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Muslim-American women step forward

Shift in thought

A rising Minnesota politician and a fencer at the Rio Olympics are changing public perceptions.

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    Ilhan Omar hugs a supporter in Minneapolis Aug. 9 after she won the Democratic primary race for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She is expected to win the general election in November and become the first Somali-American to serve in a US state legislature.
    Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune via AP
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Ilhan Omar is poised to become the first Somali-American to win a seat in a US state legislature.

Ibtihaj Muhammad just became the first member of a US Olympic team to wear a hijab – the headscarf worn by some Muslim women – at an Olympic competition.

These two thoughtful, eloquent, and patriotic young women are the faces of a new generation who are breaking down stereotypes, and countering misconceptions, about Muslim-American women.

“[H]ow can you not see that Muslims are like any other group?” Ms. Muhammad, a fencer from New Jersey who advanced to the second round in her event at the Rio Olympic Games, told USA Today. “We’re conservatives and liberals. There’s women who cover [their heads] and women who don’t. There are white Muslims, Arab Muslims, African-American Muslims.

“There are so many Muslim countries that have women as their heads of state.... [These are the kind of] things I want people to be aware of.”

Ms. Omar was born in Somalia, and lived there until she was eight, when her family was forced to flee the violence that had erupted in that East African country. The family stayed in a refugee camp in Kenya for four years before being allowed to emigrate to the United States, where they settled in Minneapolis.

Encouraged by her father, Omar became interested in politics as a teenager and after college worked as a grass-roots neighborhood activist. In the recent primary she defeated a fellow Democrat (the party is known as the DFL in Minnesota) who had held the seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives for more than 40 years. Because the district leans heavily Democratic Omar is considered a virtual certainty to win the job this November.

Omar has gone “From a refugee camp to the State Capitol with intelligence and insight,” former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “This is a wonderful story to tell as Americans, and a great source of pride for the state....”

Minneapolis is home to the largest population of Somalis, some 60,000, in the US. In June the Somali community there was the subject of troubling national headlines when three young Somali-American men were convicted of conspiring to go abroad and join the Islamic State terrorist group.

“We need leaders who can change our community,” Hassan Abdi, who immigrated from Somalia himself and voted for Omar, told the Star-Tribune. “Too many young people are going around with no jobs.” Mr. Abdi was also pleased that Omar will be breaking a cultural barrier. “In my home country, men have the power,” he said. “This is an opportunity to show that women can do what a man can do.”

Earlier this year Omar shared her hopes for her campaign.

“[T]his is my country,” she told Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, “this is for my future, for my children’s future and for my grandchildren’s future, to make our democracy more vibrant, more inclusive, more accessible and transparent, which is going to be useful for all of us.”

As Muslim-American women Omar and Muhammad represent two visible examples of a new generation eager to fully participate in – and contribute to – American society.

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