WASHINGTON — Barely a week after arriving in Minnesota as a teenage refugee from Somalia, Fahma Ahmed attended her first political event and instantly knew she’d found her place in America.
Fifteen years later, she’s a 30-year-old Democratic volunteer with sneakers worn out from the campaign trail and her own ambitions to run for office someday. Ahmed said her dreams felt a little closer Thursday with the swearing-in of the first two Muslim women in Congress: Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American from Michigan, and Ilhan Omar, whose journey from Somalia to Minnesota mirrors Ahmed’s own.
Watching a live feed of Capitol Hill from Minneapolis, Ahmed said, she felt a newfound certainty about what she might accomplish in politics: “I’ll be in that place someday.”
The spotlight on Muslim “firsts” sometimes comes across as contrived, a dollop of good news after a decadeslong history of Islam being viewed in America almost exclusively through a national security lens. For the milestone shared by Tlaib and Omar, however, the excitement is genuine and the power they’ll wield is real, especially as part of a rising cohort of progressive Democratic women. Omar’s arrival is literally a game-changer — one of the first actions of the new House is expected to be striking an old rule against wearing headwear on the floor so that her hijab wouldn’t be in violation.
For many Muslims following the new session, the symbolism attached to the two women was as important as their official duties. No matter how effective they turn out to be, Tlaib and Omar already have proven that you can make it to Congress as a Muslim, with or without a headscarf, black or brown, US-born or immigrant, criticizing your own party, lashing out against the president, demanding human rights abroad, and protesting for civil rights at home.
The message, say Muslim women who cheered them on, is that if there’s space in the government for them, there might be space for you.
“When we see those women in their seats on Capitol Hill, it feels like one of us is making decisions,” Ahmed said from Minneapolis, where she was translating the ceremony for her Somali-speaking mom.
The doubling of Muslims elected to Congress, especially through the wins of two women, is perhaps the starkest example of the situation Muslims have found themselves in since the election of President Donald Trump. The president immediately turned his Islam-bashing into policy with the travel ban, anti-Muslim groups now hold sway with the White House, and hate crimes targeting Muslims have risen in recent years. Yet in the same period, a record number of Muslims ran for office, donations have poured in to Muslim advocacy groups, and Muslims are showing unprecedented civic engagement, forming strategic alliances with other groups in the Trump administration’s crosshairs.
Amid all the anxieties, Thursday felt like a national holiday for Muslim America, or at least Muslim Twitter, where supporters posted emotional tributes to Omar and Tlaib, and marveled at the sight of black-and-white Palestinian keffiyehs and brightly colored Somali scarves in the halls of Congress. CAIR, the nation’s biggest Muslim rights group, blasted out links to livestreams so that families nationwide could watch the ceremonial oath-taking where Tlaib and Omar each placed a hand on separate Qur’ans and made US history.
The Qur’ans held special significance for the women. Wearing a Somali tunic and holding prayer beads in her right hand, Omar took the oath of office on a red Qur’an that belonged to her late grandfather. Tlaib was loaned Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy, like former representative Keith Ellison, who became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006.
On the day before the ceremony, Omar’s dad posted an Instagram photo of the two of them arriving in Washington and mused that it was the same airport where they’d landed 23 years ago as refugees seeking “the promise of America.” Within hours, his post had nearly 90,000 “likes” on Instagram, and more on other social media.
A few weeks before the swearing-in, Omar said in an interview with BuzzFeed News that she was eager to get beyond the novelty of her background and focus on her pet issues, like universal health care and a $15 minimum wage. But that’s not likely to happen for a while – along with the outpouring of congratulations comes a vicious backlash from a segment of Americans who see her rise as a threat, and they show no sign of backing down. On Thursday alone, hundreds of racist, bigoted tweets swirled about the Muslim Congress members, along with falsehoods about their stances and personal histories.
“I’m a black immigrant who grew up in the United States post–9/11, so crazy, vilifying accusations have always been part of my life here in the United States,” Omar said. She said she’s learned to “accept and compartmentalize” the hate as a normal part of her existence in the public sphere.
“I always say I will never defend my identities,” Omar said. “I will only defend my ideals.”
Tlaib also paid homage to her family’s immigrant background in virtually every choice she made Thursday. She’s not the first Palestinian American in Congress, but she’s particularly loud and proud of her heritage. Visitors to her House office Thursday were offered Middle Eastern sweets and pita bread with labneh. They lined up to take photos with Tlaib, who wore an ankle-length dress, or thobe in Arabic, patterned with traditional Palestinian embroidery. A Palestinian-American comedian in the crowd spotted the large map in her office and added a Post-it Note reading “Palestine” to the Middle East.
Susan Muaddi Darraj, a 43-year-old Palestinian American novelist in Baltimore, said she was thrilled when she read that Tlaib would enter Congress in a thobe.
Like many Americans with roots in Palestine, the women in Muaddi Darraj’s family wear their embroidered finery to weddings and parties. Thobes are more than dresses, she said. They’re works of art, painstakingly sewn by hand over weeks or months, with mathematical precision and designs associated with the wearer’s village of origin.
The more Muaddi Darraj thought about the significance of Tlaib’s thobe, the more she felt compelled to use the swearing-in as an opportunity to introduce the craft to a wider audience — people who typically hear of Palestinians in a context of occupation and violence. In the days before the ceremony, she started a hashtag campaign, #TweetYourThobe, and spread the request via Facebook. By Thursday, it had gained more than 8,000 supporters and turned into a daylong online fashion show celebrating Tlaib.
“I want people in this country to know that she’s not doing something foreign or strange by wearing this dress. You can go to a Palestinian wedding in Philadelphia or New York and see women wearing thobes,” Muaddi Darraj said. “She’s kind of opening a window into our culture.”