Women in Politics: Ilhan Omar

Swati Madankumar

Crimson hijab, matching pantsuit, and chunky gold jewelry– nope, this is not a fashion icon walking the runway. Female US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) is trailblazing the Capitol, as well as evidently protesting its ban on headwear.

This ‘runway’ is “...now going to look like an Islamic republic.”, alleges politician and pastor E. W. Jackson on his radio talk-show. But not to Minnesota’s voters. Ilhan Omar emerged victorious from the heated 2018 midterm elections, which was record-breaking in voter turnout and in diversity of its winners. She is the first Somali American, one of the first Muslim women, and the first woman of color representing Minnesota in Congress. She won against two other women to replace Minnesota’s former state representative Keith Ellison. This is likely ascribed to her grassroots approach of campaigning anywhere from cafés to block parties with a large, driven army of young campaigners behind her, according to “How Ilhan Omar Won Over Hearts in Minnesota’s Fifth” in the New Yorker.

However, Omar’s identity is arguably less important than the perspective that it lends her. Her perspective transcends racial, ethnic, and gendered differences in her community because it is well-steeped in a widely-held vision of an American dream that has largely resulted in disillusionment.

How? Omar became a political refugee for four years in Kenya in the midst of the Somali civil war, eventually being granted asylum in the US and joining a large segment of her diaspora in Minnesota. She attended North Dakota State University and did public health outreach work. She is married with three kids, two of whom she had before completing her college degree. She publicly admits to still having college debt and renting her home. She represents everything the current administration vows to suppress.

Omar’s platform is progressive and stark, an extension of herself. It calls for public education for all, healthcare for all, fair immigration, a ban on private prisons, accessible housing, military spending cuts, and gun safety, to name a few. She tries hard to hear the concerns of her generation and those below, chastising members of the Democratic party who make empty promises to their (and now, her) voters. Her support for BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that demands Israel to grant equality to its Palestinians) has been unequivocal and frankly, irksome to Jewish thought leaders in America. According to New York Times article “Glorified and Vilified, Representative-Elect Ilhan Omar Tells Critics: ‘Just Deal’”, even fellow Minnesota representative Steve Drazkowski (R.) reflects on her as having been “really accusatory and really rode the edge of racial discussion.”

Omar’s ownership and expression of strong opinions despite societal constraints may be inspiring to many, but what does it mean to the recently predominantly conservative Congress? Well, without her having even properly served a term yet, she has already been well scrutinized– Islamophobic sentiment, intrusion into her private life and background, and intersectional discrimination against her status as a black, female, and Muslim immigrant. In fact, had Omar perhaps sought to immigrate here in the beginning of 2017, with plans of running for election around 7 years later after gaining citizenship and meeting eligibility requirements, she would not have made it due to Trump’s travel ban.

In any case, if her protesting the almost two-century old ban on headwear in Congress is any indication as to what her term will look like, it is clear that Omar will fight for legislation that is more inclusive of our rapidly changing nation.