Ilhan Omar meets Tan Dhesi: We helped to break a glass ceiling’

The Democratic congresswoman and the Labour MP swap stories of challenging presidents and PMs, Bollywood, and formative childhoods

The wall outside Ilhan Omar‘s office is not like that of other members of Congress. In Washington DC, a space aisle of congressional parts commits space, outside the door to the office of the Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, to a collage of cards , memo and handwritten postings offering variations on the slogan” We stand with Ilhan “. The 37 -year-old, who was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and wasted four years in a refugee camp before fleeing with her family to the US, has for the last year been the target of diabolical rightwing onslaughts , not least by President Trump. In July this year, he suggested she and three other women of colour- members of the so-called Squad of progressives newly elected to Congress- should” go back” to the” arranges from which they came here “. In some roads, Omar is the most visible of the four: she is the first person ever to wear a hijab in Congress.

Tan Dhesi, Labour MP for Slough, understands the laws of firstlies: the 41 -year-old is the first member of parliament to wear a turban and, like Omar, has a reputation for speaking out against anti-Muslim sentiment in government. In September, during prime minister’s questions, Dhesi called on Boris Johnson to apologise for his remarks about Muslim girls looks a lot like ” letterboxes” which, to merriments from the chamber, he called ” injuriou and prejudiced “.

The two politicians congregate for the first time in November via Skype- Dhesi from his constituency position, Omar from Washington DC. As minority ethnic members of government, the MP and the congresswoman are both keenly are conscious of what is at stake in their respective countries’ forthcoming elections, and of what happens when political rant lurches to the right. Both are campaigning on wide-ranging programmes for better aid provision, less restrictive immigration policy and deeper government efforts to combat racism. Omar has had to confront accusations of antisemitism, after a tweet disclosed from 2012 referred to Israel, in its wars in Gaza, as having” hypnotized the world “. She has since apologised for inadequately” renouncing the antisemitic trope I unknowingly exploited “.

These are difficult times and the two legislators aim, in their discussion, to reach across the Atlantic in a force of progressive solidarity. They discuss the experience of standing up to their country’s managers; of the role played by family background in their ability to represent marginalised societies; and of what it’s like simply to look different from everyone else in one’s workplace- as well as the question of whether Omar might be persuaded, one day, to visit Dhesi in Slough, specific suggestions she reacts with heated if somewhat astounded enthusiasm.

Tan Dhesi I was very stroked when I listen we were going to do this. I envisaged, oh, brilliant.

We’re in the middle of the parliamentary elections here, so let’s see how that works out!

Ilhan Omar What is the timeline for your ballots?

TD It should be every five years, but because the Conservatives lost their majority, they got forced into an election after simply two and a half. I’ve only been a member of parliament for that long.

IO And so everybody has to stand for re-election?

TD Yes. So I am no longer a member of parliament- I’m potential candidates. Hopefully we can be part of the sea change, and it’ll be a Labour government this year. Then come next year, you guys are in, yeah?


IO Oh my God, I can’t even begin to dream about that. We’re clap for a change to happen in England. And since my travel has been covered quite a lot- and it’s been a wild one- maybe you can tell me a little bit about what got you interested in being a part of government and a public servant?

TD I was born and brought up here in the Slough area, but I actually studied in the Punjab, in India, for four years when I was young; my primary and secondary schools was there, then I came home to the UK.

IO Where in Punjab? I don’t know if you knew this about me, but I’m a huge Bollywood fan.

TD No acces!

IO So I feel like I’ve been to India, even though I haven’t.

TD Well, I looked forward to receiving welcoming “youve got to” our ancestral village out there. We’re near a town called Jalandhar: it’s the hub of bhangra music. I went to university in Scotland, then returned down south. Since university I’ve been a member of the Labour party. Then I became an elected councillor, then mayor of the city. And after about a decade, I became a member of parliament for Slough, where my mothers immigrated in the 70 s. Little could they have imagined their lad would go on to become the MP for that town.

IO That’s amazing. So we have a little bit of that in common. I worked for a city council member in the towns of Minneapolis.

TD Where were you suffer and brought up?

IO I was born in Somalia, in the capital city, and I lived there for eight years. Then the civil crusade happened, and their own families had the disaster of being the family that was being purged, and well shot out. We fled to Kenya and lived in a refugee camp for four years, before going the opportunity to come to the US in 1995. So I’ve been here for over two decades now.

My interest has always been around the expansion of republic; my family was born into colonised Somalia and had been part of a generation that had fought to gain independence and was distraught when totalitarianism came on the country after exactly seven years of democratic government. My grandfather, who helped cause me, was very excited to come to the US and participate in democracy, so at the age of 14 I would accompany him to vote and change for him. He understood republic but he didn’t understand the language to access it. And I hated the fact that in a number of countries that, on paper, had all of these rights extended to its citizens, in actuality had ways of limiting people’s access. So my work became trying to make our country live up to its ideals, and alter the current reality for all of us.

