ST. PAUL - With two simple words – “I do” – Ilhan Omar began her term as a lawmaker in the Minnesota House of Representatives, accomplishing what few people thought possible during an election year where Muslim-Americans were at the center of heated political debate about immigration and terrorism.
"The Muslim community needs a win," says Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. "This entire election cycle has been dominated by negativity towards immigrants and Muslims."
A day of firsts
Zaman was one of dozens of supporters who filled the Minnesota State Capitol on the opening day of the new legislative session, shuttling between events marking Ilhan Omar’s historic first day on the job as state lawmaker, which included a ceremonial oath of office – complete with a commemorative Quran – on the House floor.
"I think it says a lot about the ethos of America," Zaman told VOA, "that [constituents] can embrace a Somali-American, hijab-clad Muslim woman as their representative, as the most qualified person to speak for them in the state capitol."
A symbol of hope for Muslim women
It’s been an unlikely journey from a Somali refugee camp in Kenya to the Minnesota State House of Representatives, but 34-year-old Ilhan Omar’s historic rise to become the first female Somali-American legislator in the United States is now a beacon of hope for Muslims, and particularly Muslim women, around the world.
"There are many countries that have had women as heads of state, especially Muslim majority countries who've had" them, Nausheena Hussain, from the Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood of Empowerment, explained to a crowd of Omar supporters gathered at the state capitol building. "So, we may not have shattered that glass ceiling in electing a president or head of state in our country, but for me, and the thousands of Muslim women, and women of color, Ilhan Omar is that ceiling that’s been shattered for us."
The negativity of the 2016 presidential election campaign, marked by calls for a ban on Muslim immigrants entering the United States, is now a footnote for Omar, who views her role in the national conversation about Muslim Americans as a positive one.
"It sort of provides a counternarrative to say that all is not bad," she told VOA. "That there is good, and if someone like Ilhan – who has all the odds against her – can succeed, then we are able to see that as a country we do have a balance of good and bad and we need to find a way to come together to amplify the voices of good."
Going outside the community for support
Ilhan Omar’s campaign provides some insight into her wider appeal across racial, ethnic and religious divides. She did not win her election due to overwhelming support of Somali-American voters in her Minneapolis district. A majority voted for her primary challenger, Mohamud Noor. Omar won her election by courting other voters outside that diaspora.
"Politics is the art of inclusion," Asad Zaman explained. "Ilhan Omar has practiced inclusive politics as she’s been able to put forth a candidacy that is attractive to a largely white liberal group of voters and she has convinced them she is the best candidate."
Election inspires Africans
Omar is also convincing others beyond Minnesota that anything is possible, something she says was reinforced on a recent visit to the Horn of Africa.
She was "hearing about young people who are running for elected office in Kenya and Somalia because they were inspired by my race," she explained to VOA. "And I think messages like that … truly put things into focus … and amplify the level and magnitude of what we’ve been able to do here."
The magnitude of her contributions as a state lawmaker in Minnesota is yet to be measured, but Asad Zaman says Omar now has the attention of more than just the voters in Minnesota.
"I have had interview requests from Turkey and Al Jazeera in Qatar," he told VOA. "So this is a big deal and I think the whole world is watching what we are doing here today."
Which is why Ilhan Omar says one of her biggest challenges now is living up to the hopes and expectations people have for her as she continues to chart an historic path forward in Minnesota’s House of Representatives.