On March 9, the Washington Post published a three quarter page article, authored by Max Bearak and Abdullahi Mire, on Rep. Omar’s visit to a Kenyan refugee camp. The three quarter page-long article emphasizes how Rep Omar’s journey from a refugee camp to the halls of Congress is a “powerful antidote to the despair in the camp, especially in the era of the Trump administration’s refugee ban…”.
Apparently the girls and women who fled South Sudan lack inspiration to dream, are too helpless and hopeless to overcome their circumstances and eagerly await a savior role model who has made it in the U.S. against all odds. Really?
The article actually belies this year’s International Women’s Day theme #BalanceforBetter. What exactly do the two (male) authors of the article think she is inspiring girls and women to dream? About emigrating to the U.S? About surviving in another refugee camp? About more aid? Certainly not about their own self-worth and self-empowerment.
Becoming a member of the House of Representatives certainly is a praiseworthy accomplishment for any woman, especially one who emigrated to the U.S. from war-torn country. Not so praiseworthy is a freshman woman’s zeal to intimate anti-Semitic contempt. Even if Rep. Omar apparently made an unwitting mistake in the U.S. that led to (un)expected fall-out from what have been perceived as anti-Semitic remarks, she apparently also voiced the gist wittingly.
Ancient Jews, or Yibir, are one of the few known Muslim communities worldwide that maintains Jewish descent. The Yibir have lived amongst the pastoralist populations of Northern Somalia for at least eight centuries and are said to be descendants of Hebrews who arrived in the area long before the Somali nomads. However, they are not considered ethnic Somalis. They are classified as a lower caste category, are seen as inferior and landless and are believed to have arisen from unholy origins and to possess dangerous supernatural powers. In a strongly Muslim country, the Yibir caste has been traditionally oppressed, denigrated, demeaned, harassed, and discriminated against by higher strata of the Somali society. In Sudan, a small vibrant Jewish community who lived there from about 1885 to 1970. But after Sudan gained independence in 1956, hostility towards the Jewish community grew to the point of even advocating the murder and torture of prominent Jewish Community leaders. By 1970 almost all of the Jewish community had emigrated to Israel, America and Europe.
So perhaps Rep. Omar’s anti-Semitic leaning comments were not only a faux pas but also a veiled insult (un)wittingly inspired by her personal background. What kind of healthy inspiration can this give Somali and Sudanese girls in Africa?
Rep. Omar’s noteworthy trajectory shows why education, resilience and resolve matter and why the supportive participation of men in a woman’s life path is important. It also shows why having a father who was a teacher and a grandfather who was Director of a national organization matters for being accepted into the U.S. The latter doesn’t make Rep. Omar less noteworthy. But it doesn’t make her an “antidote to despair” either. How many women in the refugee camp in Kenya have family members in positions of political or social influence?
The UN Women’s theme for International Women’s Day this year was: Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change”. A good role model, who had the chance to benefit from her family’s status, would explain to those who look up to her how her path and achievements have reflected that theme to achieve #BalanceforBetter.
Did Rep. Omar speak about the lessons she learned from her mistake as a freshman member of Congress? Did she explain how her lessons learned can become a window of opportunity to all those young girls who could potentially be the next female political prodigy in Africa or elsewhere? Did she inspire girls in the Kenyan refugee camp to dream big by first respecting others?
The Washington Post article doesn’t say. Nor does it amplify the stories of the incredible women in the Kenyan refugee camp who persist in pursuing a better life in the face of adversity. It only amplifies their despair while de-amplifying the fall-out from the pain and confusion caused by the comments of a Somali-born lawmaker who is one of the first two Muslim women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Her story and accomplishments deserve admiration. But we must, paraphrasing one of Rep. Omar’s own Tweets, “continue to question the narratives provided and promote dialogue". No one’s ability, commitment and resolve to achieving a better world should be doubted because of their faith, country of birth”, ethnic origin, present socio-economic situation, or gender.
Realizing one’s dreams requires resilience, entrepreneurship and agency. Those are basic building blocks to creating more opportunities for women’s advancement, to ensuring more access to resources to seize those opportunities and to giving individual and group accomplishments, however small, more visibility.
March 8th is about celebrating women’s contextually-meaningful social, economic, cultural, and political achievements and contributions to society. Inspiring women to dream someone else’s dream is not inspiring. It’s stifling. And it certainly contributes nothing to empowering women without divisions between us here (in America) and them over there on a continent that has so many bright lights shining in women’s eyes but is sadly depicted as “dark”.
I encourage the Africa bureau chief of the Washington Post and other U.S. media to think equal, write smart and innovate for change by amplifying the stories of the millions of unheard African women who are optimistically fighting for a better world in the face of adversity through self-empowerment and celebration of their self-worth and that of other women. You can start by reporting on the amazing resilience, entrepreneurial spirit and active agency that women in Kenya's refugee camp evidence every day.