As first Muslim women head to Congress, balancing symbolism and service

Rashida Tlaib never set out to be a “new face” of the Democratic Party – but on the cusp of her election to the US House of Representatives, she can hardly avoid the label.

It helps that she’s practically a shoo-in, running unopposed as a Democrat in a district that hasn’t elected a Republican in nearly three decades. But mostly, she has the political moment to thank. Not long ago, her profile – a Muslim civil rights lawyer and mother of two, raised by Palestinian immigrant parents in a majority-minority community in Detroit – might have been seen as too far a reach for Congress. But in 2018, that kind of background seems quintessential, almost de rigueur, especially among Democratic candidates. 

This is, after all, shaping up to be another Year of the Woman, and it seems that the less a candidate looks like the old guard on Capitol Hill, the better. 

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It’s also Democrats’ first real shot at taking back power – and defining their image – in the Trump era. And in nearly every way, Ms. Tlaib (pronounced tah-LEEB) presents a clear political contrast to President Trump – who, Democrats pointedly note, has banned travel from certain Islamic nations, mocked a woman testifying about sexual assault, and stoked racial tensions with statements denigrating immigrants and minorities. 

Which means that the stakes surrounding the midterms are particularly high for Tlaib. She’s not only likely to become one of the first two Muslim-American women in the House – a distinction she’s poised to share with Ilhan Omar, who is running as the Democratic nominee for Minnesota’s very blue 5th district – but also the first Palestinian-American woman. 

“I know that I, in many ways, am not just representing [Michigan’s] 13th congressional district but also people of [my] faith,” Tlaib says. “Anything I do will be a reflection on all of them.”

Alongside profiles by The New York Times and Politico, Tlaib has made headlines in The Times of Israel and the Turkey-based Hurriyet Daily News.

“She’s become a story,” says Jim Zogby, president of the nonprofit Arab American Institute (AAI) in Washington. “She’s got an Arab name. She speaks the language. She’s close to the traditions and heritage. And she is, at the same time, a classic American political figure.”

Yet Tlaib has faced criticism for receiving the bulk of her contributions from out-of-state donors, many of which came after President Trump enacted his travel ban. And once she arrives on Capitol Hill, she will have to balance the pressures of her symbolic candidacy with the nitty-gritty work of serving her majority-black district. 

It’s a scale model of the challenge facing many Democratic leaders of her generation, as the party embraces its increasing diversity as inseparable from its ideology, while still addressing voters’ kitchen-table concerns. 

“It’s not an either-or. You can represent the people who voted for you, while also bringing attention to the needs of whatever your affinity group is,” says Aubrey Westfall, a political scientist at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., and co-author of “The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States.” “But you can’t forget your constituents.” 


When Tlaib sweeps into her campaign office in an old brick building in northwest Detroit, she looks like the busy working mom she is: bags looped over her shoulders, no obvious makeup, hair a little awry. Her smile is warm if a little harried. 

But she’s used to the hustle. The eldest of 14, Tlaib spent her childhood as a third parent to her siblings, changing diapers, cooking meals, and “being that kind of go-to person for a lot of the family,” she says. Because they spoke Arabic at home – her dad came to Detroit by way of Jerusalem and Nicaragua, and her mother immigrated from the West Bank – the job of interpreting school forms and other documents often fell to Tlaib. Some nights she wouldn’t get to her own homework until the wee hours.

She grew up watching store clerks pick on her mother because of her accent, as her parents struggled to raise the family on her father’s salary. 

At the same time, she recalls African-American teachers talking about marching with Martin Luther King Jr., and Latino classmates confiding to her that they were undocumented. 

In her mind, those experiences were linked to what she saw when she visited her mother’s family in the West Bank. There, separate lines and colored license plates segregated Palestinian residents from their Israeli neighbors. “My passion for social justice and my drive is rooted in Palestine – but it very much was watered and seeded … in Detroit,” Tlaib says. “I just didn’t like anybody thinking that they were less-than.” 

