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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

'My faith's not a framework but it keeps me grounded' says first Muslim woman headed to US House 

Rashida Tlaib is running unopposed with the Democrats to represent Detroit

The Democrats are fielding many women candidates in the midterms, including Rashida Tlaib, who is set to become the first female, Muslim, Palestinian-American to serve in Congress . AP
The Democrats are fielding many women candidates in the midterms, including Rashida Tlaib, who is set to become the first female, Muslim, Palestinian-American to serve in Congress . AP

When Rashida Tlaib becomes the first Muslim woman to enter Congress next month it will mark a victory for her brand of community politics as well as for the lessons she learned from two Palestinian grandmothers.

For although she will be representing voters in Detroit, the Democratic candidate says she owes her sense of justice and trailblazing spirit to her Palestinian heritage.

In particular, she remembers her maternal grandmother Sity Shama Dajani as a “force of nature”, famous in family legend for calling out rudeness and injustice.

“As a little girl I just remember her walking into a room full of men,” she told The National by telephone from Detroit after appearing at a union rally.

“She didn’t care.

“She’d tell them to move out of her way, I’m going to sit here and be part of a meeting. She didn’t want to be in that room but knew that’s where the decisions were made.”

In this Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018 photo, a Palestinian girl offers sweets to family members of Rashida Tlaib -- aunt Fadwa, center, grandmother Muftiyeh, right and uncle Bassam -- as they celebrate Rashida's U.S. election victory, at the family house, in the West Bank village of Beit Ur al-Foqa. The Michigan primary victory of Tlaib, who is expected to become the first Muslim woman and Palestinian-American to serve in the U.S. Congress, is rippling across the Middle East. In the West Bank village where Tlaib’s mother was born, residents are greeting the news with a mixture of pride and hope that she will take on a U.S. administration widely seen as hostile to the Palestinian cause. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
A Palestinian girl offers sweets to family members of Rashida Tlaib, aunt Fadwa, grandmother Muftiyeh and uncle Bassam as they celebrate Rashida's US election victory. AP

Ms Tlaib’s equivalent moment comes on November 6 when the US holds its midterm elections. She is running unopposed and is all but certain to be elected to the House of Representatives.

She is likely to be joined by Ilhan Omar, a female Muslim who is running as a Democrat in Minnesota – part of a surge in minority candidates creating an increasingly visible counterpoint to President Donald Trump and an administration viewed with alarm by immigrant communities.

Ms Tlaib described Mr Trump’s impact as a “bat signal”, calling individuals to take action in any way they could and connecting communities who shared the same sense of being excluded.

“Of feeling that we are on the menu but not in the room,” was how she put it.

Ms Tlaib, 42, was born and raised in Detroit, the eldest of 14 children.

She first won national attention two years ago when she was hustled out of a Trump rally in the city after trying to heckle his speech.

But she had already built a solid foundation in local politics, serving three terms as the first Muslim in Michigan’s state legislature. (She was once asked by its chairman to prove her citizenship when she suggested adding cultural integration programmes to the state’s social service agencies.)

Her achievements included taking on the powerful Koch brothers, the conservative industrialists whose refinery was blamed for dumping petroleum coke on the Detroit waterfront. She won, forcing the company to store the toxic, dusty by-product in enclosures to prevent it swirling through the air.

That record of addressing local concerns and a surge in first-time voters is credited with propelling her to the Democratic nomination for the House of Representatives in August.

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Ever since, she has been picked out as proof a “blue Muslim wave”, one of about 90 running for office at different levels of government, and asked how her faith informs her politics. That missed the real story, she said, the idea that a predominantly African-American and white district picked an Arab-American to represent them.

“That is such an incredible story at such a dark time in our country, with such divisiveness, with such anger, pain,” she said. “Even though they can’t pronounce my name, they cast a vote for me at a time when Islamophobia is high.”

Detroit, once the nation’s fourth most populous city, has barely begun rebuilding after struggling with years of declining industry and declaring bankruptcy in 2013.

That leaves Ms Tlaib’s district deep in need. It has the third lowest median income in the country and the highest prices for car insurance.

Her solution comes in language that echoes Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, and marks her out as a member of her party’s radical wing. Her idea is a new Justice For All Civil Rights Act that would ensure people cannot be discriminated against or denied services simply for living in deprived areas.

Although she insisted her faith was more a private matter - keeping her grounded and rooted - than the framework for a policy agenda, she admitted that it did inform her basic values.

“For me, being a Muslim in America right now has created kind of an activism within me that is much stronger than I have ever seen before,” she said.

“That drive of pushing back against injustice is very much embedded in Islam.”

In this Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018 photo, Fadwa Tlaib, an aunt of Rashida Tlaib points to a young Rashida in a 1987 picture with her mother Fatima and brother Nader, at the family house, in the West Bank village of Beit Ur al-Foqa. The Michigan primary victory of Tlaib, who is expected to become the first Muslim woman and Palestinian-American to serve in the U.S. Congress, is rippling across the Middle East. In the West Bank village where Tlaib’s mother was born, residents are greeting the news with a mixture of pride and hope that she will take on a U.S. administration widely seen as hostile to the Palestinian cause. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
Fadwa Tlaib, an aunt of Rashida Tlaib, points to a young Rashida in a 1987 picture with her mother Fatima and brother Nader at the family house in the West Bank. AP

And then there are those grandmothers and their villages.

Her maternal grandmother’s home is in Beit Ur al-Fauqa, near Ramallah.

Dajani, on her father’s side, comes from Beit Hanina that is part of East Jerusalem and is, she says, a neighbourhood known for producing no-nonsense, straight talking people.

“They are very tough. If you get pushed you push back,” she said. “My mother’s village, a small, farming community – very compassionate, it doesn’t a matter if they are Israeli, Palestinian, if they see anyone, a car stops, my uncle’s there: Do you need water, can I help, can I get your car going.”

She said as a child she played basketball in the settlement across the road from her grandmother’s home.

“Now when I visit there, there’s a checkpoint in front of her house,” she added. “This is a village of 700 people.”

That experience in part informed comments she made in the wake of her primary victory when she said she favoured a one-state solution to the Palestinian question. She also cited America’s civil rights struggles and the toxic legacy of segregation in cities like Detroit as describing how policies of “separate but equal” were doomed to failure.

However, after a backlash, she said it was not up to her to impose solutions on the Middle East.

“If they want a two state and its feasible then that’s what we should be supporting,” she said.

“I’m really tired of our country imposing our beliefs on to a whole people.”

Updates: Follow our live coverage of the midterms