Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
As a Muslim-American woman living in what feels like, based on growing hate crimes and bigoted political rhetoric, an increasingly Islamophobic America, I get few chances to feel victorious and hopeful. But this Thursday promises just that.
On January 3, 2019, not one but two Muslim American women will be sworn into Congress. Taking the oath on a Quran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib will become the first Muslim-American women to serve in the House of Representatives.
Their swearing in will be a historic milestone for the country, but it will be so much more than that for me. A black Somali-American woman who wears a headscarf and pokes fun at Islamophobes on Twitter, Omar crushes stereotypes of what a Muslim woman in a headscarf represents. As an unveiled Muslim American woman, Rashida Tlaib – who will wear a Palestinian gown to her swearing in – also dismantles the myth that all “real” Muslim women wear the headscarf.
In the faces and politics of the two women, I see a welcome challenge to Muslim orthodoxy and American stereotypes, and a huge win for Muslim feminism.
At different times in my life, I have worn and not worn a headscarf, thus straddling one of the most polemical debates within Islam. Literal and decontextualized translations of the Quran, most of them produced by men, have long held that the “hijab,” or headscarf, is a requirement for all Muslim women. Many Muslim feminists, such as Fatima MernissI, have unraveled this premise by contextualizing the verses used to insist on the prescription, and exposing the varied meanings of the word “hijab.”
In real life, this complicated issue often prompts heated debates among Muslim women who fall on either side of the debate. In high school, when I wore the headscarf, I hotly insisted on its necessity as an article of faith. A decade later, I argued, as Mernissi does, that the women who wore it were inadequately feminist, living out a patriarchal prescription that had been read into the Quran.
I won many arguments, but I lost even more friends. Today, after writing a book on the subject, I realize how wrong I was in both cases, in insisting that everyone or no one should choose the veil.
This realization is precisely why I feel so triumphant about Omar and Tlaib’s elections. With both a veiled and unveiled woman representing the face of American Islam in the US Congress, the garment can finally emerge as a facet of individual choice available to Muslim women, rather than a divine or even a political mandate. In this way, the emergence of Omar and Tlaib, two outspoken Muslim American women (Tlaib literally disrupted a Trump rally in 2016) who respect each other’s choices and stand together, bridges a schism that has divided Muslim women all over the world.
In a riven America, however, the task of bridging rifts will be harder. Even before the Trump era ushered in increased marginalization and targeting of Muslims, many Americans viewed Islam with suspicion. Since 9/11, the equation of “Muslim” with “terrorist” has become routine, rarely even remarked upon.
In this milieu, Muslim women who wear the headscarf have become hyper-visible, too often walking targets for ignorance and hate. A teachers’ pulling a student’s headscarf in Virginia, policemen forcing its removal in New York, a man pulling off a woman’s headscarf during a flight, a woman threatened on a public bus and many similarly alarming incidents have occurred and will likely recur.
The election of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib will not magically eliminate the prejudice and fear behind these attacks, but it will provide more Americans with Muslim American public figures who challenge their stereotypes and misplaced hatreds. The twin rookie congresswomen, with their very existence, poke holes at the idea that only unveiled Muslim American women are suitably assimilated (read: safe) or that all veiled ladies are pathetically submissive or latent terrorists.
Stereotypes die when those whose stories contradict them become the focus of public attention. This January 3 will be the beginning of this journey for both Americans and for veiled and unveiled Muslim women all around the world.
In Ilhan Omar, they will see a black woman who wears a headscarf and who is a committed progressive. In Rashida Tlaib, they will see a brown woman who, like most Muslim-American women, chooses not wear a headscarf but remains committed to her faith and to advancing the cause of the working-class families like her own.
In both Omar and Tlaib lives a vision of a new American heroine, of American exceptionalism realized in the trajectory of two women, brown and black, veiled and unveiled, Muslim and American. Ultimately, it is this very “only in America” quality of these two congresswomen – one who has risen from her refugee camp origins and the other who has overcome a childhood of hardship and penury – that will likely endear them to Americans.
This Thursday, after what seems too long, Muslim Americans and all Americans can be proud of a country that has made these two women possible.