Aisha Wahab on California’s Ban on Caste Discrimination

JThe California state legislator who introduced a bill that would make the state the first in the country to ban caste-based discrimination is receiving Islamophobic threats from the United States and abroad. State Senator Aisha Wahab says her office was inundated with dozens of hate calls, hundreds of emails and individuals yelling at her district office staff after introducing the legislation last week.

Caste is a system of social hierarchy that has been particularly prevalent in South Asia. It dates back more than 3,000 years, but even today it is the basis of discrimination against those who are considered lower caste or outside the system, including Dalits, who have been ostracized in as “untouchables”.

Caste discrimination also made its way overseas to the United States. A 2018 survey by Equality Labs, a non-profit organization that advocates for Dalits, found that one in four Dalits in the United States say they have been victims of verbal or physical abuse and two in three say they are victims. of discrimination at work.

Wahab’s proposal comes after Seattle became the first US city to add caste to its anti-discrimination laws last month. The California university system added caste to its non-discrimination policy on its 23 campuses last January.

Learn more: How Seattle Became the First American City to Ban Caste Discrimination

California has long been in the limelight for caste-based discrimination. In 2001, Lakireddy Bali Reddy – one of Berkeley’s wealthiest landlords, who owned over 1,000 rental properties, was convicted of transporting minors for illegal sexual activity; federal officials accused him of bringing at least 25 Indian workers to the United States under false pretences, some of whom were Dalits. Most recently, in 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Cisco Systems over an Indian Dalit engineer who alleged caste discrimination. Last year, Tanuja Gupta, a senior executive at Google News, resigned after a conference she had organized with Tehnmozhi Soundararajan, the founder of Equality Labs, was canceled amid a disinformation campaign claiming that Soundararajan was Hindu-phobic.

It was in this environment that Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the California state senate, introduced a bill that would explicitly include caste as a protected category in California’s anti-discrimination laws. The bill has been introduced but has not yet been put to a vote in both chambers.

TIME spoke with Wahab about the issue of caste discrimination, how her legislation would address the problem, and the threats she has received in recent days.

How did you hear about caste discrimination?

I first learned about caste as many other Americans did – through public school education and world history. I heard stories from friends; one of them mentioned that her parents had immigrated from India to the United States because they belonged to different castes and their families did not accept each other. Some friends explained that their families expected them to marry people who shared the same surname, suggesting they were from a higher caste. Over the past two years, I’ve heard a lot about how caste can become an issue in job interviews, especially in the tech world.

How have you seen caste manifesting itself in the United States?

You see it in the hiring process, as well as in the world of education, health care and housing. Landlords sometimes refuse to rent to people of a lower caste. Discrimination occurs in many different industries. It is difficult to identify and explain when it is not one of the dominant groups that is being discriminated against.

How would your legislation deal with caste-based discrimination?

California civil rights law is generally thought to cover caste to some degree, as some people will place it under the concept of ancestry or race. But caste is very specific; it encompasses more than these two factors. We are simply trying to clarify the law to explicitly include protection against discrimination based on a person’s caste, which we define as a system of social stratification, in which people are characterized by hereditary status, social barriers and differences. other forms of segregation.

What have you heard from your own constituents? Was there any particular incident that underscored the urgency of this bill?

My constituents told me about caste-based discrimination in housing and education. Many Dalit women said they had received death and rape threats for speaking out.

I was asked: don’t you think an American Indian should wear this particular bill? And to that, I would say, as an individual who cares about civil and human rights, if you see something wrong, you fix it. You don’t need to belong to a particular community to do this.

Can you tell me about the types of threats and harassment that you and your staff have experienced?

My last name is Wahab, so they love to link it to Wahhabism, or call me a jihadist or a Taliban. Basically every racial slur and dog whistle.

My office received many violent threats. Within the first 24 hours of the bill’s introduction, the Senate received hundreds of emails opposing and supporting the legislation. Some who were very convinced came to our district office and tried to intimidate our staff by talking about the hundreds of years old Mughal Empire. There is no place in this country to base any kind of discrimination on something that happened overseas hundreds of years ago.

Several people came to the office with different levels of anger. Some just wanted to know more. Others were much more belligerent, yelling, yelling and being very verbally abusive towards staff.

People have filed formal complaints with the California Senate, the Senate Committee on Legislative Ethics, the Secretary of the Senate, the California Fair Political Practices Commission, and the Governor’s Office. It only serves to deter us from focusing on the bill. It’s a diversion. We will comply with any investigation; We have nothing to hide.

The international communities have also followed this bill. Some, including a former Indian colonel, appeared on information boards
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in India calling for the death of individuals who are opponents of India inside and outside the country—in relation to this bill.

I am proud to support this bill. I’m happy to take the hits I take. All the racial slurs against me, the calls, emails and people harassing my staff at our office. They talk about centuries-old empires and the politics of old countries. They are confusing different issues to distract us from the job at hand, which is to get this bill passed.

How did you handle your own security?

I never really cared, to be honest with you. I’m one of those people who believe that any day you can potentially get hit by a bus, so I try to live my life as freely as possible and I’m not going to cower in the face of threats either.

The Secretary of the Senate was concerned about some of the responses received by his office. They asked me if I needed armed security or a bulletproof vest. The State Legislature is ensuring that we are all safe, including my staff, who are my number one priority. But at the same time, I will continue to push this bill forward. It’s not going to scare me.

How was your Ramadan? Did that affect how the month went for you?

I’ll be honest with you, I don’t really practice. I have never claimed to be a religious person and I am not a representative of the whole religious community. But we can be intersectional in our identity and we’re not always 100% what people expect of us based on our identities.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at


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