Loud Proud and Muslim
The image of the newly elected Congresswomen of colour has made waves recently as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted it with the simple caption ‘Si puede’, ‘It can’. The assembly of such raw, young and passionate female power inspired people across the world. For the first time in history, lawmakers in the United States of America looked more like myself and other young women than we could have even dared to imagine.
Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sharice Davids, Ayanna Pressley, Pramila Jayapal and Deb Haaland made history earlier this month by attending the first sitting of the most diverse House of Representatives in the history of the United States of America. Congress has seen a record number of women, millennials, ethnic minorities, religious minorities and LGBTQ+ this year as a result of the 2018 midterms. The Democrats gained a majority in this election and boasted most of the diversity. The changes of the demographic in power have been a hot topic for months, with the candidates receiving waves of support and torrents of abuse during the election campaign as well as after securing their victories. The noise around the elections and the Muslim backgrounds of some of the successful candidates unsurprisingly reached the UK and, to me, begged the question of why their ‘identity’ was receiving so much attention, especially around the Muslim women of colour, with whom I most closely identify, compared to their counterparts in the Houses of Parliament.
In the UK a politician is not usually identified by their background, unless, for instance, it's the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, being identified as Muslim by a media outlet or critics attempting to link his religious affiliation with a controversial action of some sort, or Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, using the assumed association to invoke immunity while he launches Islamophobic attacks on British Muslims. Is the reason that British MPs seem to be quieter in their expression because they don’t identify as closely with the religion, or because they don't have to be as vocal as their American counterparts, whose loud and proud attitude comes from a culture of resistance cultivated from the inception of their nation?
My conclusion is that both factors come into play here and generalisations cannot be made. Take Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Sadiq Khan, for instance. They both identify as Muslim, the Baroness being the first Muslim woman in the Cabinet, and have actively represented British Muslims and been vocal on issues of specific interest to that community, such as opposing the detention of suspected terrorists for 90 days without charge, and party policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict. On the other hand, Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, and Sajid Javid both identify as culturally Muslim but not religiously, with Javid putting a particular emphasis on his lack of religious ties, thus accounting for their less than proud affiliation, especially when compared to Tlaib and Omar in the States. These four figures are not the only Muslim Members of Parliament but a testament to how, comparatively, little being of a minority religion features as a point of controversy in the UK, the other thirteen do not have the habit of making headlines centred around their religious identity.
Across the pond, we have seen a different story unfold around the primacy of religion and minority identities. The Muslim identity of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, of Somali and Palestinian descent, respectively, has featured in almost every news story, if not every, since they began their race in the midterms. Omar in particular since she is a hijab-wearing, visible and unambiguous Muslim woman. Omar and Tlaib have certainly not shied away from being identified as Muslim and representing their communities in Minneapolis and Michigan, with Omar being quoted saying,
“I am delighted really at this particular time in our nation’s history for there to be two unapologetic, unbought progressive leaders from the Muslim community who are women representing us in Congress.
By our sheer presence in Congress, we say as Muslim women that we are in charge of our lives, our destiny. We decide where and how we show up.”
The moment that these two women, along with the first Native American representatives, were elected was a turning-point in history. They are the first Muslim women ever to be sworn in, with the first ever Muslim in Congress only having been elected in 2006, compared to the UK where the first known Muslim, Mohammad Sarwar, was elected in 1997. The timelines of the UK and the US are most definitely dissimilar in that the many of the obstacles to these ‘firsts’ had been previously transcended. The vocality on identity for these women seems to be borne out of necessity. Not only is it a feat to be the first minority of your kind in any space where previously unrepresented, but to do so in what has become known as the ‘Trump-era’ is to be declared the automatic challenge to his white, male, misogynistic self, and thus to open yourself up to all kinds of abuse from his impassioned supporters. I have previously written about the study on online abuse, ‘Kinder, Gentler Politics’, which, though centred on the UK, showed a pattern of women from ethnic minorities being the most targeted - an issue that works to deter women from politics and has been experienced to some extent in the US, from just looking at the comments levelled at Tlaib and Omar on Twitter. Thus the fanfare surrounding their election has been justified, since this is a marked change from the norm, and accounts for their emphatic attitude towards the assertion of their identity.
These two women have been so unequivocating in the face of adversity, and so vocal about their representation of Muslims and Muslim issues has sparked a pride in Muslims worldwide. Initially, I had wondered why politicians in the UK do not seem to show as much confidence in this aspect of their identity, but I have come to realise that they are quite fortunate not to be forced into doing so. Fortunate because though minorities, women and Muslims face discrimination from the establishment on both sides of the Atlantic, in America they are faced with a current administration that is outwardly hostile and belligerent towards their communities - Trump’s statements about Somalis in Minnesota, his attitude towards Puerto Rico, his administration’s treatment of the African American community, his comments use of historically problematic terms around Native Americans, his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel - which forces them to noisily oppose it.