On Wednesday, April 11, news outlets reported Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first Black woman and Muslim woman judge of New York was pronounced dead; her body found in the Hudson River a day after her husband reported her missing. She was 65 years old. According to The New York Times, “the police were treating her death as a suicide.” While Governor Andrew Cuomo honored and praised Abdus-Salaam and her contributions as both a judge, activist and also advocate for the LGBT+ community, the mystery surrounding her death has been unsettling to some; with many on social media claiming that reports of her committing suicide were false. Instead, some are calling for investigators to consider homicide as the vehicle that spurred her untimely death. Nevertheless, countless individuals, especially within the Black community, are in outrage, sadness, and disbelief over the loss of such a pivotal figure as Abdus-Salaam.
While there has been much banter on social media about the opaque nature of her death, the notions of Abdus-Salaam’s life being lost to homicide instead of suicide are not far-fetched. In a current political climate where antagonisms against Muslims, women, and Black and other marginalized communities are high, the intersectionality of these identities which Abdus-Salaam comprised — combined with her prominent position in power politics as a pioneering figure in New York state’s highest court — should not be overlooked in analyzing the perplexity surrounding her death. Moreover, Abdus-Salaam’s death is telling of the historical patterns of Black women, who, irrespective of their socio-economic and political class status, have either mysteriously died, are murdered, and are missing, and how their lives have been swept under the rug and overlooked in state, national and even community-level discourses. Also, Black women (and girls as well) who are missing or die mysteriously, do not draw as much both media and “proper” investigation processes, in comparison to their white female counterparts. The recent news of the missing Black and Latinx girls in Washington, D.C. is telling how the lives of women and girls of color are constantly castigated to the periphery.
However, while many Black women and girls are disproportionately killed via racialized state violence and gender-based violence and their disparities persist across the socio-political and economic gamut — Black women who too, are engaged in politics also endure physical, verbal and emotional violence and harassment in their capacities. As Abdus-Salaam’s case unfolds, it is important to investigate both the physical and psychological implications of Black women who are in the political sphere and how they navigate racialized-gendered hierarchies and counter threats of violence — especially when they are resisting state-sanctioned frameworks which threaten the maintenance of the white male patriarchial, supremacist establishment. Recently, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly hurled racially charged and misogynistic epithets at Congresswoman Maxine Waters, in reference to her hair as a “James Brown wig.” In response, Waters confidently retorted, “Let me just say this: I’m a strong black woman and I cannot be intimidated. I cannot be undermined. I cannot be thought to be afraid of Bill O’Reilly or anybody.”
Around the same time between of the O’Reilly-Walters exchange, White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, told April Ryan, who is the American Urban Radio Network’s White House Correspondent, to “stop shaking your head”, after Ryan probed Spicer about Trump’s relationship with Russia. These incidents sparked activist and educator, Brittany Packnett, to create the Twitter hashtag, #BlackWomenAtWork, which discussed the various experiences of Black women who have endured outwards acts of racism, sexism, microaggressions and violence in workplace environments.
The hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork not only applies in the contemporary, but also historically for Black women involved in political thought and behavior. As the vice-chairperson of the the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Fannie Lou Hamer told her disturbing story at the 1964 National Democratic Convention about how she was brutally beaten, stripped naked and sexually assaulted by police after being arrested in Montgomery County, Mississippi in June 1963. Shirley Chisholm, who was the first Black woman to be elected to the United States Congress and first Black woman to run for the U.S. presidency in 1972, also experienced both racism and sexism inside and outside the Black community, which further showcased the intersectional plight of Black women in politics.
According to the National Democratic Institute’s initiative, “#NotTheCost: Stopping Violence Against Women in Politics”, while violence against women in politics (VAW-P), writ-large is a pervasive issue, it is largely unheard of. Defining violence against women in politics as “encompassing all forms of aggression, harassment, coercion and intimidation against women as political actors simply because they are women…[and] [t]hese acts — whether directed at women as voters, civic leaders, political party members, candidates, elected representatives or appointed officials — designed to restrict the political participation of women as a group”, the report showed that women engaged in politics are met with acts of physical, psychological, sexual, and even economic attacks from family members, media, communities, and other political leaders. The murder of Helen Joanne “Jo” Cox, a British Labour Party politician is a gruesome example of VAW-P. In June 2016, Cox was brutally stabbed. In 2011, U.S. representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Congresswoman was shot in the head during a meeting with constituents. Moreover, a recent article in All Africa details the violence which Kenyan women face in politicas. Mbita MP Millie Odhiambo, an aspiring Kenyan politician, discussed the discrimination she faced while running for office.
“Violence is a real issue that has kept away women from competitive politics. Personally, I won but I was denied a certificate in the last General Election. I had to be firm,” Ms Odhiambo said.
Moreover, at an International Women’s Day event titled “Women in Leadership: A Conversation” at Howard University this past March, guest speaker Dr. Ngozi Okonja Iweala, the former Managing Director of the World Bank, told attendees how her mother was kidnapped during her tenure as Finance Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Nigerian government.
Overall, many women in politics not only face violence on a day-to-day, micro-level as individual women in society, but also on a macro-level because their political positions compound their experiences as being women in male-dominated spaces and occupations. While much important and much-needed attention has been focused on women in general who experience violence in politics — both on domestic and global levels — it is imperative that we do not forget Black women, such as Abdus-Salaam, who paved the way as a formidable and revolutionary figure in and outside the political spectrum. Moreover, it is also critical that we question the circumstances surrounding her death and the heightened levels of violence that may have impacted her in her position as the first Black woman and first Muslim judge in New York but also the cases and causes she supported. Furthermore, we cannot forget to say Abdus-Salaam’s name and the other countless Black women and girls who are politically active, who have lost their lives mysteriously and who still in the present, endure such violence both structurally and discursively. It is important that we do not forget Black women and girls in politics, who have sacrificed their lives and/or have been victimized because they aim to catalyze substantive change in their communities and beyond.
Rest in Power, Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam. We will forever say your name.