Rashida Tlaib was asked to prove she's a U.S. citizen — now she's poised to be the first Muslim woman in Congress

Paulina Cachero
Rashida Tlaib is an activist, a lawyer, and a 2018 congressional candidate in Michigan, who hopes to become one of the first two Muslim women in Congress. (Photo: Makers)
Rashida Tlaib is an activist, a lawyer, and a 2018 congressional candidate in Michigan, who hopes to become one of the first two Muslim women in Congress. (Photo: Makers)

When Rashida Tlaib was a member of the Michigan House of Representatives, she proposed incorporating cultural integration programs into the state’s social service agencies. In response, the chairman of the Michigan Legislature asked Tlaib to show her birth certificate to prove her citizenship.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not gonna be forced out just because I’m Muslim and because I’m Arab,’” Tlaib recalls in an exclusive interview with Makers. “I was born in this country. I’m a product of these services.”

Now she’s a product of our electoral process: Tlaib is poised to be one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, winning the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives seat from Michigan’s 13th congressional district.

“I’m gonna be pushing that line and showing people that if you work hard enough, if you love your community enough, you can do whatever the heck you want,” she says. “I don’t care what anybody says or … these stereotypes out there about us.”

Tlaib, the child of Palestinian immigrants, grew up in Detroit hearing stories of the oppression her grandfather faced in Palestine. As a Muslim living in the United States, she was shocked to face discrimination in her own backyard following the 9/11 attacks.

“I remember my parents’ home being surrounded by gunmen and being interviewed by the FBI for hours,” Tlaib recalls.

A law student at Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School at the time, Tlaib remembers calling her sisters and brothers, worried for their safety.

“It was the first time I felt fearful of my own government. And I just felt like nobody cared, that this was happening to this family, who are Americans,” says Tlaib. “There was just a heightened fear among the Arab-American community across the country, and it really pushed me to be more involved.”

Tlaib doubled down on her activism for underrepresented communities in Detroit. In 2004, she entered politics working for Michigan state Rep. Steve Tobocman. By 2008, Tobocman was so impressed with her that he encouraged Tlaib to run for his seat.

She recalls laughing off his suggestion until more friends weighed in. “My colleague said: ‘People like us never think about running for office, and that’s the problem,’” says Tlaib.

Despite her initial apprehension, Tlaib became the first Muslim woman to serve in the Michigan legislature, earning 90 percent of the vote in the general election. Now Tlaib has her sights set on Capitol Hill.

“I love when a Muslim father comes up to me and says to his daughter, ‘She is a Muslim.’ And I almost want to cry, like these little young girls and showing them, she’s a Muslim,” Tlaib tells Makers. “We’re constantly looking for permission to be in leadership roles. And we need to shake that out of our young girls. And in the meantime, we need to keep asking women to run.”

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