By Merle Ecker
Despite more than half of the world’s population being female, women are still treated as a minority. To demonstrate the current circumstances; only 37 percent of the European Parliament Members are female, while in certain European countries women only comprise 20 percent of the national parliaments. Internationally, few exceptions prevail, such as Rwanda with 64 percent of the National Legislature being female. The under-representation of women in positions of political power and decision-making is a serious democratic deficit. Headlines were being made in the end of last year with the US midterm elections, where more women than ever ran as candidates for Congress – 200 female democrats and 60 female republicans. Among those, candidate Ilhan Omar, who was previously in the Minnesota state legislative, was elected to Congress – and thus made serious headlines for… well, her outfit, her background, her gender and her faith.
To briefly continue with the numbers – bear with me – 23,7 percent of the seats in the US Congress in 2019 are held by women, while 25 percent serve in the Senate and 23,4 percent in the House of Representatives. These statistics expose an international low, were the US is ranked on the 78th place (out of 191) globally. The statistics for women of colors are even lower, comprising merely around seven percent in Congress – which, unfortunately, in the context of US politics is a huge upturn. Thus, it should come as no surprise that many candidates of 2018 were titled with being “the first”. Rep. Ilhan Omar, in addition to being one of few women, became the first woman of color to represent Minnesota, first Somali-American state legislator, first naturalized citizen from Africa sworn in and one of the first Muslims in Congress, of whom she is the first Hijab wearing. The ban on headwear, which had prevailed for 181 years, got lifted on the bases of the constitution on religious liberty. While Rep. Omar uses her identity to motivate others to follow in her footsteps and go further, she stresses the importance of looking beyond identity politics and focusing on common issues.
Rep. Omar has her background in the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL), which is center-left and affiliated with the Democratic Party. Thus, her visions include investment into education such as guaranteed access to childcare for working families, pre-kindergarten and, most importantly, to cancel 1.4 billion dollars in student debts. Among other visions are Medicare for All, guaranteeing reproductive care, raising the minimum wage, achieving 100 percent renewable energy and zero waste communities, eliminating homelessness, passing the End Racial Profiling Act and banning conversion therapy of LGBTQIA+, as well as including gender-confirmation surgery in health insurances. But also banning the sale of military weapons and magazines, abolishing the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ending its deportation and detention programs in order to, among others, reunite more than 700 children with their parents.
As a member of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Ilhan Omar argued that “America doesn’t have a problem of scarcity. What we have is a problem of moral courage”. She was stern about refusing to fund the wall during the government shutdown and has argued that while the defense budget has increased by almost 50 percent since 9/11, the US needs to focus on areas with “positive impacts” such as healthcare and education, which have not experienced any significant increases in the previous years. Rep. Omar has created several other controversies in the Foreign Affairs Committee, such as holding Elliott Abrams accountable for human rights violations, opposing military interventions at all costs, ending sanctions and working towards diplomatic relations with North Korea and Iran. She has also proposed ending military support to Saudi Arabia and a boycott of Hajj to Mecca as a reaction to the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Saudi media has responded by accusing the two Muslim women in office (Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib) of being mujahideen – holy warriors – against Saudi and Trump, and of being associated to the Muslim Brotherhood. Mary Curtin, a diplomat-in-residence, argues that Saudi’s actual threats go beyond the Muslim Brotherhood – they fear that these women have actual legitimacy and impact on other citizens.
The real outlashes however, were stirred by Rep. Ilhan Omar’s critical tweets towards the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israeli lobbying organization. Rep. Omar argued that politically motivated funding, “whether it be AIPAC, NRA or the fossil fuel industry”, constitutes a democratic deficit. She was later accused of anti-Semitism for using anti-Semitic slurs and criticizing Israel. Rep. Omar has responded with an apology for her use of language and emphasized the need to listen to other minorities, although standing firm on her point. The President condemned Rep. Omar, arguing that the apology was not sufficient and called on her resignation. Others accuse her of receiving intelligence briefings and say that she cannot be trusted in the Foreign Affairs Committee due to her faith. Concerns have mainly been raised among the Republicans, but also within the Democratic Party. Posters were put up in the State House of West Virginia linking Rep. Omar to 9/11, saying “I am the proof – you have forgotten” and death threats towards her increased.
On the other hand, many democrats such as Bernie Sanders have come to her defense, while condemning anti-Semitism, claiming that this targeting of the Congresswoman is a way of stifling debate and “that’s wrong”. Support has risen even beyond the party and among some Jewish communities. For example, Rabbi Alissa Wise, the Deputy Director of Jewish Voice for Peace came to speak in support of Rep. Ilhan Omar. Ayanna Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, demanded “equity in our outrage”. A new resolution was passed on the 7th of March against all forms of hateful intolerance against minorities, such as African Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQIA+ community, Hindus and Sikhs. The resolution states that “white supremacists (…) exploit bigotry and weaponize hate for political gain”.
With the seemingly increased split within the Democratic Party in the last days – in particular concerning Rep. Ilhan Omar – some international journalists have pointed out that Congresswomen might not share the same values despite having the same gender, while others fear their lack of competence after the hype about their gender has calmed down. According to the Journal of Women, Politics & Policy women often face harsher criticism compared to their male counterparts, while at the same time focus tends to lie on “women’s character traits or appearance” rather than on their work – reinforcing stereotypes of low credibility and authority. Wajahat Ali, a New York Times contributor, warned about targeting Rep. Ilhan Omar solely due to her being a black female Muslim – describing her as having “created a reputation for herself as a young, bold progressive”. She has become a face to represent multiple identities and the outsider’s perception of these, whether that refers to her gender, her ethnicity, her faith or her immigration experience. For certain people those identities compose a threat, to other an opportunity. Or as she puts it herself: “I am America’s hope and the President’s nightmare”.
Merle Ecker has throughout her life been mixing up her three languages German, Swedish and English, failed French classes in school and is now taking an “easy path” in studying Arabic at Uppsala University. Well, relatively speaking, she still has more hope for her future Arabic than in her plans of changing the world.
Cover photo by Merle Ecker.