For This Somali-American Politician, Making History Is Just The Beginning
By Yasin Mohamud
When you first meet Ilhan Omar, you notice a sort of subtle warmth. The kind of subtle warmth that puts strangers she meets at ease. When she enters Precision Grind Coffee in Minneapolis, the café we agreed to meet at for this interview, she’s on the phone and waves at me, but isn’t ready to talk yet for another five minutes.
After her phone call ends, a big smile precedes a handshake, and even though she’s just a little over 5 feet tall with a small frame, she maintains a commanding presence. She apologizes for the wait and apologizes again for the cancelation of what was supposed to be our first meeting the day before. “I’m so sorry about yesterday, I thought it was a phone interview and also had another event,” she explains. I assure her it’s fine and tell her I understand she must be busy now that her campaign to become the first Somali-American legislator is coming to an end.
In August of this year, Omar won the primary race for her district in the Minnesota House Legislature. Her win was historic for many reasons, but the one that stands out is her unseating of incumbent Phyllis Kahn, who after 44 years is the longest-serving member of the Minnesota House. She galvanized support from white millennials and millennials of color alike by running on a progressive platform that promoted inclusion and invited supporters to take part and employ the political process.
Issues like reducing the income gap between white and black American families, hiring more teachers of color, and making higher education more affordable are all central parts of her platform. Ilhan says these aren’t just popular political talking points to her, but issues she’s cared about her entire adult life.
“Those are all things that matter to me and to the average citizen, and the one issue that is big for me and that actually drove me to run for office is criminal justice reform,” Omar explains. She wants to see things like minimum sentencing and the grand jury system abolished. To Omar, our criminal justice system has long been broken, and people of color have felt the ramifications for decades. It’s only in recent years that the nation has become more aware of issues like police brutality and the impunity that law officers receive when they kill in unjust ways.
Omar’s interest in politics started when she first immigrated to the United States at the age of 13; she would accompany her grandfather to local democratic caucuses and serve as his interpreter. The environment riveted Omar, and she soon realized that engaging in politics was a way to connect people.
“I studied political science and international studies in college, and the goal to do work that helped people was always there. But I never saw myself as a candidate,” Omar says. She wanted to be involved in politics that were revolutionary, and that empowered its citizens.
The political climate we find ourselves in and the two polarizing candidates who are running for the highest office in our nation have created a divide we have not seen with other elections in recent memory. With one candidate proposing bans on Muslims and the other carrying a legacy of policy that helped create the mass incarceration prison system that devastated generations of black families, marginalized communities find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Representation in politics has never mirrored inspiration and with Omar’s win, it’s not lost on her that her win is extraordinary.
“I think my win allows for different people of different identities to see themselves represented in politics. We have a lack of representation of women, people of color, young people, and [diverse] faiths. In all of these identities that I encompass, people can see themselves celebrated,” Omar says. People with those diverse identities turned out in record numbers for the primary race, helping to spur an increase of 37% in voter turnout from the 2014 primary.
For Omar, identities are important, and she says it matters that she’s a woman, and that’s she’s a black Muslim woman at that, who won a primary by creating a multicultural coalition campaign that banked on inclusion. An identity that she also likes to highlight is the “intersectional feminist” title featured front and center on her Twitter bio. Omar sees herself as an advocate for the advancement of women, no matter their creed or color.
Feminism as a social movement took flight in the 1960s, but we’ve seen a surge of it in different mainstream avenues within the last few years. It’s an ideology that some see as being at odds with the religion and culture that Omar belongs to, but she brushes that notion off. “To me, to be a feminist is to see women as humans who are created equal to men. It’s not complicated. In my teachings of my faith, I see myself as equal to the other gender. I’m created the same, I’m birthed the same, and I die the same,” Omar explains. One of the beauties she sees in Islam is that it teaches equality between genders, and all followers are equal in the eyes of God.
The idea of Omar even running for office was seen as controversial in her community, and people who voted for her faced intimidation and backlash, including being shunned and facing ridicule in their communities for supporting the woman candidate. Family members took sides, and there was a clear divide between her supporters and the supporters of the Somali male candidate she went up against in the primary (though Somalis are a minority in the district, there have been two other recent Somali-American candidates there: Abdimalik Askar, who suspended his campaign in August, and Mohamud Noor, who Omar beat in the primary).
Omar wasn’t surprised by the patriarchal leanings of most of the elders in her community, but was grateful for the ones who stood by her and believed in the campaign. “In the Somali community, people didn’t see the incumbent Phyllis Kahn, they only saw a race between Ilhan and Mohamud, and it was a easy choice for them because you always support the man. And I’m forever thankful for the ones who stood with me, because a lot of them went against their own families to support me and stood with me on principle,” Omar says. Those supporters who put everything on the line felt vindicated when she won, and she credits them for being what kept her going during the 10-month battle that led up to the primary election night.
Come November 8, Omar is poised for victory. She has the luxury of running unopposed in the general election; her Republican opponent, Askar, suspended his campaign a few months back to focus on family. She’s created a campaign and a movement that has uplifted and unified a community that before her win felt like they didn’t share a lot of commonalities.
“The win wasn’t the important part to us . . . it’s what kind of community do you have after the win that was important — and we ended up with one that shares a vision and wants the same things,” Omar says.
Omar understands the importance of being the first Somali woman to hold elected office and all the pressures that come with it. But she’s not interested in maintaining this “first.” She hopes and prays that her campaign has inspired people who share her identities to run for office, and to believe that it’s possible for them, too.
“I didn’t run to be the first . . . I ran because there are social ills in our society and I want to change them. I want more people of color to run, more mothers of young children to run, more young Muslims to run. And then we’ll stop celebrating these firsts because there will be more of us. And then we can actually do the work.”
All images: Facebook