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Rashida Tlaib: Meet the Democrat poised to be first Muslim woman in Congress

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Rashida Tlaib may become the first Muslim woman in Congress, and for this she has to thank the unlikely figure of President Donald Trump.

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“Trump was a bit of a Bat-Signal for women in general of being engaged,” she says, talking while out on the campaign trail in Detroit.

Looking across the country, Ms Tlaib believes there is a “sense of urgency” driving Left-wing and female voters in the midterm elections, which will see seats in the Senate, House and state-wide positions up for grabs.

“I remember when people came to vote for Barack Obama and there was kind of a waltz to it, it was like this confidence and people were excited to vote,” she says.

“This time, people are marching. It’s like, ‘move out the way I’ve got to do this.'”

Ms Tlaib’s ascent came after five years in local politics, when a wave of grassroots support saw her win the Democratic nomination for the House of Representatives in her home district in Detroit, Michigan.

A surge in first-time voters was credited with giving her the win. Now, since there is no Republican opponent standing in the deeply blue district, she is all but sure to win a seat in Congress on November 6.

Ms Tlaib is just one of a number of ‘firsts’ that could come this year – the first Native American congresswoman, the first transgender governor and the first black female governor could all be elected at the midterms on November 6.

Change is afoot, not just when it comes to gender. Around 90 Muslim candidates are running for elected office this year – the highest number at any point since the September 11 attack in 2001, according to political advocacy group JetPac.

Born to Palestinian immigrants and the eldest of 14 children, Ms Tlaib first garnered national attention two years ago when she was arrested for heckling Mr Trump during a speech in Detroit.

Ms Tlaib is not a particularly conservative Muslim but her faith is an important part of her life.

The gruelling campaign schedule did not stop her from fasting for Ramadan this June, ahead of the Democratic primary vote.

“It’s not about just being out there and flaunting your faith,” she told CNN earlier this year. “I always tell people that I’m exposing Islam in such a pivotal way, an impactful way, through public service.”

Her political rise has not been without fractious moments. Once, as a state legislature, she says the chair of a committee jokingly asked for her birth certificate.

“He thought it was very funny,” she says. “I was very much seen by some of my colleagues as nothing but a Muslim and in their eyes that meant I was less than them I’m sure.”

The incident mirrored Mr Trump’s repeated demands that Barack Obama reveal his birth certificate during his time as president, in a stunt that riled the Republican base.

But Ms Tlaib says her experience of prejudice was largely a one-off. “The majority of my colleagues treated me very well,” she says

Her election success is part of a wider trend – a swell of women, people of colour and first-time candidates have won Democratic primaries.

She points to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, her friend and fellow member of the left-wing group Justice Democrats, who at 29 is set to become the youngest ever congresswoman.

The group have been campaigning on a promise to shake up Congress with vows to abolish America’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known by its acronym ICE, refusing to take donations from corporations.

Ms Tlaib believes a deeper momentum has been building for years, but she credits part of the surge to the Trump presidency. “I think he pushed us over the cliff,” she says.

“I feel like we go through stages in the United States with all parties where a new group or generation – in this case a generation of women – who are running for office because they see injustice and they feel a sense of need to speak up and not be silenced”.

She accepts that there is still Islamophobia, but she draws hope from the Muslim candidates now becoming politicians.

“Muslims are now saying: ‘Okay we’re not going to be still’,” she says.

 

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