Minnesota’s young Muslim girls can finally see themselves in Congress

Article was featured in MinnPost on 11/07/2018.

It was in Mrs. Gray’s fourth grade class at Illinois Park School that I remember being asked for the very first time, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As the daughter of immigrant parents, it was grilled into me to become a doctor. Some of my fellow classmates would say astronaut, teacher and maybe one of the boys would yell out “President!” But, no girl ever dared to say president. I saw no one that looked like me in many careers or holding high levels of office. The principals of my grade school and middle school were both white men. Every president I learned about was a white man. So, this seed was planted in my subconscious, this lack of representation meant this wasn’t a job, career or title a woman could dream of, let alone a little brown girl. How can I be what I cannot see?

I have experienced that disorienting feeling many times since then, but I have also seen and felt evidence of my own belonging here, in my Minneapolis and larger Minnesota community. And one of those moments was last night, watching Ilhan Omar take the stage as our newest Congressional official and one of the first 2 Muslim women elected to U.S. Congress.

I am a Muslim woman who observes hijab, born to immigrant, Hyderabadi Indian parents. I was raised in the suburbs of the Windy City. Here in Minnesota, I am a social justice activist, organizing and mobilizing my community for equity. My husband and I are raising two teenagers, the future leaders of our tomorrow.

And in the past four years, I have seen my fellow Minnesotan Muslim women––Ilhan included––reach new heights of leadership and empowerment.

In early 2017, the organization I co-founded - Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment - invited School Board Member Hala Asamarai, Candidate Ilhan Omar, and activist Asma Mohammed to come share their journeys of political activism and engagement. All three women come from different backgrounds, ages, life experiences, ethnicity allowing for the Muslim women in the audience to see themselves in their stories. That day, Ilhan encouraged us to participate in the election process from the beginning steps of attending a caucus. It was that call to action that led to several Muslim women to cast their ballots for the next president, caucus, become delegates, and introduce resolutions at their caucus.

Their level of engagement didn’t stop there. They signed up to be election judges, board commissioners and volunteered on campaigns. We saw our sisters march to the Capitol. We saw them rally for safer gun legislation, draft policy for eliminating the statute of limitations for sexual violence crimes (Ilhan authored the bill), and fight for Minnesota families.

Ilhan’s win is reflective of the momentum I have seen among so many Muslim women in my state. Every election cycle the vile rhetoric against Muslims rises––in society as well as in the political sphere. But this year, despite anti-Muslim rhetoric from our own leaders becoming commonplace, Muslim women didn’t back down. They showed up at the caucuses in thousands, and when called upon to be delegates, 500 Muslims stepped up, over 200 were our sisters. Democracy requires participation––and fully participating means a reflective democracy. Those that look like us, share our lived experiences or express empathy, can represent us and create solutions to the issues we face.

Back in 2016, after the devastating results of the election and in multiple races, it was Ilhan Omar’s election to the Minnesota House of Representatives that provided the silver lining of hope to little brown and black girls, for women, and for people of color. Ilhan once described that sitting in a refugee camp trying to escape war, she never dreamed she would be an elected official, a representative for the MN House. And now, she imagines all the little girls sitting in refugee camps today that see her, dream, envision and hope to survive, thrive, fight and lead.

Ilhan’s election to the United States House of Representatives yesterday represents another, deeper crack in that glass ceiling. Her win reminds America and the rest of the world that Muslim women are a part of America, that we all belong and take part in this democracy.

Now, little girls sitting at their fourth grade desks––today, tomorrow, next year––will know that Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is hard at work in Washington, D.C.: a powerful Muslim woman advancing the liberties that all of us aspire to uphold. Along with fellow Muslim congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan is personally affected by Trump’s Muslim Ban and the hateful rhetoric of so many of our leaders, and despite it all she will be serving the people and fighting that bigotry in the halls of our capital.

And the young Muslim girls watching will know that one day, they can too. Like Ilhan, they will become Sheroes, working for decades to come to protect the dignity, fairness, and respect that all America’s people deserve.

Reviving Sisterhood