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Senate Hopeful Salim: Unconventional Women’s Health Advocate

Three generations of the family of Virginia Senate hopeful Saddam Azlan Salim’s family gather around the dining room table. (Photo: Ty Begley, ZZB Media)

Saddam Salim was an unusual person to find discussing a hysterectomy with doctors as a 17-year old, but after four years of advocating for his mother, he had become a bit of an expert – and her life was on the line.

Born in Bangladesh, the Salim family was displaced by extreme flooding in 1998 that left 75 percent of the country under water, and in 2000 moved to the U.S. seeking a better life.  Just one year later, an eviction from their first home in D.C. left Salim and his family watching as their belongings, which had been removed to the street, were picked through by strangers – displaced again to make room for luxury condos.  Taken in by a family friend, the Salims lived in basements in Falls Church waiting for affordable housing.

When he was just 14, Salim’s mother started getting sick.  In Bangladesh, discussing women’s health was so taboo that “unwell” was a common diagnosis for reproductive ailments, and it was seen as unacceptable for women to expose themselves to male doctors.  During a time when the infant mortality rate was nearly ten percent, she had no access to a hospital and gave birth to three children from home, receiving no postnatal care.  As the primary English speaker in the family, Salim became his mother’s voice when discussing her health with medical staff.

“For her it was tough to tell her kids, ‘here’s what I think I have’ when it comes to my pain, but I also need your help.”  recalled Salim, who says he had to research and learn about reproductive health in order to navigate the healthcare system on her behalf.  Raised Muslim, the conversation did not come naturally.  “In a community like ours, a boy or a man does not talk about reproductive rights or the female anatomy… it’s a private thing, but for me to help her I had to.”

Despite his advocacy, for years doctors refused to take his mother’s pain seriously, simply prescribing some painkillers and sending them back home.  “Her pain became so severe that we had to take her to the hospital every other week.” recalled Salim. 

Finally, they encountered a nurse with knowledge of reproductive issues going undiagnosed in minority communities, especially after overseas births, who recommended a series of tests.  After the better part of the year, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, a condition where the endometrial cells that line the uterus grow elsewhere in the body, where they cannot be shed during menstruation and become trapped, causing extreme pain. 

Though rarely fatal, undiagnosed endometriosis can result in life-threatening side effects, and after years of suffering, his mother’s case was severe enough to require a hysterectomy.  Salim, who was nearing the end of High School, had to explain everything to his mother, who with the help of community healthcare was able to have a successful surgery and is now living pain-free.

 Salim excelled in school, was the President of his senior class at Falls Church High School, and received multiple college acceptance letters, including a nearly full-ride scholarship to Roanoke College.  Between his mother’s recovery and the extensive medical bills, however, Salim opted to stay local, attending Northern Virginia Community College and then George Mason University, where he received a master’s degree in public administration, with a concentration in public and non-profit finance.

Over the course of a nearly three-hour interview, Salim spoke with unusual competence on reproductive rights for a thirty-something male without children of his own.  It makes sense – he basically gave his little sister ‘the talk’ and spent his teen years discussing his mother’s uterus – but is especially remarkable in contrast to most other male politicians who, even if staunchly pro-choice, typically shy away from the subject.  “It was embarrassing…. going through these awkward things… but I think that because of that, my family is very strong, and we can say things that other families may not be able to.”  As a result, Salim says his family has helped others in their community to self-advocate, and understands the need to normalize discussing reproductive health.

 “Not only did I have to translate, I also had to look up all the bills, and explain what the bills were for,” said Salim, who said that navigating the billing for the procedure was especially eye-opening.  “That’s when I learned that access to care is important.  Access to care in the right communities; having health community centers throughout the district matters.” 

Salim says his reproductive rights priorities include guaranteed access to reproductive healthcare, medically accurate sex education in public schools, fighting TRAP laws and excessive restrictions aimed at shutting down abortion care, expanding access to community-based care, bringing back Governor Northam’s 2019 initiative to combat maternal mortality and the racial disparity in outcomes in the Commonwealth – and speaking out fearlessly and visibly on behalf of reproductive rights.

Salim was recently endorsed by Repro Rising Virginia, which has endorsed in only seven Virginia Senate races thus far this year.  At the event celebrating the Repro Rising Virginia endorsements and scorecard, Salim was the only male on stage.  “I felt comfortable… a lot of male legislators feel uncomfortable, even other ones who are highly rated or endorsed.”

Salim ended the conversation with what this writer will call “big feminist energy,” making the case for how male politicians, including his opponent, often fall short of his bold and unmoving advocacy for women’s reproductive care.

“A lot of politicians say [abortion] is between a person and their doctor, then just walk away.  I’ve seen many many many do that.  I get it.  It’s going to be uncomfortable.  But at the same time, if we’re not making people uncomfortable about having this conversation, if we’re not having the conversation or going to the protest, all going out to the mall expressing ourselves, then why am I even getting involved, you know?

“I’d be no different than somebody else just saying it for lip service.  So they can go ahead and say that, but I say at the same time let’s guarantee access, let’s back that up.  The difference between me and my opponent is that I’ll go out and say yes, it’s between a person and their doctor, but we also need to protect and give equal access to the things they need.”

Early voting has already begun for the primary, for which the News-Press has endorsed Salim for Senate District 37.  Registered Little City voters may cast their ballot at City Hall from 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Monday to Friday through June 17 or on either of the two Saturdays before Election Day (June 12 and 19), or at their polling place on Election Day June 20.