Senator Aisha Wahab is the author of the first state legislation in the United States which specifies that discrimination based on caste is illegal. On 22 March, the California Democratic lawmaker introduced a historic bill which aims to ban caste discrimination.
Wahab was born in New York City and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She and her sister were placed in the foster care system after their mother died at a young age and their father was killed. The sisters were adopted by an Afghan family in Fremont, home to one of the largest Afghan communities outside South Asia, also referred to as ‘Little Kabul’. After the family moved to Hayward, Wahab became a community organiser and an advocate for affordable housing. During her electoral canvassing, she faced Islamophobic and racist comments but persevered on to become the first Afghan-American woman to serve in public office in the US as a Hayward City Council Member in 2018.
Wahab also became the first Muslim and the first Afghan-American Senator in California in 2022. She has received her BA in Political Science, an MBA and is pursuing a PhD.
She represents a district in California’s Silicon Valley that is home to numerous tech companies which employ thousands of South Asians. While caste discrimination originated in South Asia, it also exists in America – in education, employment, social interactions, etc. She is supported by a coalition of Dalit Rights activists and human rights advocates across faiths in her fight for America’s caste oppressed.
Recent years have seen lawsuits related to caste discrimination in California. A lawsuit against Cisco was brought on by an Indian worker who claimed that he was a victim of discrimination because of his low-caste standing. The high-profile exit of Tanuja Gupta from Google after she spoke out about casteism in the company also reveals caste bias in California. In fairness, the city of Seattle, California State University, and Harvard University have banned caste discrimination. California Democratic Party and Apple have added caste in their codes of conduct.
As her Californian constituency is facing a reckoning with caste – let’s understand how Senator Wahab wants to be on the right side of history.
What motivated you to propose SB 403, the bill against discrimination based on caste?
I introduced this bill because a lot of the caste oppression that is being discussed at a higher level is coming from my district – we're talking about the Cisco lawsuit or the Cal State University language being drafted or the Google situation, it all comes from my district. I want to protect more people. I view this bill as a civil rights bill, a worker’s bill, a woman's rights bill and a human rights bill.
You mentioned the Cisco lawsuit. If this bill were already a law, hypothetically – when that workplace discrimination incident happened, how would the process of filing a complaint with the company’s HR, the lawsuit, or its outcome, be any different than it is currently?
It would have been far clearer that individuals of different castes would be protected. A complaint could be made. There would be no need for debate about the lawsuit. I want to highlight very clearly that this bill is to ensure that all people are protected the same way that we currently protect people of different backgrounds – women, different races, and different ages in the protective class.
This is coming on the heels of a success in Seattle city where the word caste has been included with other identifiers to protect people in the city. Is this bill specifically about workplace, or is it about Californians in every sphere of life?
It is for the whole state. DFEH (Department of Fair Employment & Housing) is drafting up the language. It's supposed to protect people in education, in the workplace and much more, as well as, the Unruh (applies to all businesses in California) Civil Rights Act. We are trying to clearly define and include caste in an intersectional way with the current language of the law as it stands today to ensure no further discrimination.
When did you first become aware of caste?
I grew up understanding it. I grew up in this district where there's a large South Asian population. Public education also covers the issue. I've had friends that have told me that their parents immigrated to this country because they belong to different castes, and (their) families weren't accepting of that, so they wanted to live their love marriage here in the United States. So, I've always known and understood this. I am an Afghan-American woman, a woman of colour, and I understand that I'm not going to know all the intricacies (of how caste plays out) because that is not necessarily my culture, my background, or my history. But I'm very cognizant about being sensitive to differences of other cultures and communities. At the same time, I also want to make it very clear that the ways of life of other communities and cultures that happened in other countries should not take place in this country when it comes to discrimination and opportunity. My goal is to protect more people.
This bill is creating history. How did you get here?
This bill is the first in the nation to be introduced at the state level. We've been working on it for several months now. There is a large coalition behind this. I'm very happy that the Seattle bill, a piece of legislation, moved forward because it adds to the fact that we need to do it now. The Democratic Party of California adopted this language as well in the code of conduct for the Democratic Party platform. CSU (Cal State University) adopted this language as well. So, I believe there is a movement here which is very much coming from my district first and foremost, and I'm very proud to push this bill forward.
Senator, do you have bipartisan support from other Senators?
Yes, they may not understand caste completely, but because this is a civil rights bill, people are supportive of it.
Please tell us about previous legislations you have been involved with.
I have been a Hayward City Council member, and obviously we protect a lot of different communities there. I'm also a former foster care kid, so I understand the struggles of a lot of people. I've passed a lot of housing legislation and protection of immigrant rights and more, but this is the first piece of legislation that I'm introducing that is very much a civil rights bill, specifically for the state legislature.
By when do you expect the bill to move forward in its process and become law?
It's not an overnight thing. Cities operate a lot faster, but state legislature takes a little longer. The bill is now introduced publicly. Simultaneously, we will work on its wording in the background. This allows for a more public discussion and comment. We have roughly a year to move this forward. It must move through committees, pass the Senate and the Assembly, then on to the Governor's office, and hopefully, the Governor signs it.
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel.)