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Ilhan Omar’s selective attention to women’s rights around the world


In this file photo, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, July 25, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The integrity of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) might be tarnished by allegations of personal scandals, but other matters also tarnish her credibility as an advocate for social justice.

Currently a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Omar says part of her job is to “legislate on human rights practices around the world.” Yet, despite her own strong Muslim identity, Omar ignores egregious women’s rights violations in many Muslim societies.

To her credit, Omar has introduced the Brunei Human Rights Act, which would prevent travel or business in the U.S. for Brunei government officials who implement the country’s strict sharia penal code. But she has failed to similarly sanction leaders of Iran’s theocracy, which has a 40-year history of sexist legislation.

Since Iran’s revolution in 1979, women activists have been imprisoned for protests against discriminatory laws, including the mandatory hijab or headscarf. Earlier this year, three women were sentenced to a combined 55 years in prison for removing their hijabs in a public space. They had shared a video on social media showing them distributing flowers in a Tehran metro while discussing women’s rights. Last year, protesters were arrested for standing unveiled on telecom boxes in Tehran streets, waving white hijabs on sticks in the White Wednesdays campaign.

For defending women who appeared in public without a hijab, former political prisoner and human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, was sentenced to a total of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes.

Many Iranian women have removed their hijabs in public and shared their photos and videos on the Facebook page, “My Stealthy Freedom,” or #whitewednesdays on Instagram. U.S.-based Iranian exile Masih Alinejad, who founded the social media webpage and hashtag recently reported that women could face a 10-year jail sentence for posting videos of themselves removing their hijabs. These courageous women, she noted, were “braver and angrier than before.”

Appearing unveiled in a video even in your own home is a crime. Teenage gymnast Maedah Hojabri was detained for uploading videos of herself on Instagram. The films showed her dancing to music in her bedroom.

The women of Somalia, Omar’s country of birth, could also benefit from her compassion and support. In areas under the jihadist group Al-Shabaab, women are fully covered, strictly segregated, forbidden to leave home without a male guardian, and stoned to death for adultery. Somali women are often casualties of female circumcision, child labor and early marriage, and subject to domestic violence, poor healthcare and scant education. Many are also victims of rape by men in their neighborhood, government forces and paramilitaries. The new Somali Sexual Offences Bill that criminalizes sexual violence against women and children is groundbreaking legislation that Omar could endorse.

Some say it is offensive or even bigoted to suggest Omar, because of her background, has a special responsibility to speak out on behalf of women’s rights in the Muslim world, or even specifically in Somalia. I wouldn’t place that burden on her if she didn’t herself embrace her role as a global human rights critic. Once a public official takes that leap, he or she has an obligation to be somewhat consistent.

Women in many Muslim societies have been oppressed by centuries of cultural and institutionalized gender discrimination. Would Omar address forced marriage, unequal rights to custody, inheritance and compensation, or a woman’s testimony in court allocated half the value of a man’s? Is she willing to advocate equal rights for those who adopt veiling and those who refuse to veil? A study of “honor killings” in 29 countries showed that more than half the victims were murdered for being ‘too Western’, including rejection of Islamic dress.

As a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Omar has significant opportunities to question, if not reform, the patriarchal order and flagrant women’s rights abuses in many Muslim societies. The case for reform is clear and was acknowledged as crucial in the UN Arab Human Development Report 2005.

Omar’s glaring omissions of some of the most basic women’s rights belie her claim as a human rights defender.

Lichter is the author of “Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression."