A Muslim congresswoman

31 Oct 2018


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

“THIS is a president really that has put his interests and his financial interests above the country and the nation’s interests, and so there are multiple things the president has done to qualify for him to get impeached.” So declared Ilhan Omar as she debated her Republican opponent.

Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American, is set to become the first-ever Muslim woman elected to the US Congress. Omar came to the United States when she was 12 years old, and one of the few English words she knew was ‘shut up’. The family had fled civil war in Somalia and had taken refuge in a refugee camp on the Kenyan border. They arrived in the United States in 1997, and by the time Omar was in high school she was already a community organiser in the Somali-American community in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

America is a country taken with firsts; they mark them often, perhaps because it substantiates the closely held myth of exceptionalism, of America being better, braver, more pioneering and, of course, morally superior to other countries. While a ton of examples can be offered to deflate this myth, it is true that Ilhan Omar’s story is just the sort of ‘only-in America’ tale that is so adored.

Even a woman who is extremely popular cannot get through the harsh process of electioneering without some cuts and bruises.

Omar, who is 36 and currently serving in the Minnesota legislature, undoubtedly came to the United States with almost nothing, not even the ability to properly communicate with her teachers. Through American public education and eventually higher education, she was able to get to a place of leadership, working as a community educator so that she could help others in her Somali-American community. Those were not easy days; post-9/11 suspicion meant that the Somali-American community was full of FBI informants and undercover agents.

Omar persevered, however, helped perhaps by the fact that the Fifth Congressional District was, even in the years before her, represented in Washington D.C. by a Muslim Congressman. Representative Keith Ellison elicited controversy and attention when he requested that he be allowed to take the oath of office on a copy of the Quran. He did exactly that, on a copy that once belonged to one of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.

Now it is Ilhan Omar’s turn. In the primary contest via which Democratic voters select the candidate they want on the November ballot fighting against the Republicans, Omar won, defeating her opponent by nearly 20 points. If all goes well in next week’s election, she could be carried to victory by the scores of voters who are so eager for her to be their leader.

Politics, of course, is a dirty game, and even in these last days Omar is facing criticism. One Republican Party operative in Minneapolis accused Omar of misusing the public funds allotted to election candidates by using the account to pay for a trip to Estonia and for her recent divorce. Omar put these accusations to rest but it goes to show that even a woman who is extremely popular and a shoo-in for victory cannot get through the harsh process of electioneering without some cuts and bruises.

Ilhan Omar’s victory represents the emergence of a new generation of Muslim women. She covers her hair in the traditional Somali style and is poised and articulate, able to hold her own in any conversation, with any kind of leader. She pays homage to her beginnings, her Somali roots, her days as a refugee and she also realises that she will have to use all the grit she possesses to represent the Somali-American community in a capital where Somalia is synonymous with terrorism.

Within that environment, where both women and black Americans, not to mention Muslims, are underrepresented, she will have to hold her own. Like Keith Ellison before her, she will face extra scrutiny, and if the Republicans continue to control the Senate (as some have forecast) she will have to contend with open bigotry and Islamophobia.

The imminent election of Ilhan Omar, a refugee child, a non-English speaking immigrant, a black woman, a Muslim woman, should also give the Muslims of the world some food for thought.

It is wearying and disappointing to remind oneself that, in a Muslim country, this Muslim woman would likely not have been able to rise to such heights. Her divorce would have stigmatised her in Pakistan, her blackness in Egypt, her poverty everywhere.

Yes, there are women, Muslim women, in Pakistan’s own parliament but the vast majority of them are daughters and wives and sisters of feudal and industrial forces. In simple terms, they are women with a whole slew of political connections, whose accumulated might insulates them from the treachery and open assaults they would otherwise face just because they are women.

Then there are the religious interpretations that would also coalesce to deny a woman like Ilhan Omar any real power. It is tedious to remember that Omar, who addresses crowd after crowd and will eventually address the House of Representatives in the United States, could not, for instance, address a gathered crowd of her fellow believers in a mosque. She could not legally be considered ‘head of the family,’ or wali, in many Muslim countries.

These thoughts are important as the world welcomes pioneering Muslim women. They are important because there is no Muslim woman alive who doesn’t wonder about the tragedy that ensures that Muslim women can never become great and powerful when they inhabit Muslim countries. May Ilhan Omar win the election next Tuesday, and may Muslim countries have the wisdom and will to consider what it would take to give others such opportunities at home.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2018