Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are two powerful political forces to be reckoned with.
By Tara Isabella Burton
Tuesday was a historic night for Muslim women in US politics.
Two Muslim women won their House races in Midwest districts. Democratic candidate Rashida Tlaib was elected in Michigan, without opposition, to replace Rep. John Conyers, who stepped down after facing sexual harassment allegations. In Minnesota, Democrat Ilhan Omar defeated Republican Jennifer Zielinski. Omar is replacing Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison — the first Muslim person elected to Congress — who on Tuesday won his race for state attorney general.
Upon her victory, Omar congratulated Tlaib on Twitter expressing her solidarity with her “sister” and excitement to serve in Congress together.
Neither victory was a complete surprise: Tlaib and Omar ran in two districts that tend to favor Democrats. Still, their wins remain hugely symbolic, both for Muslim visibility in the United States and as a repudiation of anti-immigrant, nativist sentiment in the age of Donald Trump.
Suman Raghunathan, the executive director of advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together, told Vox, “It’s incredibly inspiring … to see the nation’s first Muslim American women elected to Congress just two years after the administration decided to introduce the first ‘Muslim ban’ — I think that’s a very strong, powerful message of repudiation against the politics of division rather than the politics of inclusion.”
She stressed the importance of the women’s backgrounds not only as Muslims, but also as those with immigrant and refugee backgrounds. Tlaib is the child of Palestinian immigrants, while Omar came to the United States more than 20 years ago as a refugee from Somalia. Both have made pro-immigrant policies a staple of their platforms and have been vocal critics of the Trump administration’s hardline approach to migration.
Raghunathan also highlighted the fact that Tlaib and Omar’s elections are only a small part of what she sees as a wider electoral repudiation of the Trump administration’s specific brand of nationalism and conservatism.
“Tlaib and Omar are not the only firsts,” Raghunathan said. “Last night saw a number of other oppressed and marginalized communities who also elected their first members of Congress. Kansas saw both the repudiation of the noted anti-immigrant demagogue Kris Kobach, rejected in the governors’ race, and also you saw Kansas’s Third District — which was the home of Meshon Cooper who was murdered by a white supremacist last year — flip, and elect one of the nation’s first Native American women, and Kansas’s first gay women,” Democrat Sharice Davids.
Tlaib and Omar’s victory, therefore, must be seen as part of a broader movement: one in which progressive women and members of minority groups are bringing their experiences to the fore to combat Trumpist rhetoric and policies alike.
Omar and Tlaib have both been explicit about the degree to which their identities inform their politics. Before her election, Omar told the New Yorker’s Emily Witt that her opposition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement was rooted in her own consciousness of oppression. “I’ve always seen how it was created out of fear, and how it became a tool to dehumanize and treat Muslims as second-class citizens within this country,” she said.
Likewise, Tlaib told ABC News before the election, “I ran because of injustices and because of my boys, who are questioning their [Muslim] identity and whether they belong. I’ve never been one to stand on the sidelines.”
While their elections are historic, some commentators caution against reducing Tlaib and Omar down solely to their identities as Muslim women. As imam Dawud Walid told Vox, all too often, people focus on Muslim candidates’ identities rather than focusing on their policy proposals.
“It’s very important to have a democracy that truly represents and reflects the people that live in the country,” Walid said. “With [Tlaib and Omar], we’re adding to that representation that has been sorely missing in Congress, [but] there is a tendency of wanting to place Muslims in a policy ghetto.”
Walid added, “There is somehow an expectation that [an elected Muslim] person is supposed to be a spokesperson for Muslim. … I don’t see either of them as a spokesperson for their faith. We’ve got Islamic scholars, and female Islamic scholars for that. These are people who got elected in districts that are majority non-Muslim and they are representing the interests of their district and the country as a whole.”
Wajaharat Ali, a journalist and frequent commentator on Islamic issues, concurred. Pointing out that the district that Omar won in was predominately white and 70 percent Christian, he argued that Omar and Tlaib’s victories were fundamentally about their ability to connect with the needs of a population hungry for strong, progressive candidates. “Oftentimes [the narrative will] be — ‘we’re the first Muslims.’ But what you’re seeing now is [the narrative of] ‘we are public servants and champions of the people who happen to be Muslim.’”
“What that shows you,” he added, “is an evolving America that has a more nuanced, sophisticated understanding of how to deal with women and people of color and minorities. Meaning those markers are not used to tokenize them, but are seen as just one of the many aspects of their identity.”