By Elham Khatami, Think Progress
Last November, at a time of heightened anti-Muslim bigotry and racism, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar made history, becoming the first Muslim women to get elected to Congress. And across the country on Thursday, Muslim American women watched as Reps. Tlaib (D-MI) and Omar (D-MN) were sworn into the House in an emotional ceremony that launched the most diverse Congress in U.S. history.
“In the face of massive rises in hate groups and hate crimes … it is American Muslim women who are living out the common the values inherent in the Quran and the American Constitution: dignity and respect for all, freedom of religion, and obeying the laws of the land,” Zahra Nasiruddin Jamal, of Houston, Texas, told ThinkProgress.
“Rashida and Ilhan are the first to blaze this trail for American Muslim women on the national political stage. They are certainly not the last,” Jamal added.
After the election, Omar told Roll Call that hers and Tlaib’s victory served as a rejection of “religious bigotry,” referring to the Trump administration’s continued assaults against Muslims, from the Muslim ban which was upheld by the Supreme Court last June, to the president’s anti-Muslim rhetoric which, a May 2018 study found, tends to precede spikes in acts of bigotry and hate crimes against Muslims.
“In a time where there is lots of religious bigotry,” she said. “It’s almost perfect to have this counterbalance.”
The sentiment is shared by countless Muslim women throughout the country, who saw Omar’s and Tlaib’s swearing-in as a sign of a new era in U.S. politics.
“This is a day of victory for all Muslim women living in America today,” said Shazia Raja, 37, who lives in Rockville, Maryland. “I’m feeling proud for these brave women who have now paved the way for others. I’m feeling proud for our country again … hopeful again because by choosing these women it shows we are still OK, that there are still more people who are accepting of different races and religions.”
Tlaib, who is also the first Palestinian-American woman to be elected to Congress and chose to be sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran, paid tribute to her heritage during the ceremony, donning a traditional Arab garment known as a thobe.
The move triggered an outpouring of support on social media, as Muslim and Palestinian women shared photos of themselves in thobes, with the hashtag #TweetYourThobe.
Omar takes office as the first refugee and the first Somali-American in Congress. In her victory speech in November, Omar referenced her background in a rebuke of Trump’s agenda, telling supporters, “Here in Minnesota, we don’t only welcome immigrants; we send them to Washington.”
On Wednesday evening, Omar’s father took to Instagram to share his family’s refugee experience.
“Twenty three years ago, my family and I arrived at an airport in Washington DC,” he said on Omar’s Instagram page. “We were newly arrived refugees in this country, from a refugee camp in Kenya. I had heard about the promise of America … I could never have dreamed that twenty three years later I would return to the same airport with my daughter Ilhan by my side, the day before she is to be sworn as the first Somali-American elected to the United States Congress.”
As a former refugee from Iran who is currently running as a Democrat for Virginia State Senate, Yasmine Taeb told ThinkProgress that Thursday’s ceremony was “inspiring.”
“I finally feel represented in the halls of Congress and, to me, it shows that anyone from any background can make it,” Taeb said. “It sends an inspiring message to little girls — Muslims and refugees — that they have a place in the halls of power.”
Omar is also the first woman to don the hijab on the House floor, prompting Democrats who now control the chamber to overturn on Thursday a 19th century rule that forbids hats in the House.
For Tannaz Haddadi, a Chantilly, Virginia resident, the moment was especially significant.
“I was the first Muslim woman who wears hijab to get a full time position on the Hill and this is a full circle moment for me,” Haddadi, who served as a legislative correspondent and legislative aide for two House Democrats from 2001-2005, told ThinkProgress.
“So proud,” she added.
“No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice—one protected by the first amendment,” Omar tweeted in November. “And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift.”
Raja said the swearing-in gave her hope for the future of Muslim women in America, not just in terms of politics, but in having the courage to be themselves.
“I spent years hiding so much because of my differences,” she said. “But now my daughter can grow up feeling like she fits in anywhere. She can feel like she can really do anything, whether she chooses to cover her head or not.”