hijab and Islam is a symbol for empowerment, not oppression."