Colorado elected its first Muslim lawmaker in state history, during a night like no other following four years of social, political, and indeed, emotional turmoil.
Iman Jodeh is no stranger to the US political arena, which she believes has failed to live up to America’s founding ideals, a place that disappointed her and so many immigrants, refugees, and minorities like her.
She is committed to alleviating them.
“There wasn’t really just one thing that set me on this path, but rather a life of experiencing injustices that have put me in a place where I just simply thought it was important to give truth and voice to marginalised communities,” she says.
“Unfortunately, I also grew up in America in the wake of two Gulf wars in the wake of 9/11, the Iraq and Afghan wars and so I distinctly remember as a child receiving threatening calls around the dinner table, because we were Muslim because we were Arab.”
The 38-year-old daughter of Palestinian immigrants became a trained political scientist after earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado Denver and then a Master’s degree in Public Policy.
As she looks ahead to starting her new term as a lawmaker, she hopes to do more than merely advocate for a few policy shifts. She plans to work on progressive causes and represent shared values such as strongly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and the need for immediate and sustainable climate solutions.
She wants people to know that access to quality health care, civil rights, jobs, education and affordable housing, are all basic human rights and not luxuries to be afforded based on the colour of their skin, zip code, or residency status.
“My journey in general, even before politics, was really centred around education. How can I best use my platform to further educate people who may not know Muslims or Arabs?” explains Iman.
She focused on placing herself in positions of advocacy to allow people around her to dismantle the systemic racism or preconceived notions of being around Muslims and Arabs.
For minorities in the US, the concept of “otherism” is hardly new. It has lingered in the US for decades – centuries, even.
After the 9/11 attacks, Muslim Americans faced increased government surveillance and were viewed largely with suspicion. Since then, from Latinos to African Americans to Muslims, being viewed with suspicion is something that can happen at any time in a number of ways.
Outgoing US President Donald Trump’s own history of vilifying the Muslim community – and seeking to exploit the emotions of 9/11 – is well documented.
These attacks have only encouraged Iman to embrace her identity even more. She says it has shaped the work she has done and the battles she has waged.
“By default, growing up as a practising Muslim, Palestinian American, you do kind of every day mobilise advocacy,” explains Iman.
“But it is a great honour to do that. And through this lens of advocacy and social justice, it’s made me better equipped to represent all communities, which is very important to me.”
Civil rights should be upheld, she adds, women should get paid the same as men and a women’s reproductive rights should be her own, an approach she takes as a resident of Colorado, who also happens to be Muslim.
She said, “I was hoping, inadvertently really, that the people on the other side of that bench, those lawmakers would see me as a friend, as an ally, as a community member as a neighbour., rather than “the other”.”
Women, who make up just over half of the US population, currently make up just under a quarter of Congress’ two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
However, when the 117th congressional term begins in January, an unprecedented 135 women, possibly more, will serve across both houses – with 103 Democrats and 32 Republicans voted in so far according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
Women will take up just over a quarter of the 535 seats – 25.2 per cent – up from the current 23.7 per cent.
Having more women in government is crucial for many reasons. When women are meaningfully represented and engaged in leadership roles, the laws, rulings, and decisions are more likely to be inclusive and representative, and will take diverse views into account, she explains.
For Muslim women, there is an additional challenge to their expression of empowerment. This is the perception in the broader community that Muslim women are either incapable of or not permitted to be agents of their own destiny, to have a voice that can and should be heard.
It is one of the biggest misconceptions Iman loves to dispel. Also one of the many reasons she launched a nonprofit dubbed Meet in the Middle East, which fosters relationships between the Middle East and the US through cultural events and immersion travel to help understand “the most misunderstood region in the world”.
“The Muslim world has democratically elected nine women heads of state. It is normal for them. These are the values that have been instilled in our culture and religion for 1,400 years, and rights that have not been enjoyed by women in the West until the 1920s, including the right to vote.”
It’s a vile jab her Republican opponent, Bob Andrews, a former schoolteacher and corrections officer attempted to take during the week of the election, when he used her faith and heritage against her in an effort to win votes for himself.
However, she refused to acknowledge the remarks. Instead of relying on the people to speak truth into power, and they did.
“They really clapped back and spoke up – We are not going to allow bigotry and hate to dictate our values or our vote. We’ve been fighting that for four years, and for many people for hundreds of years.”
Her heroes are her parents, who, having arrived in the US as immigrants from Palestine, truly understand the value of democracy, Iman explains.
Her father co-founded the Colorado Muslim Society and would teach and deliver speeches about Islam and the geopolitical situation of the Middle East, while her mother worked in the public school system welcoming and representing the newcomers who were immigrants and refugees.
“By always staying close to them, it subconsciously conditioned all of us children really, to always educate and advocate,” explained Iman.
Having visited Palestine, the politician experienced occupation, oppression, and having her civil rights denied. Iman says witnessing those stark realities against the brown, black, and tribal communities around her in the US creates a sense of kinship due to that lived experience.
Her historic victory was also celebrated by “The Squad” – the informal name for a group of women elected to the House, made up of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
In 2017, Omar and Tlaib became the first Muslim women ever elected to US Congress. Especially among young Muslims, their election was seen as a triumph, demonstrating that women like them – a Somali refugee and a Palestinian – have a place in America’s halls of power.
Both women quickly emerged as vocal champions of an issue that many American Muslims care deeply about: dismantling the strong American alliance with Israel and defending the rights of Palestinians while enduring frequent racism and derision from Donald Trump.
Following her win, Iman says “the outpouring of support and messages came from all over the world including Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Australia, Brazil, Canada, and even a shout out from The Squad themselves. So, it was very validating to know that people really wanted to see themselves in elected office, no matter where that is. It’s an honour to support and I shoulder that responsibility, very much.”
“I want to encourage people who have lofty ambitions to do it and not let anything get in their way because dreams are valid and an absolute human right.”