Arab Muslim Women Embrace Rewards and Challenges of Running for Chicago Office
Candidate Itedal Shalabi, left, with Project M Director Reema Ahmad.
Running for public office is not something that women are encouraged to do in male-dominated Arab Muslim culture. But five of the seven Arab Muslim candidates running for local office in Chicago’s Southwest suburbs are women.
The Southwest suburbs, which include towns such as Orland Park, Burbank and Bridgeview, are home to large pockets of Arab immigrant families. Because census data excludes Arabs as an official ethnic category, no firm data exists on the area’s Arab population. Being an underrepresented minority in the U.S. is one disadvantage, but being a female in an underrepresented minority has its own set of challenges.
“I am female. I am Muslim. I also wear the headscarf,” said Maha Hasan, a woman of Palestinian origin running for the library board in Justice. “These are the things that can be obstacles.”
Maha is running alongside her sister Nuha Hasan, a candidate for park district commissioner in Justice. The other three female candidates are Lina Zayed for Burbank School District 111 School Board, Rola Othman for Reavis High School District 220 School Board, and Itedal Shalabi for North Palos District 117 School Board.
“In the Arab community, who’s doing a lot of the leadership? It’s men,” said Shalabi, a woman in her early 40s also of Palestinian descent. In most Arab countries, women are not expected to get involved with government and instead rely on the men to take up issues with local officials, she said. This, however, has been changing both overseas and in Arab immigrant communities.
“Some men might think that a woman running for local office will take a toll on the family,” she said. “I am running to show that it’s possible and that young women can do it too.”
According to 2010 data released by the Arab American Institute, Illinois has only three Arab American elected officials. Scattered among different counties, all three are men. Estimates for the state’s Arab population range from nearly 98,000 to 220,000.
No single reason seems to be propelling more women than men of Arab descent to run for local office in the Southwest suburbs. But candidate Nuha Hasan brings up a point that most women in the community can agree on.
“Arab women are learning from the mistakes of the older generation,” Nuha said. Older Arab Muslim women are less likely to have a college education and hence be more inclined to accept paternalistic values, she said. That older generation’s passivity is a catalyst driving younger women’s activism, something which younger Arab men don’t necessarily feel.
Despite these challenges, Nuha says that she is receiving great support from both men and women in her community. Both sexes want to see America’s Arab Muslim minority adequately represented. All seven candidates are backed by the Summit-based non-profit Project M, which advocates civic engagement among Arab Muslims.
“We want to turn things around. We don’t have to be a disempowered, marginalized community that complains all the time,” said Director of Project M Reema Ahmad, a young Arab Muslim woman who also wears the headscarf. “We’re going to take this governance by the reins so that we’re not just sitting around the political frame.”
Minority women running for local office is not unique to Chicago’s Southwest suburbs. Jessica Grounds, executive director of the national non-profit Running Start, deals directly with women in both local government and on Capitol Hill. Although not an expert on the Arab Muslim minority, she says that the challenges they face are common to all minority women.
“Sometimes it is an advantage being a woman of minority,” Grounds said. “They can accurately represent their own communities instead of having someone outside of their minority represent them.”
No data is readily available about the numbers of minority women in local government, but the Center for American Women and Politics releases data on women in government from the mayoral level and above. As of last month, only 30 women were among the 256 mayors of U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or larger. More strikingly, only three of the female mayors are minority women.
“We know that the positions we are running for are small,” said Shalabi, the candidate for the North Palos school board. “But someday they might take us to the White House.”