Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib show Muslim women don’t need saving

The two US congresswomen are shattering all kinds of damaging stereotypes about Muslim women.

Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib
US congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were sworn into office in January [Reuters]

The image of a Muslim woman conjures up stereotypes of meek, subjugated women in need of saving. The arrival of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to the American political scene, however, has exposed the fallacy of these gender stereotypes.

Their brash, fearless, and irreverent responses to the heightened scrutiny of their every word show how these two Muslim women are poking American patriarchy in the eye.

Not only are Omar and Tlaib shattering the image of the powerless Muslim woman in distress, but they are breaking taboos that have long suppressed all women in the United States.

Tlaib curses like a sailor while in the same breath declaring her intent to impeach a notoriously misogynistic US president. Omar unabashedly questions powerful white male elites like Elliot Abrams at Foreign Relations Committee hearings. And both women are unafraid to defend the human rights of Palestinians, the most vilified people in US media, contrary to the advice of their senior colleagues.

As a result, our predominantly white patriarchal political elite are having a meltdown.

Refusing to be instrumentalised by superficial notions of diversity that exoticise and infantilise minority women, Tlaib and Omar vocally challenge the power structure.

A case in point is Tlaib’s reference to President Donald Trump as a m********* at a bar after her confirmation. Her words triggered tens of media stories despite more pressing issues like a government shutdown. The disproportionate attention evinced the depth of our society’s infantilisation of Muslim women. Male politicians curse and they are just engaging in “locker room talk“. But when women curse, they are dishonourable – a tripe framing used to silence women around the world.

Indeed, President Trump reprimanded Tlaib by calling her comments disgraceful and lamenting “she dishonoured herself, and I think she dishonoured her family using language like that…I thought it was highly disrespectful to the United States of America”.

These patronising words came from the same man who was caught on tape stating he grabbed women by their genitals and forcibly kissed them and who has called women fat, bimbos, and rated them on the size of their breasts.

That Trump was still elected president notwithstanding such lewd behaviour, not to mention his use of profanity on a regular basis, is further proof of misogynistic double standards infecting our political system.

Another case in point is Ilhan Omar’s reference to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in a tweet. Along with Tlaib, Omar is a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign which emulates the South African anti-apartheid movement in the use of non-violent divestment as a political tactic to oppose the Israeli government’s violation of Palestinian civil and human rights.

When Omar responded “AIPAC” to a question on Twitter about whom she “thinks is paying American politicians to be pro-Israel”, her tweet triggered a common anti-Muslim trope – the anti-Semite. Alongside the oppressed Muslim woman, Islamophobia perpetuates a stereotype that Muslims are inherently violent and anti-Semitic.

These Islamophobic stereotypes contribute to the erasure and delegitimisation of Palestinian experiences from mainstream discussions in the US about the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. They lead to the vilification of Arab and Muslim American academics on blacklists reminiscent of the McCarthyist era.

Islamophobia also fed the attacks on both Omar and Tlaib during their campaigns and after the elections. At a campaign event in August 2018, for example, the two Muslim women were subjected to a diatribe by a conservative activist, calling the activists “jihadi” and accusing them of supporting “terrorists”.

And when, after her election, Omar sought to remove the prohibition on headwear on the House floor, conservative pastor EW Jackson said: “The floor of Congress is now going to look like an Islamic republic. We are a Judeo-Christian country. We are a nation rooted and grounded in Christianity and that’s that… Don’t try to change our country into some sort of Islamic republic or try to base our country on Sharia law.”

While the anti-Semitic trope of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world is real, both past and present, to analogise it to criticism of AIPAC is a red herring.

Like any other lobbying firm in Washington, AIPAC seeks to influence politicians on the Hill and in the White House pursuant to its motto “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby”. To its credit, AIPAC is one of the most successful lobbying groups alongside the National Rifle Association, Koch Industries, and the US Chamber of Commerce.

AIPAC boasts significant political influence arising from its over $3.5m annual investment in lobbying. Indeed, AIPAC astutely leveraged the controversy over Omar’s tweet to ask its supporters to donate, declaring: “We are determined to continue our bipartisan efforts in support of the shared values that unite America and Israel.”

The aspersions cast on Ilhan Omar’s character bring into sharp relief the ways in which allegations of anti-Semitism are frequently used to silence Muslims with dissident views and when these are coupled with misogyny, Muslim women become easy targets.

Tropes of the “bad girl” are weaponised to police women’s speech and behaviour. Men exploit arbitrary civility codes to chastise women and minorities who do not accommodate existing power structures. Any expression of anger, indignation, or rebuke of the status quo is quickly reprimanded – hence the calls on Omar to resign, while dozens of white male Republican politicians peddle Islamophobia on a regular basis.

To be sure, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib will continue to be caught in the crosshairs of Islamophobia and American misogyny. But like the millions of other confident, ambitious, smart Muslim women in the US, they are up to the task.

And for those who cannot accept Omar and Tlaib’s presence on Capitol Hill, Omar has some advice: “You’re gonna have to just deal.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.