For an underrepresented population, Iranian Americans are plenty inundated with images as conflicting as the colorful cast of Bravo TV’s reality show “Shahs of Sunset” to the dreary Ayatollahs. In Washington State, the number of Iranian Americans is significant, with large pockets in places like Bellevue. Sahar Fathi thinks it’s about time a representative voice appeared in the state’s political arena.
Fathi announced her bid for candidacy for the Legislature’s 36th district seat in late March. If she wins, she will be the first Iranian American to ever serve in the state’s legislature.
“I have a very different life experience. I have a different background, so I will be able to offer a different perspective on issues and be vocal for a different population,” she said.
And a “different perspective” is certainly in order. At the age of 28, Fathi is a breath of fresh air in a Legislature largely made up of white, male and older members.
But don’t be mistaken: Fathi’s campaign isn’t about affirmative action. She has the qualifications to boot.
She is the current legislative aide to Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien. Previously, she graduated cum laude with a dual degree in French and International Relations from the University of Southern California. She also earned a Master’s in International Studies and a law degree from the University of Washington. Of her three major political rivals, she is the only practicing attorney — something she says is a major strength in the race.
“It means I’m good at looking at laws, and will be able to identify provisions that put us at risk,” she said.
Her main ambition is to provide a voice for the vulnerable, whether it is women in Africa, Middle Eastern women in America, or low-income children in Seattle’s neighborhoods.
Sahar served as a panelist on the subject, “Child Labor on Family Farms: the Case of India” at the inaugural Graduate Research Symposium at the University of Washington. She also studied international law at the Sorbonne in Paris and clerked for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
“There’s always an opportunity to talk about social justice in any field and that’s what I love about Seattle,” she said. “Whether it’s immigrant and refugee issues or energy policy.”
Her campaign revolves around labor and human services. Fathi advocates for worker safety, transportation services and most importantly, access to basic needs such as school lunches to all students to further close the achievement gap. She hopes to end child poverty in the state through measures such as an income tax and fiscal prudence.
“A value shift needs to happen. We need to prioritize children because they are the most vulnerable voices,” she said.
State Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson is the current incumbent of the 36th district, which includes the neighborhoods of Ballard, Phinney Ridge, Belltown and Queen Anne. Also seeking the seat, which has been held by Dickerson for the past 18 years, are Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton, Washington State Director of Progressive Majority Noel Frame and Nick Cail.
The candidates are all progressive Democrats and have similar views, but Fathi is hoping that her work in Seattle will resonate with her constituents, especially since 24 percent of the district she is running for is colored. Fathi is co-founder of the Middle Eastern Legal Association of Washington, the first clinic in the country that advocates for Middle Eastern women. In the last year and a half, the clinic has seen over a hundred Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian women through its virtual doors.
Fathi’s parents fled their native Iran in 1979 in the midst of the Islamic Revolution. For Fathi, her experiences and values were shaped by her experience as a child of immigrants. She chooses the color green for her campaign to represent the freedom desired by the peopling fighting in the Green Movement in Iran right now. She looks up to Nobel Peace Prize winners Wangari Maathai of Kenya and Shirin Ebadi of Iran for breaking down institutional barriers to serve as forces for social justice. With a name that roughly translates to “dawn of victory,” Fathi celebrates the poetic tradition of her culture and centuries-old practices like Persian New Year (Norooz) with pride.
“It’s hard to grow up and think you can contribute and have a voice when you don’t see people who look like you in elected office,” she said. “I want women, people of color and children of immigrants to get out there and be a part of the democratic process.”