Woman. Headstrong. Independent. Unapologetically Muslim. A combination of words that sends instant chills down my spine — I am rejuvenated, empowered, inspired. We tend to underestimate the gravity and significance of representation. Seeing someone that mirrors your background, values, and opinions in a position of power, especially when that individual navigates the public sphere acknowledging their impact — it sets the tone for all the possibilities and opportunities just within your grasp, if you’re willing to take the leap. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American elected to the United States Congress in November 2018, and has since been a rising force unafraid to speak up about the issues that are primarily disregarded in US politics. This has not come without the usual speculation and controversy — but voices of truth and justice often are. In a divided country rapidly declining towards the isolation and mistrust of minorities, Omar’s presence in Congress, along with her relentless pursuit for equality and a more inclusive America, brings with it a renewed sense of hope while simultaneously paving the way for future Muslim women to enter the realm of US politics.
After being sworn into office on January 3, 2019, Omar tweeted a picture of herself alongside Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley with the caption, “At this moment, somewhere in the world, young girls and young women who look like us are learning to believe that they too can change the world and that no dream is too big. Representation matters.”
An introverted person by nature, I always presumed I would lead a “normal” life — as normal as life can get, anyway. For years I isolated myself from goals that seemed too far fetched, too radical for someone like me: a small-built Indian girl shying away from the fire that burned inside her. Rarely, if ever, did I see someone like me taking that initial step towards an “unconventional” life. Girls like me, girls in general, were taught to be poised, polite, quiet. See something fundamentally wrong with the world? Ignore it, and concentrate on what’s important: keeping up appearances, doing well in school, getting the grades to graduate college, getting married to someone who’d “take care of me,” being a good wife and mother — rinse the day off, rise again, repeat. I began to question whether my blind submission to fit into this box was what I really wanted — was I being contained? Was my ambition too much for the world to handle? Could I even entertain the possibility of branching out and doing something different, something that made my heart flutter with excitement and passion?
Were there others like me, girls with a burning desire to make a difference and leave their mark? Had I seen a visibly Muslim woman making it to one of the highest ranks this country had to offer — perhaps I would’ve decided to pursue my interest in politics much earlier than I did. When a dream becomes more than just a possibility — when it becomes a reality where the odds really are in your favor — the self-doubt melts away, replaced by confidence and unshakable faith.
The West’s history of regarding minorities as the “other” and enabling stereotypes to shape perceptions about entire groups of people is being challenged. No longer is the fight for equality a movement beneficial to only the average white American woman — the women on the sidelines are finally being given a platform to express their concerns.
In the Declaration Of Sentiments, Elizabeth Cady-Stanton writes, “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries.” The document goes on to list grievances not against the tyrannical king (as with the Declaration of Independence), but against men who have continued to deny (ie “repeated injuries”) women the rights and liberties they deserve. In the context of the time that this document was written, the right to vote — listed as the first grievance — was immensely important and even controversial, because voting was power in the hands of the people to elect those they saw fit to lead the country. The patriarchal structure of society at the time would’ve seen this as preposterous, especially given how women had been completely excluded from the political landscape throughout history, and their input would, therefore, carry little to no weight. Also highlighted in the document is the lack of rights for women in their property, income, marriage, divorce, and education — all of which were used against women by men to assert control and authority. Although the fight for equality by the women of Seneca Falls was a long one, and did, in fact, bring about the change they envisioned, it’s important to note here that the Declaration of Sentiments was rooted in white feminism — it completely excluded women of color as deserving of the same equal rights. While it’s easy to read through the document and say things have changed for the better (and comparatively, they have), we have to look at the history of oppression through an intersectional lens to truly understand how all women, from all social/ethnic/racial classes, have suffered. In Western society, white women have worked their way up in the ranks, and their journey against a largely male-dominated world has been difficult — but women of color have had to work twice as hard — not only to dismantle sexism but racism as well.
We still have a long way to go — congratulations can only be in order when the voices of all women are represented, not just the privileged few.
Intersectional politics is entering the mainstream as the social and political disparities of women of color are being emphasized and addressed. At the 2019 Women’s March in New York City, Representative Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez stated, “We need to advance and fight for an America where all people are welcome and no people are left behind. And I know that while this year has been historic, there’s a lot more congresswomen left here in this audience right now. There’s a lot more city councilwomen…and I know that there’s a future president out here too.” This year truly was a year of firsts with the first Somali-American in Congress, the first Palestinian-American in Congress, the first black woman from Massachusetts in Congress, and the youngest woman ever to become a Congresswoman. It is both a poignant reminder of everything marginalized women can achieve, as well as a painful reality check that it took this long to get here.
Ilhan Omar’s powerful journey from a refugee camp in Kenya to working her way up in the ranks of politics is the epitome of what immigrants often consider to be the American dream. Muslim leaders in the US are emerging in full force, and Omar’s contributions to representing Islam in a positive light for a Western and global audience do not go unnoticed. She has been extremely vocal about her race and religion, and the discrimination she has faced as a result of these identities has only enabled her to present herself in the most authentic way possible. She is candid, without holding back out of the fear of rejection, which makes her all the more admirable and relatable, even to those unfamiliar with Islamic tradition and values. Representation involves being wholly true to an identity; picking and choosing what is deemed as acceptable and discarding what could be seen as radical only makes the reality harder to grasp, and the differences between people harder to accept. Omar’s mere presence has given an entire generation of Muslims who are growing up in the US and identifying as American Muslims validity and a platform on which they can express themselves. This reiterates Naomi Wadler’s message in her 2018 speech at the March For Our Lives rally: “It is my privilege to be here today. I am indeed full of privilege. My voice has been heard. I am here to acknowledge their stories, to say they matter…for far too long, these names, these girls and women have been just numbers. I am here to say never again for those girls too. I am here to say that everyone should value those girls too.” As more and more politicians and leaders — specifically women of color — begin to tackle the plight of minorities, others will follow in their footsteps with the same intentions: educating, ending stigmatization and ignorance born out of fear, and daring to defy expected assimilation.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his groundbreaking speech “I Have A Dream” almost 56 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial, he highlighted the importance and necessity for change. Although the context of his speech primarily regarded the persecution of African Americans and segregated America, it is still applicable to this day. King said, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline…we cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” Simply having women of color in politics does not erase our history with oppression and violence, nor does it automatically entail that the fight for justice has come to an end. It is the responsibility of the women who now hold office to realize the magnitude of their influence on impressionable younger generations — what they do and how they do it will largely determine our own pursuit to shift the narrative to one that includes us in its legacy.
As Ilhan Omar steps into Washington, having been sworn in with her hand on the Quran, head held high with her hijab wrapped tightly around her — word may reach a young girl in a refugee camp halfway around the world. One may be analyzing her own reflection in the mirror, eyes brimmed with tears, as she regards herself with newfound confidence. We have not, and cannot be erased. We have been here. Our voices have always carried weight. We will not be forgotten. In the words of Ilhan Omar herself, “The floor of Congress is going to look like America…and you’re going to have to just deal.”