Interview: Sadia Saifuddin, first Muslim student on UC Board of Regents

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Sadia Saifuddin, the first Muslim student to serve on the UC Board. Photo: Sana Saifuddin

By Mckenna Toston

Sadia Saifuddin, who is in her fourth year at UC Berkeley majoring in social welfare, was appointed in July as the first Muslim student to serve on the UC Board of Regents. She will spend the 2013-2014 school year observing the board and will become a voting member in June 2014. Saifuddin, 21, was born and raised in Fremont. Her parents immigrated from Pakistan in 1986.

Saifuddin is widely admired by many of her peers, although others consider her selection controversial because she co-sponsored a non-binding UC student senate resolution that called on the UC system to divest $14 million from companies that do business in Israel. Saifuddin said she did not want “one cent of my money to go toward fueling the occupation of my brothers and sisters.” Crtitics have called the resolution short sighted and anti-Semitic and have called into question Saifuddin’s ability to represent all students. Berkeleyside contributor McKenna Toston asked Saifuddin about her new position and her goals for her term.

What does your new position on the Board of Regents entail?
I am the representative for over 234,000 students in the UC system. As student-regent, I need to understand the needs and concerns of the students.

Why was there controversy regarding your selection?
I played a large role in the effort to divest from companies that support Israel’s occupation of Palestine. A lot of people think this makes me anti-Semitic, which is absolutely false. I did my job in representing my community in that situation.

Divestment is not something I will be pursuing as student regent. My politics on that particular matter don’t inform my new position. There are more pressing issues, like financial aid reform and campus climate.

What do you want to change about financial aid and campus climate?
Financial aid is a widespread problem on all UC campuses. The policies aren’t student-friendly or efficient. Students feel intimidated by financial aid offices and have to wait in long lines. My goal is to form groups on all UC campuses that will work with financial aid staff to find the best practices. We need system-wide changes that will make the process of receiving financial aid more student-friendly and accessible.

One of the issues I see with campus climate is a huge disconnect between the Board of Regents and student body. The board is passing ineffective policies and we end up with really big gap between the students, administrators and regents. I want to organize groups of students from different communities in the UC system that will meet with regents so they’re more effective for students.

Qur’an 5:51 orders Muslims to “not befriend the Christians and the Jews.” How do you balance the demands of your religion with the demands of your position to represent students of all backgrounds?
My best friend is Catholic; I visit her church and she comes to my mosque. Religion is not a contender in our relationship. I think people cherry-pick a lot of things in the Muslim faith, and this emphasizes Islamophobia. If I looked in the Bible or Torah, I could find quotes that say the same thing. We need to look hard at people who are saying Muslims are intolerant, because it’s the people who are saying these things who are intolerant. My faith is one that preaches love and peace, forgiveness and mercy — these are the ideals that I’ve chosen to embody.

What would you say to somebody who thinks you are anti-Semitic?
I would tell them to talk to somebody who has worked with me before. Anybody who knows me knows I’m not anti-Semitic. I would urge the people who say I’m intolerant to check their own intolerance. I personally think in order to grow we need to have conversations and be okay with other people’s opinions. I’m a person who welcomes dialogue. If the people who think I’m anti-Semitic ever want to talk to me, I’d be happy to.

What kind of projects are you currently working on for Cal?
Sexual assault is really big deal on college campuses. It goes unreported because a lot students don’t know how to deal with it, or what resources are available. Last year I helped organize a sexual assault workshop. We had resource guidance and trainers who helped with self-defense and gave out pepper spray.

Another thing I’ve helped with is addressing student hunger. I know what it’s like to have four jobs and be barely holding on. Berkeley Food Pantry raised $90,000 in funding for students who need food or hygiene items. I’m excited about that project because it addresses a specific need for a lot of students.

What is your main goal as student-regent?
My main goal is to truly understand the experiences of students across the Universities of California so I can better represent them in everything I do. There are a lot of different projects and policies that will be passed in the next year and, through all that, I want to know in my heart that I am representing the students.

How can students be sure that their voices are heard by you?
My email address is publicly available, and I have a page that I check often where people can post, message and comment. Their voices will definitely be heard, especially on social media. (Saifuddin’s email address is: RegentSaifuddin@gmail.com).

Mckenna Toston is a student at the City College of San Francisco where she majors in ethnic studies and journalism. She writes for the campus newspaper, ‘The Guardsman.’

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  • Dude1883

    Congrats to her!

  • Bill N

    Congratulations to Regent Saifuddin and good luck on the two issues mentioned – financial aid delivery and campus climate.

  • Tizzielish

    I am glad to read that Regent Saifuddin stated that her politics on asking UC to divest of any investment in Israel will not ‘inform’ her work as student regent. I even appreciate the way she distinguishes her personal wish to support her fellow Arab Muslims (presumably the oppressed Palestinians) from anti-Semitism. It is not anti-Semitic to ask Israel to show more kindness and mercy towards the Palestinians.

  • 2ndGenBerkeleyan

    FYI: “…her personal wish to support her fellow Arab Muslims”. First of all, she’s born and raised in the Bay Area. She’s an American first and foremost. Secondly, her Pakistani heritage is not an Arabic one in any sense, even if they share a (mostly) common faith or set of traditions and sacred texts…

  • guest

    Student poverty is a real problem. When I was a grad student in mathematics, some of my fellow students lived in their offices because they did not have enough funding to rent a room.

  • less equal than others

    In spite of civil manners and common decency it’s OK to condescendingly interrogate this elected official about how her religion’s scripture doesn’t force her to mistreat jews and christians in her duties of office? Is this remarkable standard of journalism applicable because she’s a Muslim? She answers with dignity but the publication of the question here is sickening and hypocritical.

  • Bryan Garcia

    I agree, some of the questions came across as reactionary and rude, in my opinion.

  • guest

    Regent Blum owes her an apology, too. He was quite rude.

  • guest

    The question about a particular verse from the Koran is cheesy. For a long list of ridiculous bible verses, most of which are in the Pentateuch, read here: http://www.christianitydisproved.com/bible/obsolete-bible-verses.html Good luck standing up to defend those verses! Timothy 2:11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a
    woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent

  • Mckenna Toston

    Many of the questions I asked represented conversations on social media. I think by answering these questions, Sadia was given an opportunity to represent herself accurately.

  • Inkspots

    There was nothing rude about this question unless you believe it is rude to be forthright. If the new student regent was an evangelical Christian, would you not ask about the tenets of her faith? If the student were an Orthodox or Conservative Jew, why wouldn’t you ask about various Torah commands? Personally, I love such questions because they give me the opportunity to explain things others might never know about my faith, and in depth too!

  • Inkspots

    Yes, and that is why if a person were an evangelical Christian, and you were the journalist, you might ask about that. I certainly would. It is curious that while some readers are offended by the question, Ms. Saifuddin did not appear to be offended in the slightest and offered a full and enlightening answer.

  • Bryan Garcia

    I would say with about 90% certainty that the same kind of questions would not be asked of a Christian or Jewish student regent. Just can’t see it happening, personally.

  • Inkspots

    It hasn’t happened, but you are 90 percent certain. Incredible.

  • Khaja Mazharuddin

    ********Congratulations to Saifuddin and good luck*****