It was really daunting to be a young refugee kid who was also Muslim and black to come to the US- the region of possibilities- and realise for the first time that every name of mine that I’d been so proud of was held in contempt by many of my neighbours. I understood early on that the excitement my grandpa had about this country was enshrined in the constitution, and that it was up to all of us to make sure we had equal access to those guaranteed rights.

My organising work has been around fighting financial prejudice, and trying to make sure we’re not just being tolerant, but being an accepting and welcoming country for all. I’ve also dealt with a lot of the issues around police inhumanity, our mass captivity questions, and our inability to care for our more vulnerable. It’s been an interesting journey.

TD The good thing is we share our politics- if I spoke to one of your Republican collaborators, this conversation would be more difficult!

IO In the US, the largest part of the challenges I face are people noted I should be grateful. I’m an immigrant to this country and it has welcomed me, and I should count my commendations and never noted any differences between the reality and the ideal.

I don’t know if there is pushback[ in the UK] when you talk about health inequalities that persist?

TD Things have improved a lot since the working day when our grandparents or our mothers immigrated here. My grandparents- my mum’s mothers- came in the 60 s, then my pa in the 70 s. Mum and Dad got married and had to face a lot of discrimination: mortal wearing a turban couldn’t drive a bus in the UK; they couldn’t trip a motorcycle; they couldn’t do many things in matters of a era errand. So there was a struggle there.

But thankfully there are still[ brace] from some people who had seen, for example, how the Sikh communities were preponderant within the British Indian army. Before 1947, Sikhs made up 20% of the army and the British Indian army constituted the largest volunteer army ever; more than one and a half million people crusaded during the first and second world wars. And because of that, many[ British people in power] were pity, so they helped those organizers, as well as beings on the left end of the Labour party, to change the laws.

While most of my life at academy was positive, there are still negatives. You’d have racist happens- for example, person tried to pull off my turban.

IO Yeah, they would introduced gum on my hijab, or try to pull it off when I was in school.

TD Something like that dents your self-confidence. And it makes you days, sometimes weeks, to recover. But we were strong; whether it’s inner self-confidence or that we are able to focus on the positives, it’s made us stronger. It’s important that we didn’t let those incidents disfigure us. You’ve got a minority of people who are haters, who just don’t like us or are not accepting. Because the word ” accept”, like you said, is not the same as “accepting”. It’s we’re “tolerating” you.

IO Yes.” We put up with it .” This is our country as well. We don’t get to be made to feel like guests. Was there a law that needed to be changed for you to have your turban as a members of the legislative council?

TD No.

IO You’re luckier than I am!

TD So many similarities. You were the first hijabi within the US Congress, and there had never been a single person wearing a turban in the British or European parliament. In our own way, we helped to break a glass ceiling.

But I say to you what, for the essential points my Labour colleagues are a very diverse provide. The authorities have people who’ve worked in a whole regalium of industries, but they were very helpful, and showed me the various parliamentary protocols. I don’t know how it is in your Congress, but in ours, everything you say has to be addressed via the Speaker.

IO It’s the same here. You get censored if you address the member. You have to address the Speaker.


TD I think there is a sense that in many of these institutions, you’ve got privileged people who are detached from reality, and it’s more of an issue among the Conservatives now, some of whom, I make, would find it very complicated[ to understand] what the average Joe has to face out on the street. Is it the same there?

IO Yes. The majority of beings[ in Congress] are millionaires; the majority are over 50; and the majority are white. And so our lived experience, as Congress as a whole, is very different to the majority of the people we represent. That’s why I talk a lot about needing people to be in these areas who have eloquence in the day-to-day battles of the person or persons they seek to represent. It’s not enough that we have diverse faces and articulates; it also needs to be diverse lived experiences. For example, all individuals who took at least 10 times to complete a four-year degree- I understand that because I had two young babies right out of high school.

TD Oh, right. How many children have you got?

IO I have three.

TD I’ve only got two.

IO Yes, so to speak to the challenges that many of our young categories are facing: they have to make a choice about going back to school, coming that position in order to get the fortune or maintain a job to be able to feed themselves. We’re struggling here to raise the minimum wage to $15( PS12 ). All of these challenges are things I’ve had to live with, and kinfolks in my locality had to live with- they’re not just a story someone tells me- so I’m more urgent in addressing them. And even trying to make sure I could sit as a member of Congress- because I was just going the first person to wear a hijab, and we had a 181 -year ban on headscarves. I was seeing what it would look like for me to walk into a majority Republican caucus and them not allow me to sit.

These are the kind of fears that some people have in trying to run for office. It’s not just the forbearance or respect they might come from their constituents in casting them[ to Washington ]; it’s also having to deal with what you will face once you get there. Because the powers that be get to control the narrative, and have the rules tilted in their favour.

TD I say to you what, I’m exceedingly, very proud of being part of this parliament, the most diverse ever.

IO Same here.

TD We’ve got more dames, more ethnic minorities, more LGBT beings, more parties with physical disabilities than ever before, and a large part of that is because of the Labour party: 46% of all our MPs are women; we’ve more minorities than the other parties and we are helping to push that plan. What’s happening in France[ where wearing headscarves is are prohibited in colleges and other public institutions] is what you might call a warped version of secularism that stimulates greater segregation, rather than integration. Unfortunately, on the continent in Europe, things are becoming more and more rightwing.


