Wearing traditional Palestinian gowns, hundreds of women across the United States showed off their heritage in honor of a historic day.
Rashida Tlaib on Thursday became the first Palestinian-American woman to be sworn in to Congress. Weeks ago, she announced she would wear a thobe to the ceremony and she kept her word.
A thobe is a hand-embroidered gown that comes in a range of designs and colors, and often signifies the village from where the wearer hails. Most Palestinian women have at least one of these special dresses in their closets, and wearing one is seen as a show of pride for their culture and heritage.
Women and girls wore their thobes as part of a social media campaign to honor the Michigan Democrat. Some posted photos on Twitter and Instagram with #TweetYourThobe, while others traveled to the Capitol to greet Tlaib in their gowns.
“It was a very proud day for me and for all Palestinian people, especially proud for Palestinian girls and women,” said Alice Muaddi, who traveled from New Jersey to Washington to greet Tlaib in her thobe. Muaddi emigrated from a Palestinian village to the United States in the 1960s.
Tlaib, whose parents are also Palestinian immigrants, filled the seat formerly occupied by Democratic Rep. John Conyers, who left office last year amid accusations of sexual misconduct. She ran unopposed in the general election after her August primary win in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District.
“I have been in the USA for 52 years and today I felt that her win is for every Palestinian-American girl and woman. She is an inspiration and a role model to all of us,” Muaddi said.
A solidarity movement is born on social media
When Tlaib shared that she would be wearing a thobe to the ceremony, Susan Muaddi Darraj was delighted. Yet some people on social media weren’t so kind, saying wearing the dress would be un-American.
The professor and novelist from Maryland created the #TweetYourThobe hashtag on social media, asking people to share photos of themselves in the traditional garment. She wanted to do something to educate people, while also celebrating Tlaib’s achievement, she said.
“Palestinian-American women all have these thobes. They are given to us by our mothers and are often handed down through families,” Muaddi Darraj explained. “They are worn to very special occasions, weddings, baptisms and graduations, so it’s very appropriate she’s wearing this dress, which her mother gave her, to her swearing-in.”
Tlaib wearing her thobe sends a message, said Muaddi Darraj, a first-generation Palestinian-American. Alice Muaddi, the woman who traveled to the Capitol to meet Tlaib, is her mother.
“She is wearing it because her mother made that dress for her. That dress is like her way of attesting to her mother’s hard work and love. I respect her so much for wearing it,” she said.
When Muaddi Darraj saw all the images of girls and women, and even entire families of women, sharing their photos, she said she was overwhelmed.
“They are handmade, and it can take months to make one of these dresses. To see these women showing these off in a moment of pride and celebration, I’m excited and inspired by it,” Muaddi Darraj said.
“Our culture gets misrepresented so often. Portraying our culture in this authentic manner is so important to me,” she said.
Women who said they aren’t Palestinian also posted messages of support, some wearing thobes as well, which touched Muaddi Darraj.
Women of Palestinian heritage dressed to support her
Renad Uri is a Palestinian-American who lives in Ramallah, West Bank. She shared a photo of her and her niece wearing their thobes in support of Tlaib. Uri worked on Capitol Hill for two years and for her, Tlaib joining Congress is significant.
“I’ve been shut down by staffers for being Palestinian and for being a woman. It’s amazing for me to now have (Tlaib’s) concrete role that no one can put down or kick out of their offices,” she said. Uri interned with a lobbying organization on Capitol Hill and recently graduated from college.
“It’s so gratifying to see someone that’s a woman and a Palestinian loving our culture and heritage, making sure that everyone sees it and feels it,” the 22-year-old said.
Zaha Hassan got to meet Tlaib on the steps of the Capitol on Thursday. And bonus, Bernie Sanders was there.
Hassan dressed in her thobe and went to Tlaib’s office to greet and welcome her to Washington. Other women did the same, showing up in their family’s thobes. Some traveled from cities across the country.
“I’m very proud to have a Palestinian-American representative from Michigan in Washington. It’s been very difficult for Palestinians to engage in the political process,” said Hassan, who is a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It’s remarkable, historic and gives us hope that Palestinian-Americans can be part of the fabric of this democracy and participating on equal footing with the rest of the citizens in this country,” the 49-year-old said.
Having a Palestinian-American in Congress signals change, but this moment is about more than that, says the social media movement’s creator Muaddi Darraj. She said she’s thrilled Native American women and other women of diverse backgrounds have also been elected to office.
“This is a very American moment,” she said. “We have a Congress that finally looks like our country and that’s incredibly thrilling to me. It’s about time.”