When Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Mn.) was sworn into the 116th Congress today, the Somali-American became the first woman to serve wearing hijab. Fellow freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mi.) chose to wear a traditional Palestinian dress called a thobe to the confirmation, as a nod to her heritage.
Both made history in November as the first Muslim-American women elected to United States congressional seats during the “blue wave” that put Democrats back in charge of the House of Representatives. But as we’ve noted before, what also makes women like Omar and Tlaib so striking—along with fellow new congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-Ma.), is that they are unafraid to wear their identities on their sleeves, helping to mark a striking shift in how politicians—and specifically, women in politics—have traditionally been expected to present.
Pressley, who became easily identifiable by her flowing Senegalese twists as she sought her congressional seat, remarked to The Glow Up in September that “anything black women do is political. And it doesn’t end with our hair. That’s just usually where it begins to play.”
She also commented on the pushback she received while campaigning as a black woman with an ethnic hairstyle, which she recalled some considered “too ethnic …. too urban.”
“It was by millennials and young professionals who have bought in early to these old constructs and ideas,” she added.
And yet, she persisted—and won, as did Omar, Tlaib, and more. Perhaps this is why the sea change that these new congresswomen are part of is even more striking—they are doing so with unapologetic visual nods to their respective heritages, and forcing American politics to acknowledge the diversity that is the true backbone of our country.
For Omar, who within the space of 23 years transformed from a Somali refugee immigrating from Kenya to a United States representative, her choice to wear her Muslim head covering is not only her religious prerogative, but a right protected by the very government she now represents.
“No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice,” Omar posted on social media soon after winning her seat in September. She co-authored an amendment to the congressional hat ban with newly-installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Ma.). “And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift,” she added.
As the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Tlaib’s choice to be sworn into Congress wearing a thobe is a statement of her unique American story and the one she hopes to help co-create as a new member of Congress.
“Throughout my career in public service, the residents I have had the privilege of fighting for have embraced who I am, especially my Palestinian roots,” Tlaib explained to Elle. “This is what I want to bring to the United States Congress, an unapologetic display of the fabric of the people in this country. This is why I decided to wear a thobe when I am sworn into the 116th Congress.”
Tlaib’s gesture, which she sneak-peeked for followers on November 14, sparked a wave of online support. The hashtag #TweetYourThobe was started in celebration of her confirmation, encouraging supporters to post pictures of themselves wearing their own thobes, and garnering hundreds of responses.
For the new congresswoman from Michigan, it is only the beginning of the representational shift she and her fellow freshman hope to bring to Congress—not only in appearance, but policy.
“Show everyone who you are, your heritage, and what your stand for. We should embrace who we are and not be shamed for it,” Tlaib wrote for Elle. “Too often in this country, recently and throughout history, groups of people have been marginalized, harmed, and even killed for being different. This must change, and we can change this together.”