It was in Mrs. Gray’s fourth grade class that I was asked for the very first time, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” 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 who looked like me holding high levels of office. The principals of my elementary and middle schools were both white men. Every president I learned about was a white man. A seed was planted in my subconscious: These weren’t jobs, careers or titles a woman could dream of, let alone a little brown girl. How can I be what I cannot see?
But since then, I have seen evidence of my own right to be a leader in my 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 two Muslim women elected to the 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, 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 — with Ilhan Omar at the helm — reach new heights of leadership and empowerment.
In 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. All three women come from different backgrounds, ages, life experiences, and ethnicities, allowing for the Muslim women in the audience to see themselves in their stories. That day, Omar encouraged us to participate in the election process, starting with attending a caucus. It was that call to action that led several Muslim women to cast their ballots for the next president, become delegates, and introduce resolutions at their caucus.
Their engagement didn’t stop there. They signed up to be election judges, board commissioners and campaign volunteers. 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 Omar’s win reflects the momentum I have seen among so many Muslim women in my state. Every election cycle the vile rhetoric against Muslims rises — and this year, despite anti-Muslim rhetoric from our leaders becoming commonplace, Muslim women didn’t back down. They showed up at the caucuses in thousands. When called upon to be delegates, 500 Muslims stepped up, and over 200 were our sisters. Democracy requires participation — and full participation creates 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.
We have found the inspiration to raise our political voices by looking up to the powerful strides of women like Ilhan Omar. Back in 2016, after the devastating results of the election, it was her election to the Minnesota House of Representatives that provided a silver lining of hope to little brown and black girls, to women, and to people of color.
Omar’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday represents another, deeper crack in that glass ceiling. Her win reminds this country that Muslim women are a part of America, that we all belong and take part in its democracy.
Now, little girls sitting at their fourth grade desks in Minneapolis — today, tomorrow, next year — will know that a powerful Minnesotan Muslim congresswoman fighting to preserve the dignity, fairness, and respect that all people deserve. Along with fellow Muslim Rep.-elect 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 bigotry in the halls of our Capitol.
And the young Muslim girls watching will see what they can be.
Nausheena Hussain, of Brooklyn Park, is a local nonprofit community leader and activist.
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