On Thursday, millions of Americans celebrated the swearing in of the most racially and gender diverse Congress in US history. It was an inspiring, historic occasion for many, including Palestinian-Americans, who cheered proudly as incoming Democratic representative Rashida Tlaib of Detroit took the oath of office wearing a traditional Palestinian garment called a thawb that once belonged to her mother.
The thawb is an embroidered Palestinian dress. The cross-stitch patterns on the dress represent Palestinian villages and cities, each uniquely affirming native belonging to the land. A single dress can take up to a year to complete making them precious heirlooms that Palestinian women pass down from generation to generation as Rashida’s mother did with hers. In a context of ongoing Israeli erasure of Palestinian belonging and denial of our national existence, the thawb is a vibrant celebration of our Palestinian identities and attachment to Palestine. During Rashida’s swearing-in ceremony on the Hill, my young daughter wore the first thawb my mama dressed me in, and I wore a couteure piece made by Palestinian designer, Rami Kashou. As I shared with friends, Rami dressed me in the Palestinian future as I watched Rashida make history as the first Palestinian-American woman member of Congress wearing her thawb. This is why our community was so electrified globally.
For far too long, the US liberal establishment—comprised of many media outlets, university administrations, cultural gatekeepers, and political parties—has made many of us feel like outsiders in the country of our birth, marginalized and ignored by our representatives in Congress, who often seemed to compete with one another to prove they were more “pro-Israel,” at the expense of the fundamental human rights of Palestinians. We have witnessed Palestinian scholars lose tenure for their critical scholarship, theaters cancel performances highlighting Palestinian narratives, our community leaders maligned, criminally prosecuted, and even deported in unjust trials. Rashida’s shared experience as a Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab has been central to her political and moral compass, motivating her work for marginalized communities across the United States and in her district.
However, the excitement is not just about seeing a Palestinian-American woman and the full fabric of America in all its diversity reflected on Capitol Hill. After all, Rashida is not the first Palestinian-American to serve in Congress. It is about the progressive values that she embodies that brought her into politics in the first place, and that she will passionately advocate for every day on behalf of her constituents, like believing health care should be a basic right for all, fighting for working class people by increasing the minimum wage and protecting unions, and debt-free college for working families. These are the values that we need to make this country work for all its people, particularly in the face of the regressive, reactionary policies of the Trump administration.
That Rashida is a woman makes her achievement all the more significant. Women have always played a critical role in changing our societies from abolition to suffrage to civil rights, but in the past two years, that role has grown significantly and become a public reckoning. From the Women’s March to the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, women have both played a central role in resisting Trump’s xenophobia, militarism, and an onslaught on basic social welfare provisions as well as confronting the quiet and violent imprint of patriarchy in our daily lives. Rashida has also fought this battle in our community and makes her social justice fight a personal triumph and a collective promise: our struggle is comprehensive, and Rashida embodies that unapologetic and defiant spirit.
Rashida’s election to Congress comes after years of unprecedented attacks on Palestinians and our rights by Israel’s supporters in the United States, from the Trump administration and Congress, to state legislatures and university campuses across the country. From a wave of McCarthyite legislation at the state and federal levels intended to suppress the growing number of Americans who support the grassroots boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights, to Trump breaking with more than seventy years of official US policy and international law by recognizing Jerusalem as part of Israel and slashing humanitarian aid to Palestinians, including the UN agency responsible for the well-being of Palestinian refugees, the onslaught has grown steadily with little or no pushback from the Democratic Party establishment.
The election of Rashida and other progressives signals the potential for change and reflects an important shift in the Democratic Party and is a sign of changing American attitudes towards Israel and Palestine. For years, polls have shown that Democratic voters are becoming increasingly critical of Israel, and supportive of Palestinians struggling for their freedom. However, those views have not been shared by the old-guard party leadership who continued staunchly supportive of Israel even as its government drifted further and further to the extreme right and away from the values of liberty and equality that they claim to champion here in the United States. Now, finally, there will be Palestinian and other progressive voices in Congress calling for a fairer, more just approach to Palestine/Israel.
At the end of the day, as proud as I am of Rashida for being a strong, unapologetic Palestinian woman, that is not why I rally behind her. I support her because she is a genuine, grassroots leader rooted in her community and a sister with a humane, inclusive vision of the United States and the world. That is something we should all be able to get behind.
[Image by the author.]