Ilhan Omar—one of America’s shining Muslim lights—is in the running to make history by becoming the first Muslim woman of East African descent to be elected as a U.S. State Representative. Her victory in the DFL Primary for House District 60B earlier this month has set her up for election to the House on the 8th of November. The 33 year old Ilhan is a Somali-American refugee. She is a graduate from North Dakota State University, having studied political science and international studies. After graduating she has been working in local politics for 10 years and got herself the battle scars to prove it. In 2014 she was attacked by 5 men in a Minneapolis caucus.
“I took a lot of punches to the head so I can’t really remember who was hitting me… I was trying to get my face not scratched off.” Speaking this March in the run up to Super Tuesday she shared her 11 years old daughter’s advice to her after the attack. “Mommy it’s really important that you go back to work tomorrow morning. With all your scars and everything, and people get to see you, and that they don’t get to win. They don’t get to have control over you—know what you’re capable of.” The apple clearly did not fall far from the tree.
Ilhan knows a great deal about surmounting obstacles. Her family escaped from war ravaged Somalia when she was just 8 years old. She spent the next 4 years of her life in a refugee camp in Mombassa, Kenya. When she was 12, her family made it to the United States, arriving in Arlington Virginia in 1995. At this point she recalls that she spoke but 3 words of English—“Hello” and “Shut up”. Despite having reached the safety of the United States, Ilhan was still very much up against it. She was a black, female, immigrant, Muslim and hijabi.
She began taking her grandfather to local caucuses at the age 14, serving as his translator. She fell in love with the grass-roots democratic process as a result. “I really fell in love with this idea of having neighbors come together and make decisions in a very grassroots level, and create resolutions. I got to see and believe in politics being a catalyst for making change in our daily lives.”
Ilhan’s rise from a 12 year old girl who could barely speak a word of English in to the inspiration that she is now is a testament to her hard work and vision. It should also serve as a reminder for some of the best things about the United States and the opportunities that can present themselves to even the most disadvantaged within society. If she gets elected she is going to commit herself to tackling the racial disparity issue head on “in an effort to create a prosperous and equitable Minnesota where every person benefits.”
At a time when the news is abuzz with France’s controversial Burkini ban, the image of Ilhan sporting her colorful Hijabs is a welcomed contrast—a timely reminder of the reality that “western values” and “Islamic clothing” can gracefully coexist within the same space. Before putting on our condescending hats while looking westward, let us remember that until 2013 Ilhan had been living in Muslim-majority Turkey, could not have attended university, worked within the civil service or held any governmental job while wearing a hijab.