IOWA CITY — It seemed like pie in the sky, so to speak. The idea of running for student government president.
“Being a woman of color at an institution, and not seeing as many people who looked like me in leadership, I never really considered a role in leadership,” University of Iowa senior Hira Mustafa said. “It was always like a distant dream.”
Her self doubt went deeper than her gender and Pakistani heritage. In awe of past UI Student Government President Rachel Zuckerman, Mustafa thought, “I don’t know what it would take to get to that level of understanding and intellect to guide the student body in the way that she did.”
When Mustafa, 21, finally did start to voice interest in student government leadership, someone suggested, “You really don’t have time to do that.’”
“That shot me down and made me not want to initially apply,” she said. “It took another three people to say, ‘Hey Hira, you are very qualified for this role. You should be considering it.”
A Valley High School graduate who was raised in West Des Moines after moving there from Dubai — where she was born — at age 2, Mustafa concedes she’s taken a non-traditional path to the presidency.
She not only acknowledges internal doubt and a need for affirmation, but she has a history of distrust of governing bodies — especially those at the student level — after experiences in West Des Moines left her feeling powerless.
“It has taken a lot of time and consideration to recognize that I am capable of doing this role,” Mustafa said in an interview. “It’s taken a lot of outsiders to tap my shoulder and constantly remind me, ‘Hey, these are the reasons you’re qualified.’”
On March 30, Mustafa became the first female of color to head UI Student Government in nearly two decades — with Lana Zak, an Asian-American woman, becoming the first to do so in the 1999-2000 term, according to Mustafa’s research.
That reality says a lot and means a lot to Mustafa, who has a full agenda of advocacy to tackle in the coming year — including issues of campus culture and inclusion.
“Unless you have someone behind the scenes advocating for you and being willing to be in your corner when you don’t believe in yourself, I think it’s very difficult — especially for women of color — to recognize their worth and then push themselves to run,” she said.
Even after deciding to campaign, Mustafa said, she carefully weighed and worried about her appearance — Googling female politicians and finding many if not most of them had short hair.
“I remember the first conversation I ever had with someone after deciding to run was whether or not I should cut my hair … It sounds so ridiculous,” she said. “But I remember being like, ‘If I’m going to run, how do I make myself look like the people who are supposed to be in these roles?’ I was really nervous about how our campus would respond to me and how much of an impact my identity would have on people’s perceptions of me.”
The election was hotly contested, with four tickets running and none earning the required percentage of votes for a clear victory — requiring runoff counts. The election also involved some controversy — with candidates, including Mustafa’s SURGE ticket — landing fines for violations for things like overspending and campaigning early.
For a time during the campaign, Mustafa reported she was the first woman of color to run for the UI student government president — causing her to issue a correction after learning about Zak.
“It was not our intention to misinform voters and students,” she said. “It is imperative that we also acknowledge that we need more representation at all levels of government and leadership.”
Among her priorities as president, Mustafa said, are election code reform, campus unity and affordability for students as tuition goes up.
That will be relevant to her, personally, as she considers continuing her education after graduation — possibly heading to law school.
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