Updated: Apr 8, 2020
This piece was originally published in Girls Globe.
Dalia Mogahed is one of my idols. She is a covered Muslim woman who works in public policy. When she came to speak at my university about representation, Muslims and US politics, I was elated to be able to sit down and talk to her. For any kid, it is critical that you can see yourself in the people you look up to. Examples of what the future could hold expands a child’s belief about who and what they can be. This is especially true for children of underrepresented groups, who are routinely bombarded with negative stereotypes that influence how they navigate the world. For me, Mogahed was an inspiration because she was incredibly successful in a field I aspired to succeed in. She co-authored Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. She was also notably selected by President Obama to serve on the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. However, when I asked about her prestige in the Muslim-American community, her response was different than I expected. She told me that her role and influence on the trajectory of American politics has been exaggerated. From American-Muslims proud of her accomplishments, to Islamophobes attacking “creeping sharia”, to those in the Middle East claiming that she was driving US foreign policy, everyone has tokenized her.
Climbing the ladder in the policy world as a visibly Muslim woman created a heavy burden of representation that stripped her of her individuality.
It wasn’t until I heard of Dalia Mogahed that I understood that a hijabi woman could succeed in politics and government. But meeting her exposed the fact that representation can be heavy and singular, and often sustains a monolithic view. There is measurable value to diversity in workplaces, academic institutions, and civic entities. Studies show that there is a statistical significance between more diverse leadership teams and better financial performance. In academic institutions, diversity and inclusion uplift the educational experience by exposing students to peers from different backgrounds and perspectives.
Diversity creates significant gains in the academic and financial worlds, as well as within the workings of our governments.
Since the 2018 midterms, the US Congress is the most diverse it has ever been. Despite a record number of women elected to office in 2018, Congress is still predominantly male. Men are represented in Congress at 76.4%, although they make up only 49.2% percent of the nation. Similarly, even with an increase of underrepresented groups, Congress remains more white and more Christian than the nation at large. It’s no surprise that the Trump administration features a glaring lack of meaningful diversity. From senior staffers to cabinet picks, there is only a token handful of minority representation.
So what happens when the people filling these elected roles are not representative of our nation’s demographics?
Studies find that women, racial minorities and veterans in Congress are more likely to intervene on behalf of those groups in the federal bureaucracy. This means that an unrepresentative Congress leads to real differences in constituent services. And since ‘personnel is policy’, it’s clear that representatives from diverse backgrounds contribute to the robustness of our democracy itself. This year, Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) honored Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib as their 2019 Torchbearer because she exemplifies good governance. Ever since Tlaib was elected in 2018, she has spoken up about how absent Muslim voices have been from public life and how much potential Muslim and Arab communities in America have. Tlaib’s district is predominantly African American and the value of her perspective is relevant to her constituents, our democracy, and the national constituency at large. So, when I met Tlaib in person I wanted to tell her just how inspirational she has been to me as a Muslim and Arab-American woman in politics. I hesitated, however, remembering what Dalia Mogahed had said to me. I did not want to make her feel tokenized or add to the burden of representation she already carries. But I believe that we can recognize the value of representation without limiting trailblazers by expecting them to be the quintessence of their underrepresented group.
Presence without purpose does not address the issue of non-inclusive spaces – even if they appear diverse. And valuing diverse voices only for diversity issues is a bandaid on a bullethole.
Disrupting the status quo may be uncomfortable on all sides. But this is nothing new for people of color and other minoritized groups, whose baseline is discomfort. A truly representative democracy should not be a disruptive idea — it has proven results. The future of the United States is one where the multitude of voices that make up American pluralism happen to represent a wide variety of identities. Progress has to start somewhere, and passing the torch is a good place to begin.
Sumaya Malas is a Scoville Fellow at Women’s Action for New Directions.