By Rafia Zakaria
January 09, 2019
NEARLY every newspaper around the world covered the history-making event. On Thursday, Jan 3, 2019, two Muslim-American women were sworn into the United States House of Representatives. Together, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women in the history of the US to become two of over 400 House representatives. Cameras followed the two everywhere, from the moment they arrived in the capital, to the time they along with their families celebrated after the oath of office was administered. One wore a colourful Somali headscarf, in a nod to her Somali-American roots; the other, Rashida Tlaib, wore a maroon Palestinian Thobe. Such was the excitement about her thobe that a Twitter hashtag, #showyourthobe, asked other Palestinian-American women to also display their own embroidered traditional garments. Many did.
This, however, was not how the hubbub over Rashida Tlaib’s swearing-in would end. The cameras that had been trailing the newly elected representative followed her to a reception held that evening by the progressive organisation MoveOn.org, which has long opposed President Donald Trump and his policies. When asked to take the microphone, Representative Tlaib recounted a conversation she had previously had with her son. “Bullies don’t win,” her son had told her. Tlaib said she responded with, “Baby, they don’t. And we’re going in there and we’re going to impeach the [expletive].” Applause followed and Tlaib quickly gave up the microphone.
No sooner had the clip featuring Representative Tlaib hit the contentious airwaves of American cable news that it went viral. Millions watched it on the social media and on television. Republicans, eager to find a reason to castigate the now winning and gloating Democrats – particularly a brown, Muslim and very progressive Democrat – were quick to denounce the language used by Tlaib. The House minority leader immediately demanded an apology, using strong language to criticise Tlaib. The House majority leader, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, said she would not have used such words herself but that Tlaib’s words were certainly “nothing worse than [what] the president has said”. Other Democrats, particularly those belonging to the prim and trite “when they go low, we go high” Obama-Clinton camps, who have long insisted that they must stand for civility and not bow to the depths Trump plunges to, were also critical.
For her part, Tlaib refused to apologise. She stood by her words; she had said exactly what she had intended to say, and what she had meant to say. Many agreed with her; a hashtag echoing her call for impeachment trended on Twitter for hours as angry Democratic supporters rallied in favour of Tlaib, noting that she had finally said what so much of the country has been thinking and saying.
The Tlaib episode is notable for several reasons. For starters, while she may have been criticised by certain news media outlets and Republican politicians, she did not face any actual consequences for her use of indecent language. She was not officially censured; the US government did not begin any proceedings against her. Threatening Republican mobs did not gather outside her house, and while Trump did say that her comments were “highly disrespectful” and that she had “dishonoured herself” when specifically asked, he too was powerless to actually stop her from using similar language in the future.
These facts are notable because they are uncommon ones in other places where Muslim women hold office; in most Muslim-majority countries, not only would a woman be criticised for using what is deemed inappropriate language, the feeble protections that safeguard freedom of expression would readily be mowed over. Through one or another rule or agency directive, she would face immediate consequences, likely even losing the power of her elected position. Far less noxious language used by Muslim women in political office in Muslim-majority countries has resulted in far greater consequences. The freedom afforded to Tlaib in America is not a freedom she would enjoy in many parts of the Muslim world.
Tlaib’s statement also reveals the turn that Muslims in America will have to take in the years to come. Muslim-American organisations, many that balk at giving women, particularly women who do not cover their heads, leadership positions within their own organisations and boards, have been eager to embrace the two new emblems of Muslim-American leadership. Tlaib’s use of inappropriate language is far beyond the narrow codes of decency that are viewed as permissible to most.
And, yet, it is just such an expression of Muslim rage that is admissible given the bans, surveillance and demonisation that Muslim-Americans routinely face in Trump’s country. Given their roles within the Democratic Party’s progressive caucus, both Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are slated to be the most liberal voices in Congress, a fact that is also likely to push once-conservative Muslim-America further to the left. It is not something that Muslim-American organisations (beyond those with a political and civil-rights bent) are inwardly enthusiastic about; it is, however, what they will regularly have to celebrate. Not only will the face of Muslims in America be female, it will be very outspoken and unafraid, and willing to fight a president who has made Islam the most suspiciously viewed religion in America.
President Trump has used some of the filthiest and profanity-laced language for women. Many of the more than 100 American women elected to the House last week would have liked to give to the president a dose of what he has been dishing out to everyone else. Few, Muslim or non-Muslim, would have guessed that one of the two new Muslim-American representatives would be the first to do so. That, however, is how it is — and in uttering the words, uncivil as they may have been, Rashida Tlaib has shattered more stereotypes than many generations of Muslim women put together.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.