Earlier in November, Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib and Somali-American Ilhan Omar became the first Muslim women elected to US Congress.
Naturally, we were extremely hyped about this news, and particularly pleased for Omar, who fled civil war in Somalia and spent four years in a refugee camp prior to arriving in the US at age 14.
Despite only being in Washington D.C. for a few weeks, Omar is already making headlines as she tackles her first challenge: overturning a ban on head coverings in Congress.
Before we note the significance of the move, let’s step back and look at a little history.
The ban on hats and head coverings in Congress was enacted in 1837. Back then, congressmen (and in those times, they really were all men) adhered to a variety of arcane codes that dictated how they presented themselves in public.
Along with spitting chewing tobacco on the floor, smoking cigars and occasionally hitting each other with canes, one custom saw to it that they all sported a hat when Congress was in session. Unfortunately for them, the hats were ultimately found to clutter the House and make everyone appear a touch uncouth. After much debate, the ban on all head coverings was put in place.
Fast forward a 180 or so years, and Omar, along with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, has backed a proposal to reverse the ban.
No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice—one protected by the first amendment.
And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift. https://t.co/7U3ZLTaWur
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) November 17, 2018
Omar, who wears a hijab or a headscarf as part of her faith, believes the ban infringes on her 1st Amendment right to freely practice her religion.
The ban, which was designed to limit the sartorial choices of men, has resurfaced as the crux of a much more modern debate: Namely, our obsessive focus on what women in the public eye choose to wear and, more specifically, society’s fascination with the headwear—or lack thereof—of Muslim women.
Omar wrote in her tweet: “No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice”. This is the reality for the vast majority of Muslim women who wear the hijab. They choose to as a symbol of their faith; and whether they wear a hijab, niqab or headscarf, they shouldn’t be judged, just as we shouldn’t judge Muslim women who choose not to wear one.
On World Hijab Day last year, we quoted journalist Hend Amry (who wears a hijab) on the subject of hijabs: “There is no compulsion in faith”.
Her words reflect a viewpoint we fully support. No woman should be forced to wear a hijab, and no woman should be precluded from wearing one if she, like Omar, chooses to.
Given the outdated nature of the ban, and its very obvious impingement on religious expression, we reckon Omar will be successful in getting it overturned. And if she isn’t, we seriously doubt she’s going to compromise her faith for the sake of a 181-year-old rule.
But whatever happens, we reckon this is Omar’s first step of note in what promises to be a ground breaking political career in Washington.