Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib and Somali-American Ilhan Omar have become the first Muslim women elected to the United States Congress while Alexandria Ocasio Cortez becomes the youngest woman elected to Congress. The three make up a group of more than 100 women who have earned positions integral to the make-up of the US political system.
Considering the prevailing socio-political climate across the US, these results don’t just represent a victory for women across the racial and cultural divide, but also for an America deeply divided by politics, prejudice and racial inequality.
The fact that two Muslim women were elected to Congress surely reveals that the Islamophobia card the far-right loves wielding is losing more and more of its power. It’s becoming more apparent that issues, not individuals, are the key concern of more Americans and whether public representatives wear a turban or a hijab is becoming more accepted yet less relevant.
What really matters is how well these individuals represent their congressional districts. The hate isn’t going to disappear, but the voices against it will now become louder, more youthful, better informed, more diverse and willing to meaningfully engage and shut down the hate, or at least we hope so.
Those who voted for Tlaib, Omar or Cortez in the mid-terns may not even have been motivated by their religious affiliations or ethnicity, but just preferred their progressive policies geared toward understanding the challenges facing working-class Americans. The makeup of the districts each of these candidates ran in has allowed progressive politics to flourish, with most having run on a platform that embraced the left. Omar said President Donald Trump’s “politics of fear” motivated her to get into the race while Cortez and Tlaib ran grassroots campaigns aimed at the struggles of working-class Americans.
Cortez is being viewed as the new face of the Democratic party, and is set to shake up its structures by overhauling everything from campaign finance (she refused assistance from corporate big-money donors) to its relationship with the establishment. The 29-year-old educator, who only a few months ago worked in a restaurant, is part of a ground-breaking movement of women of colour who are set to join Congress this term, including Sharice Davids, Deb Haaland and Omar to name a few.
Under-representation of women in Congress has always remained a contentious issue and rightly so.
Race and identity politics play as much of a role in determining success in elections as do the issues on the table. A gradual shift in electoral behaviour across the US has seen a more highly politicised, younger electorate engaging with key issues around the economy and judiciary in an informed and inclusive manner. The rise of female representation within the US political space can serve as a springboard to encourage more women to enter these spaces, undeterred by the misogynistic rhetoric which has become deeply characteristic of the Trump presidency.
The record number of women elected to congress this year could have a significant multiplier effect and help change what people envision when they think of what political candidates and leaders should look and sound like. Many candidates have remarked that their politics have, to a degree, been influenced by their identities and are inextricably linked to their campaigns.
Cultural constructs have for years determined the way a political candidate should walk, talk and court potential big-money donors. Often white, often middle-aged and with a wife and three kids in tow, portraying a picture-perfect family, living in suburbia, attending Little League games and sipping lemonade while tossing a few steaks on the barbecue in the backyard, white picket fence and all.
The real insult here lies in cultural assimilation, a one-size-fits-all, uniform definition of a successful political candidate. When a candidate is expected to shed their culture and identity to fit in with the status quo definition of what a political candidate should be, this should scare us all.
So what do a Somali refugee, a Native American single mother, a former MMA fighter and a young teacher from the Bronx all have in common? They are now all part of the largest contingent of female congressional representatives in US history.
In 2007 during the campaign for a Democratic presidential nominee, then-senator Joe Biden referred to Barack Obama as “…the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”. To any person of colour, perhaps the most insulting thing you could be told is “you’re one of the good ones”.
According to reports, during her campaign, Omar faced Islamophobic attacks from conservative media outlets, who baselessly claimed she was once married to her brother and has ties to terrorist groups. Far-right protesters have also crashed an event, yelling questions at Tlaib and Omar about Hamas and female genital mutilation. Those attacks didn’t hold any sway in the election, though.
What should be celebrated about the mid-terns is that it marked a turning point as the congressional representation of women got a little closer to matching the personage of women in the US.
The partisanship and division in Washington will now have more female voices challenging the issues being discussed and will now represent a far broader cross-section of American society (albeit on one side of the aisle).
So while the symbolism is a renouncement of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and nativist rhetoric and policy in the Trump era, the message actually being sent out is that these women are a force to be reckoned with against an antagonistic system which has often aggressively sought to silence them.
It’s about time. DM