Meet the Rutgers Student Organizing the Women’s March on New Jersey

Kaity Assaf, a junior at Rutgers University-Newark and youngest member of the leadership team for the march, has a long history of activism.

Kaity Assaf
Kaity Assaf got involved in the women's march at the suggestion of the New Jersey branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, where she had interned.
Photo: Courtesy of Kaity Assaf

Kaity Assaf’s resume testifies to the power women can wield, even before they are old enough to run for most elected offices.

The 20-year-old junior at Rutgers University-Newark is the youngest member of the leadership team planning the upcoming Women’s March on New Jersey in Trenton. Assaf got involved at the suggestion of the New Jersey branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, where she had interned.

Elizabeth Meyer, founder of the event, welcomed Assaf.

“Elizabeth told me that she liked the idea and was open to having a young voice at the table, because the youth are our future doctors, politicians, writers, journalists and lawyers,” Assaf recalls.

Assaf’s contribution has been impressive, says Meyer who points to her ability to balance internship, advocacy and school work.

“She’s a gift to our team – a genuine, compassionate and hard-working young woman,” says Meyer.  

Assaf’s role as an activist began when she was a student at Clifton High School, battling to have Eid al-Adha declared a public-school holiday. She believed that all students should be able to celebrate their holidays freely and have their rights represented.

She deluged the local school board with petitions and public pleas seeking to have the community’s growing Muslim population to be given the day off to celebrate the holiest day on the Islamic calendar – in the same way that Jewish students are able to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Christian students can celebrate Christmas with their families.

“No student should have to compromise between their faith and education,” Assaf told a local newspaper at the time.

The teenager ultimately won her fight, prompting one school board member to label her a modern-day Rosa Parks, while friends called her “a legislator in the making.”

We’ve seen women of color being elected to office. Now we should have women in every position available.

Now she finds herself in a prominent role working to expand the voice of women in politics as a leader in the march. Assaf, a political science major and an English minor, will be one of a dozen speakers at the Jan. 19 march. The New Jersey march, which started in solidarity with similar events around the country in response to the election of Donald Trump, is marking its third anniversary.

Her speech, still a work in progress, will address ways to create unity and the next step in women’s political evolution.

“We’ve seen women of color being elected to office. Now we should have women in every position available,” she says.

Assaf’s advocacy not only influenced her decision to attend Rutgers-Newark – that is known for valuing student activism – but also drove her to get behind Philip Murphy’s run for governor in 2017, writing letters to the editor which were published in The Record of North Jersey and The Jersey Journal.

Kaity and Bill Pascrell
Assaf has a long history of involvement in politics including an internship with Congressman William Pascrell of Paterson.

She also served as opinion editor of The Rutgers Observer, the student newspaper at Rutgers-Newark, moving up to the position of executive editor this year.

Jack Lynch, professor of English and chair of the English Department at Rutgers-Newark, believes Assaf embodies the university’s commitment to engagement with the wider community.

In an upper-level seminar she took as a sophomore, students were asked to design projects applying real-world experience to 18th-century literature. Assaf explored the early origins of human rights, specifically the United States Declaration of Independence.

“I remember admiring the fact that her political commitments in the real world informed her scholarly interests,” Lynch says.

Her leadership of the march is the latest addition to Assaf’s already impressive experience trying to make a difference in politics.

Last semester, the Passaic County resident interned in the Paterson office of her U.S. Representative, William Pascrell Jr. (D-9th District), where she helped write grant proposals and worked on congressional records. Her work in the congressional office followed an internship in high school with CAIR-NJ, a Muslim-American civil rights/advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Although she personally has encountered no prejudice or unequal treatment as a Muslim-American woman who wears a hijab, Assaf acknowledges that some of her friends have.

“As a female and a visibly Muslim-American woman, I recognize that women have to work harder in our society, and many women have faced challenges because of their race, religion, age and disability,” she said.

The Rutgers student recognizes that the marches have been beset by internal squabbling and divisions. Organizers in Eureka, California and in New Orleans recently cancelled scheduled events, citing concerns that they would be “overwhelmingly white,” while charges of anti-Semitism have roiled the New York Women’s March almost from the start.

But Assaf stresses that the New Jersey event is independent of other marches planned that day in the state, as well as nationally and internationally.

She would rather concentrate on the local march’s slogan – “Solidarity. Power. Progress” – while emphasizing that unity and accepting each other’s differences are key to achieving that progress.

After she graduates next year, Assaf hopes ultimately to marry two of her great passions: becoming an international human rights lawyer who is also a political journalist.

This story originally appeared in Rutgers Today.

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