IO They certainly are and I wanted to thank you for your impassioned pronunciation in parliament. It’s important we recognise that when someone is being hassled because they are Muslim, the Sikh community is not going to be safe, and any other religious minority is not going to be safe. And we see that here in the US; as Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate rhetoric have grown, the person or persons that ought to have endangered are the people who look like Muslims, which is the Sikh community.

The French situation- I didn’t understand how awful it was until I met a young woman who was Muslim, who was newly elected to a city council in France and came to Minnesota as part of a delegation. “Shes had” her headscarf on and I stepped in with my hijab, and she started crying. I was ranging five minutes late and I pondered I had disrespected her, so I was, like, I’m sorry, I had to drop off my teenagers, I didn’t mean to be late! And she said no , no, that’s not why I’m crying! I’m crying because I interpreted photographs of you with your hijab, but I didn’t imagine your country would allow you to actually walk into the House of Representatives wearing it. And she told me that she wore her hijab everywhere in the community, except in cases where she has to represent them.

TD Which is absolutely ridiculous.

IO And I think this sort of demoralising, dehumanising exercise is in breach of what they’re trying to accomplish. If you are trying to create a more admitting, freeing civilization, then you can’t restrict the right to express oneself.

When I was growing up in Somalia, it was very secular, in all the wrong ways. People were banned from wearing the hijab; that used to be the representation in Turkey, as well. And what it did was create a whole society that was ready to rebel. And now we be understood that[ feeling] being exploited by the religious radicals who have done a 180 -degree turn in Somalia, where now everyone is forced to wear a hijab. And I think there is a danger, any time you try to impose secularism or religious doctrine on beings. Humans need to be allowed to freely exist as they crave. We need to be tolerant of people’s wishes.

TD I think that is one of their reasons for I felt I had to call out the prime minister. It is devilish that the most powerful person[ in the country] can target wives from one part of our community and say, you look like letterboxes or bank swindlers. Because it realise them more prone to hate crime.

I read that you prevailed your tush by the largest majority of any woman in Congressional history. What did that feel like?

IO It’s what we’re able to do where reference is build these amazing grassroots movements. We increased voter turnout by 100,000 in our region, and were able to break state and national records. And what I tell my colleagues who want to censor me for speaking out about human rights and holding beings accountable is that we are not asking for permission. We’re not asking for people to give us the right to speak on behalf of our constituents. Of the 435 members of Congress, I got the seventh highest number of referendums. I’m fairly proud of that.

TD You should be!

IO It speaks to the task we throw in. It’s not that we get elected because we’re different and special and interesting. We get elected because we speak to the heart of the challenges many of our constituents face. We are hopeful about the kind of changes that can be created once we collectively leverage our articulation and dominance. This movement being built by the Labour party and progressive members of Congress is one that’s going to sustain us. Because the solidarity of working man, of people who live on the margins of culture, is a strong one, and that’s why the powers that be do everything they can to find ways to kill our honours, to marginalise our enunciates, to diminish the kind of work we’re putting in every single day- as we knock on entrances and am speaking to constituents about what’s really important.

TD Definitely. We’ve got the people dominance in terms of spending hours and hours on the doorsteps. It’s a shame the election’s in winter.

IO We always have elections in the winter and I’m from Minnesota![ Laughs .]

TD Given our majorities, we can’t be accused of simply having sneaked in. We’ve got a mandate and we can talk about the issues we want to talk about. I anticipate one of the really negative things about being in opposition is that we can’t implement our radical transformative policies. But you’ve got longer to wait; what’s it like? Is it forestalling?

IO It really is. But we take consolation in the fact that we’re able to create a new narrative about what’s possible. We have been able to implement a people’s agenda, because we are in the majority. I precisely endorsed Bernie Sanders for director, so I’m hopeful that we can get him into place and receive the structural modifies we’ve been after. I’m excited.

It’s been a terminated joy to catch up with you, and to have a virtual meet and greet, and I look forward to an opportunity to have tea in my bureau, or in yours, in the near future.

TD Definitely! I look forward to hosting you!

[ We caught up with the pair after the election, in which Dhesi viewed his set. How were they feeling ?]

IO The cause is an indication of how effective nationalist rant can be. The far right is on the rise in ways we haven’t seen in decades. But it’s important not to draw more broad-minded a likenes: the UK is not the US and the Conservative are not the Republicans. Now, we still don’t have universal healthcare, we still have a president who disavows climate change.

TD While I was pleased with our result in Slough, I was deeply baffled with the national result. Brexit, the personality of gathering chairwomen and the fanning of nationalism motived us significant losings, although we had some success with our content around the NHS and protecting public services. Now we need to re-group and start the fightback.

* If you would like your comment on this case to be considered for Weekend magazine’s symbols page, please email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for pamphlet ).

Read more: https :// lifeandstyle/ 2019/ dec/ 21/ ilhan-omar-tan-dhesi-our-country-as-well-racism-bollywood-change

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