On Nov. 6, 2018, Minnesota made history, again. Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American, first refugee and first hijab-wearing Muslim woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Omar’s political journey and achievements emphasize the role that organizations like the Women Organizing Women (WOW) Network can have in establishing a presence for the future. Ilhan Omar is the first woman WOW Network recruited to run for office and we are so proud of her resounding victory. The WOW Network strives to remove bias and ensure that East African women and girls are able to become engaged citizens and community leaders, regardless of political affiliation.
As someone who shares many identity markers with Omar, her victory made me both happy and proud — but more than that, I felt accepted. This last feeling took me back to the words of Whoopi Goldberg when, after the election of President Obama in 2008, she said, “I feel like I can put my bags down.”
A stake in the game
After the election, many of us felt that we can put our bags down. We are here to stay, and now we have a stake in the game. While we recognize this election is not presidential, the effect on marginalized people’s emotions are similar as prejudice is confronted by elected representation.
Exclusion is a challenge that ethnic minority groups experience frequently. It limits minorities’ rights, access to the resources and opportunities in society and, undermines their individual and social capacity as a whole.
Minnesota is home to many immigrants and refugees. For some it is the only homeland they know, and yet there are many times we feel unwelcomed and excluded, which only increases our yearning for full inclusion. For many of us, civic engagement has become the mechanism to counter discrimination and exclusion. Politics and policies are important elements in creating inclusive societies, and new Americans’ political participation is their tool for expressing concerns and raising awareness.
The Somali-American community of Minneapolis is aware that citizenship brings with it rights that serve as effective tools with which to engage in promoting sociopolitical change. We seek more visibility and representation, which translates into drawing Somali candidates into the political process, therefore attempting to achieve the ultimate goal of transforming Somali outsiders into political insiders. However, most of the progress has been limited to minority-majority neighborhood and districts, where racial or ethnic minorities are the majority of the residents. With Omar’s election to the Minnesota Legislature two years ago, and her most recent election to the United States Congress, that trend has changed.
Mobilizing for social justice
In both elections Omar won because she demonstrated that intersectionality can be used to mobilize for social justice, as she navigates identities that register the effects of otherness. This has allowed her to anticipate and enact new social relations grounded in multiple axes of intersecting. Omar deployed intersectionality as a means for getting through the various oppressive systems in society, but also as a way of collecting all her identities into a movement for social change. Omar ran on ideas that are relevant to everyone in her district. She organized a strong and inclusive grassroots campaign that energized voters from every neighborhood in the 5th Congregational District to come out and support her.
Omar’s inclusive message resonated with the voters in her district who want a transformed Minnesota that is building a more inclusive and racially diverse political leadership. These progressive voters demonstrated they care about change and they understand that our society can embrace the plurality of cultures and religions. They also understood that allyship must be based in solidarity and not altruism. In this midterm elections, with Omar’s win and the election of other great women, progressive allies joined in solidarity with women of color to fight collectively against institutions that marginalize minorities in order to keep them from political power. Solidarity encompasses channeling the status quo so that women of color can provide empowered leadership in movements of true social justice. Social and gender equality requires challenging the very institutions and practices that uphold white male privilege and power. In Minnesota we have taken a collective action toward redistributing power.
With the unprecedented number of women elected nationwide, the WOW Network is committed to strengthening our democracy by ensuring that nobody is left out of the civic process, revealing the full talent that America has to offer for service in elected offices.
Habon Abdulle is the executive director of the Women Organizing Women Network in Minneapolis.
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