By the time she began her work in activism and politics, Tlaib’s philosophy was grounded in the idea that the various struggles of minorities, women, immigrants, and working-class families are all part of the same fight. 

During her three terms as a state legislator, she focused on poverty and inequality, sponsoring laws that criminalized mortgage fraud, required employers to keep the identities of alleged victims of sexual harassment confidential, and waived driver’s license fees for the homeless. 

After term limits prevented her from running again in 2014, she turned to work as a civil rights lawyer at the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice. She became known for her public opposition to tax breaks for wealthy corporations and her crusades against toxic waste dumping in the Detroit River and deportations of undocumented immigrants. In 2016, she got herself kicked out of a ticketed Trump event in Detroit for heckling the then-nominee.

Through it all, Tlaib has put her heritage on display. At her watch party for the Democratic primary election in August, Arabic songs thumped alongside hip hop and other kinds of music. After she won, her mother, Fatima, draped a Palestinian flag around her shoulders. Her team celebrated by dancing the dabke, an Arabic folk dance. 

“I have a shirt that actually says, ‘Unapologetically Muslim,’ ” Tlaib says, grinning. “There’s this sense of being very proud, of like, ‘Yeah, that’s who I am.’ ” 


Yet for all the fanfare that came with her primary victory, Tlaib has already begun to see the tensions of her position come into play. 

Over the summer, after shifting her position on Israel and the Palestinian territories to a one-state solution, she lost the endorsement of the Jewish advocacy group J Street, which until then had contributed to her campaign. 

Some critics, noting her ties to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and to controversial Muslim American activists like Linda Sarsour and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), have accused her of promoting extremism. 

Not long ago, such attacks might have been politically fatal. Arab Americans from a range of backgrounds have for decades sought and won office at all levels across the US. But Tlaib’s predecessors, while not hiding their heritage, didn’t make it a big part of their campaigns.

“We grew up in a period of time when it was about how ‘melted’ you were in the melting pot,” says Mr. Zogby at the Arab American Institute. 

Indeed, Tlaib’s mother, who came to the US at a time when assimilation was key for immigrant families, doesn’t understand why her daughter puts herself in the line of fire. “My mom still feels like, ‘Well, don’t get in any fights with Trump,’ ” Tlaib says. “ ‘Why does it have to be you? Let somebody else do it.’ ”

But times are changing. Tlaib – along with other Democratic rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, both of whom are expected to win House seats on Tuesday – is part of a class of candidates that is ideologically further left, more activist in its approach to politics, and more inclined to connect personal struggles to political vision. And though Tlaib is in her early 40s, her appeal to a young, mostly non-white constituency is clear. 

Sumaiya Ahmed Sheikh, executive director of the Michigan Muslim Community Council, calls her “Rashida from the block.” “She does not shy away from her identity,” says Ms. Sheikh, a community organizer in her 20s who’s worked with Tlaib for years. “She is a Muslim American Palestinian woman, but she’s also a Michigander, she’s a Detroiter, she’s from southwest. It’s really inspiring.”

Still, some say embracing identity politics could come at a cost for Democrats where it matters: practical governance. Conservative journalist Matthew Continetti recently warned that it would “bring into office radicals empowered by the election returns and unaccountable to party authority,” sowing the same kind of discord among Democrats that Republicans saw within their ranks after Tea Party candidates rose to power during the Obama administration. “A Democratic victory soon would be followed by Democratic infighting,” Mr. Continetti wrote in National Review.

Tlaib, at least on the outside, appears unruffled by the looming challenge. She expects some skepticism, and plenty of resistance. But it’s nothing she hasn’t experienced in two decades of activist and political work. 

“All I can do is primarily focus on the issues here at home,” she says. 

And she’s still moved by the gravity of the opportunity before her. 

“My mom [said] this could have never happened in Palestine,” Tlaib says, gesturing to the room around her. “It only could have happened here, for her daughter to be a member of the United States Congress.”

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