This Muslim Woman Wants to Change the System by Becoming the Next Manhattan DA

Meet Tahanie Aboushi. She is a fiery veiled Palestinian attorney with a thick New York accent raised in a community where she actually knows what a bodega is. And she’s a candidate that is currently running a historic campaign for Manhattan District Attorney.

As a child, Aboushi’s life was turned upside down when her father was incarcerated and given a lengthy 22 year prison sentence, leaving her mother to raise her and her nine siblings alone. She vowed then and there that she would change the system that had impacted her family and so many others in such a detrimental way. “It’s time those closest to the pain become closest to the solution,” Aboushi lamented. We had a chance to chat with her about her story, her progressive platform, and her campaign for change.

Muslim Girl: Thanks so much for agreeing to speak with us! For those who aren’t familiar with you, please tell us a bit about yourself.

Tahanie Aboushi: I was born and raised in New York City to two Muslim Palestinian immigrants who taught me the value of hard work from a young age. My parents owned a small grocery store and although life was tough, I had everything I needed — my family. 

All of this changed for me when I was 14 years old and my father was sentenced to 22 years in prison. This was the day my childhood ended, and I was forced to face the consequences of a brutal justice system that was in the business of throwing families away. I distinctly remember a moment in the courtroom where the judge pointed to my nine siblings and I sitting in his pews and asked the prosecutor, “What are you going to do about all of these kids?” Without hesitation the prosecutor replied, “They’re not my problem.” That’s the moment the system became my problem. This system took away my home, my school, my family and friends, and most importantly, my stability. It left my mother to struggle with raising 10 children on her own. 

All of these experiences led me to become a civil rights attorney, and for over 10 years now I have been fighting against racism, discrimination, and abuse of power. Now I’m running for Manhattan District Attorney to fundamentally transform the prosecution system from one that tears communities apart to one that restores them. I represent a constituency long ignored by not only the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, but by the justice system across the country – communities impacted by the prosecution system. District Attorneys have fed communities of color to the machines of mass incarceration and mass criminalization. It’s time that the most impacted communities lead the conversation when we talk about reforming our criminal justice system. 

How did you come to entering the race for District Attorney?

The fight for criminal justice reform is riddled with obstacles stemming from the District Attorney’s office. For every one family I was able to help, there were thousands others destabilized by the prosecution system. This is an office with immense power; a large budget and unchecked power when it comes to community oversight or public transparency. For me, it was an opportunity to no longer just do damage control, but instead fight alongside advocates for a fair and just society. It’s time those closest to the pain become closest to the solution. For the position of District Attorney, that means we need to stop making people of color the face of crime in our city and using us as scapegoats for the powerful and privileged, who are given a pass to do whatever they want with impunity; it is the chance to end the two-tiered system and center justice around people, not money. 

What can you tell us about what the race looks like right now?  What are the major issues that are being brought up?

The Manhattan DA’s race is one that holds national importance. We have seen in recent years the progressive movement completely transform the ways we are addressing prosecution and incarceration. We saw it in San Francisco with Chesa Boudin, in Boston with Rachael Rollins, and most recently in Los Angeles with George Gascón. As the financial epicenter of the world, Manhattan and New York as a whole should be leading the wave, yet Manhattan has never elected a woman or person of color to serve as DA. 

For over 200 years, it has been people of color on one side of the courtroom, and white District Attorneys on the other. That system has perpetuated racist and wealth-based inequalities that have targeted black, brown, LGBTQ+, immigrant, and poor communities. New York, Manhattan, and our communities are ready for a change. I have spent over a decade protecting our civil liberties, holding law enforcement accountable, and changing policies that were discriminatory against people of color – a much needed skill for the next Manhattan DA. I have seen the impacts of this office on every aspect of life — education, housing, mental well being, and economic stability — and I have fought it at every turn. It is imperative that the DA’s office is seen as a partner in ensuring the stability of society through investment in people.  

Our communities — Black, brown, immigrant, and poor communities — have been made the face of crime in our city for decades. From day one, my focus will be on decarcerating our communities at every opportunity. I will center justice around people and shift the focus from convicting at all cost to investing resources in our communities in a way that prevents crime and reduces harm. I will focus on sentencing reform, addressing systemic racism and wealth-based justice, holding police accountable, and focusing on public health approaches over criminalization. I will protect working families and immigrants and support investment in community safety initiatives. 

I distinctly remember a moment in the courtroom where the judge pointed to my nine siblings and I sitting in his pews and asked the prosecutor, “What are you going to do about all of these kids?” Without hesitation the prosecutor replied, “They’re not my problem.”

We all talk about and think about the importance of electing Muslims, and Muslim women in particular, to office. What would you say are the key reasons we need Muslim women to hold elected offices in the U.S.? What are some of the benefits of having Muslim women as elected officials, beyond representation?

The Muslim community is a vibrant, civically engaged, and thriving communitiy who are part of American society. In New York City, we are part of the melting pot that makes NYC so diverse and beautiful, yet many times we are seen as something “foreign” or “different.” It’s important to me that we are seen as part of this American society and that our voice is heard when it comes to local — not just foreign — issues or policies. 

Muslims are also a group that is severely underrepresented in public spaces like the media or politics. This lack of representation has facilitated the hateful rhetoric and false generalizations that have targeted Muslims for so long. This was specifically seen in 2016, when Trump shamelessly ran on a platform filled with racist islamophobic bigotry and in 2017, when he enacted the Muslim Ban. I still remember rushing to JFK Airport shortly after the Muslim Ban was announced, to co-lead a group of lawyers as we fought to get our Muslim brothers and sisters out of detention. We spent four consecutive days talking to family members, doing research, and drafting petitions until we were sure everyone was out. 

I think its safe to say that having a Muslim woman represent the Manhattan DA’s office is of great historic and symbolic significance.

I am sure a lot of our readers would love to support your campaign.  What can people do to get involved?

TA: You can visit us on our website, tahanieforda.com, and sign up. We have a ton of things for you to get involved in. You can sign up to volunteer. You can follow us on social media, @TahanieNYC on all handles. Send love and show support. Encourage your friends and families — no matter where they are across the country — to get involved in being part of history.

Follow Tahanie on the social media handle @TahanieNYC on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!

Sarah is a social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area with at-risk and homeless youth. She likes to paint, drum, sing, and spend quality time with her family and God.