Ilhan Omar shows why diversity matters in Congress

One of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress will be sworn in on Thursday — a journey to the House of Representatives that began when she and her family came to the US as refugees from Somalia.

She celebrated the historic moment on Twitter: “23 years ago, from a refugee camp in Kenya, my father and I arrived at an airport in Washington DC,” Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who, along with Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, will be one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, tweeted on Wednesday. “Today, we return to that same airport on the eve of my swearing in as the first Somali-American in Congress.”

The new Congress will be the most diverse in history. According to Politico, the legislative body has a record-breaking number of women and people of color: 23 percent of the new Congress members are women, and 21 percent are Hispanic, Native American, or otherwise identify as people of color. That’s not truly representative on a national scale, but it’s progress.

This diversity will likely impact legislative issues. Studies show, for example, that electing more women has a noticeable effect on how governments work — with research indicating that women legislators sponsor more bills, pass more laws, and get more money sent back to their districts.

But people from underrepresented groups also bring different perspectives to legislatures, influencing what kind of work they do. Omar, for one, worked on a proposal late last year to end a 181-year-old ban on headwear on the House floor, allowing her to wear a hijab as she does her job.

“No one puts a scarf on my head but me,” Omar tweeted in November. “It’s my choice — one protected by the first amendment.” She added, “And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift.”

In other words, Omar’s election is already forcing Congress to be just a little more inclusive and accommodate religious and cultural practices that it may have neglected or even worked against in the past. That will, over time, likely spread to what Congress does outside its halls as well.

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