I read a piece Illhan wrote in the Star Tribune regarding her leadership and involvement with a campaign. I automatically admired everything she stood for and couldn’t wait to finally get to know her. Illhan was bold. She is bold. She is brilliant. She is extremely humble. I finally met her when I was doing women’s political training organizing. She didn’t know me, but I knew her. From there we hit it off at East African immigrant feminist talks and gatherings. We just created this sisterhood. I’m from Ethiopia and she’s from Somalia.
I’m from Somalia. I think it was an instant bond because we’re very few here who are interested in politics, woman empowerment, social mobility, and human rights. All those things that matter. There are not many of us who are doing advocacy work. So once a few of us meet each other, it’s like sisterhood—brotherhood from the same cloth.
Minnesota is a melting pot. There’s a lot of diversity, but the diversity doesn’t show up in the way that policies are made and the people that you see representing the state. I think that’s something that we’re interested in is to have the diversity and the voices that we bring being uplifted and being part of the mainstream voice.
In addition to that I’d also like us to be at the table because we disturb the stereotypical image of what a Somali woman is and what an Ethiopian immigrant is. We are at the intersections of many identities. In addition to being an immigrant and from East Africa, we’re also women and we’re also black in America. All of these things influence not only the spaces we take up when we speak but also our presence alone.
We are interested in breaking glass ceilings, but also in making sure that we leave a ladder for the ones coming after us so they don’t have to knock as hard as we’ve knocked. I think a lot of people think of us as very sheltered, demure, not opinionated women who are supposed to be mothers and contained in our homes. We’re out here trying to show people that we also have a diversity and that we’re hard working and we’re strong and we’re independent and we’re vocal.
We’re roaring and we want people to hear. And not just the people in our community, but I think also people nationally, internationally.
Although we carry these characteristics, we’re not the only ones and we’re not the first. Our mothers and their mothers have been fierce and have been advocates and our healers. But they might not have always had the language or the privilege to communicate that, especially in America. So whenever we speak up we’re not only speaking for ourselves but also for the many generations and many other women like us who are also here and who do it everyday, just in a different language in their own spaces and communities.
An elderly woman the other day said to me, “I fight silently so that you are able to have a voice.”