Against Great Odds, Muslim Libyan-American Woman Wins Big in Northern Virginia
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
The good news is that a young, traditional Libyan-American Muslim, Abrar Omeish, won a seat on the Fairfax County, Virginia School Board. The bad news is that en route to her victory, there was alleged discrimination she had to endure from the police of that County during a routine traffic stop. Nevertheless, her victory was for all Arab Americans.
First Muslim woman elected to Virginia School Board
At age 24, Abrar Omeish was elected as the youngest member of the Fairfax County, Virginia County School Board. This is a history-making victory in Virginia, given that she is purportedly the youngest person to be elected to public office in Virginia; Omeish is a traditional Muslim woman who has Libyan cultural roots. According to Fairfax Station Patch news organization, “Abrar Omeish, 24, released a statement shortly before 10 p.m. (11/5/19) declaring victory in her race for a seat for Fairfax County School Board At-Large, with early results showing her finishing in second (the top three winning seats) against five other candidates. With 98.77 percent of precincts reporting, Omeish had 144,157 votes (unofficial).”
Omeish campaigned on her youth and her supporters’ youth as a clear piece of her identity. Her supporters included 13 high school students, part of her campaign staff, working in field operations and policy issues. In her own words she declared, according to Patch, “This campaign represents a local movement to set a new standard of public service — to provide accessible and inclusive leadership that elevates and empowers all people to participate.”
Omeish stressed the role of education as “the starting point for all members of our community to access the opportunity to meet their potential and we must fight to ensure that every child can succeed here.” Her three top priorities are “excellence and opportunity for all children, support for holistic education, and fiscal responsibility.” Woven into her plan are universal Pre-K, increased numbers of parent liaisons, and improved mental health resources. Omeish also wants to bring in typically unheard voices of the homeless, Latinas, and other cultural minorities.
Hurdles obstructing Omeish’ route to the elective office: gender, religion, culture, and youth
During her candidacy, Omeish had revealed that earlier in the year she had been arrested by the Fairfax County Police. Having run a red light on a right turn, she reported that the police were both aggressive and humiliating to her during this routine traffic stop, ordering her to remove her hijab or head covering. Omeish reported that she had pleaded no contest to the charge.
What ensued ranks as a virtual ‘horror show.’ Omeish says she was pepper-sprayed; the police say she resisted arrest. The Washington Post reported that Omeish alleged: “she was a victim of police brutality and discrimination after being pepper-sprayed and dragged from her car after a traffic stop and later forced to remove her headscarf.” She claims she pleaded “no contest” to failing to show her driver’s license and to stopping before turning on a red light. From there, however, events turned nasty. Omeish reported to the Post, “It makes no logical sense to me that, within three minutes, an officer would have to pull mace and that it would escalate and devolve into everything it was that night, over a minor traffic violation.”
Fairfax County police contradicted Omeish’s version of the event, saying she had defied several requests to hand over her license. Pepper spray was deployed according to Police because Omeish “actively resisted arrest.” The incident is presently under administrative investigation, including the release of police dashboard camera footage of the incident.
Using Omeish’s cell phone video, the Post reports that she repeatedly told the police officer she would provide her license, as he demanded she get out of her car. The video shows her sobbing upon being pepper-sprayed. She claims she was dragged out of her car and forced to remove her headscarf when she was photographed at a detention center. Recalling to the Post, Omeish said, “I was sobbing at that point…This is actually my dignity. This is such a big deal.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group, has written to the Fairfax County police chief to protest Omeish’s treatment, including her right to treatment without unreasonable force and to wear her hijab. She suffered both physical harm and mental anguish, according to health-care records. Omeish, in the end, however, feels her road to the election was worthwhile.
Despite the Roadblocks, Victory for Omeish is good for her and Northern Virginia
Someone like Omeish, a young woman, dressed in traditional Muslim garb, a long gown, and a hijab or head covering, is not a normal sight in elected offices around the state of Virginia. However, there are many people that look like her who live there. According to Patch news, “Now, those residents finally have representation in the form of Abrar Omeish of Fairfax.”
Omeish is no ordinary person, though, having graduated from Yale University, being the youngest person to hold office in Virginia, one of the first Muslim women (another Muslim woman won a State Senate seat on election day) to win in the state, and the first Libyan American elected to public office in the entire country. She feels positive, based on an interview by Patch news, that those firsts are important because they tell “…all of the people living in Virginia who look like her and have her life experiences that they can do the same — which hopefully leads to more representation down the road.”
In addition to her new position on the Fairfax School Board, Omeish is studying full time on scholarship for a master’s degree in public policy at Georgetown University and working at a nonprofit she started 10 years ago. Her coming work on the School Board will focus on issues of student mental health, particularly those related to stress caused by excess homework, bullying, and discrimination. She also sees students with disabilities as another important issue. Overall, Omeish is positive about the school system’s dealings with diversity, including its language immersion programs. She would like to see more parent liaisons in the system, which translates into more hires of school liaisons per school. Such liaisons speak the languages of the minority populations of the schools, make home visits and help families to access various resources such as subsidies or enrichment programs for their children. These concerns are all part of her larger focus on better representing all families in the County.
Omeish further believes that what happens nationally has an impact on local families and that her election refutes some of the stereotypes of Muslims raised in national politics, especially those espoused by President Trump. About the President specifically, she says, “[President] Trump is trying to ban Libyans from this country…I think it’s a statement of who belongs here. Immigrants are absolutely welcome here and this is a community for everyone.” Abrar has the last word.
“Virginia Election 2019: Muslim Woman Makes History: Abrar Omeish, 24, has declared victory with early results in for Fairfax County School Board,” Dan Taylor, Fairfax Station Patch, 11/5/2019/
“A Muslim school board candidate was pepper-sprayed during a traffic stop,” Debbie Truong, Washington Post, 6/3/2019
“First Muslim Woman Elected To VA School Board Has Big Ideas,” Will Newton, Washington Post, 11/2019
John Mason, who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi and the American University in Cairo, served on the United Nations staff in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively with USAID and the World Bank worldwide.