The new colourful face of America – minority congresswomen

The 116th US Congress is the most diverse yet. DiversityQ takes a closer look at the new minority congresswomen and what it means for the American public.

Congress finally looks like the country it represents, and at last, the table of decision-makers is more than just one predominant race. The most diverse in US history, there are currently more women and minorities than any previous congress; with 106 women compared to 92 in 2015, and 115 minority members compared to 105 in 2015.

Among these are Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, congress’ first ever Muslim women, as well the first two Native American congresswomen, Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davis of Kansas, and Hispanic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman in Congress at just 29-years-old.

While it will be some time before we can see for ourselves how these new legislators will shape the future of the US, The Washington Post has just released a report explaining how the 116th US Congress will ‘effect more than just legislation’.

According to the report, legislators who are women, minorities and/or veterans advocate more actively for citizens from their respective groups. In fact, they’re about six to nine percentage points more likely to contact agencies on behalf of constituents with whom they share a background, compared to their non-veteran, male or white fellow legislators. And this, most would agree, is a much-needed injection of diversity in a government that, just 40 years ago, was predominantly white and male.  

Paving the way for change

Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women in Congress and a refugee, is the very first person to wear a headscarf whilst being sworn into Congress, overturning a 181-year-old ban on headgear inside the chambers and paving the way for future people of faith, Jews and Sikhs included, who are also required to wear headgear.

“No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice—one protected by the First Amendment,” she tweeted back in November. “And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift.” We don’t know what ban she’s referring to, but it would be a safe guess to assume it may be the one of people from Middle Eastern and Muslim countries travelling to the US.

When conservative commentator and pastor, EW Jackson, tweeted, “The floor of congress is going to look like an Islamic republic,” in response, Omar was quick to reply with, “Well sir, the floor of Congress is going to look like America…And you’re gonna have to just deal.”

Causes close to home

Jackson and other naysayers are going to have to deal with more than just Omar’s clothing. One of the first things she has done is passionately campaign for the end of Trump’s Shutdown which sees 800,000 federal employees without pay while Trump holds the government ‘hostage’ until his bid for a $5bn wall goes through. She is also extremely vocal about refuting the need to build a wall, as well his so-called ‘immigration crisis’ which she claims is completely fabricated. And if that’s not enough to ruffle his fathers, she is also co-sponsoring a ban on gay conversion therapy.

Aside from issues pertaining mostly to immigrants and minorities, she has also jumped right into tackling healthcare costs by co-sponsoring three bills to lower prescription costs, and campaigning for climate change, all the while keeping up a steady stream of teasing tweets in Trump’s direction.

Similarly, Haaland is keen to look at issues that she has a personal affiliation with. As reported by Reuters, she said, “As the first Native American woman in Congress, I know that there will be an expectation on me by tribes across the country to be somebody that can move their issues forward. That’s absolutely something I feel optimistic that I will be able to do.”

She has also said there is an “epidemic” of missing and murdered indigenous women, and Haaland would like Congress to hold additional oversight hearings on the issue and make sure tribal justice systems have the resources they need to conduct proper investigations.

Likewise, Sharice Davis, is keen to utilise her own experiences as not just a Native American woman, but a member of the LGBTQ community as well, to bring a diverse voice to the table. “Both Deb Haaland and I have a much deeper understanding of the relationship between tribal governments and the federal government, and what impact federal legislation and policy has on Native communities,” she said. “We’ll be bringing that to the table of decision makers.”

More than a fashion statement

Even things as seemingly insignificant as Omar’s nails are making headlines. Her signature black nails break status quo of nudes and light pinks and reaffirm that today’s congresswomen are not one homogenous group; these women are individuals.

And speaking of style, Omar wasn’t the only new congresswoman to pay homage to her roots and individuality when being sworn in. Tlaib wore a traditional Palestinian thobe made by her mother. “Wearing my mother’s thobe is a gift to her,” she told Glamour magazine. “Just like any immigrant parent, she wants her children to succeed, but without giving up our roots and culture. No matter where our parents are from, you can see the connection they’re making in me wearing my mother’s ethnic dress. It’s exciting.”

It is exciting. For the first time ever, congress is made up of people who actually represent today’s America; women, people of colour, people of faith, native Americans, minorities. You have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman in Congress, taking a selfie with Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women in Congress, and Sharice Davids, one of the first Native American women in Congress. That one picture alone is worth more than just a thousand words; it’s a thousand promises. For the first time, there are eight white majority districts that have elected black members of congress. For the first time since Trump became President, there’s hope.

As Sylvia Garcia of Texas—one of the first Latinas ever elected to Congress from her state—has said, this year isn’t just another Year of the Woman, it is the Year of the Woman of Colour. And here at DiversityQ, we can’t wait to see what that will mean.

>See also: 8 ways to accommodate people of faith in the workplace