On Saturday, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the 27-year-old founder of MuslimGirl.com, made a big announcement to her nearly 77,000 Instagram followers: She is running for Congress. In doing so, she has become the first Muslim woman on the ballot for federal office in New Jersey’s history. She’s also projected to be the youngest woman to run for Congress in 2020.
The announcement was accompanied by a black-and-white photo showing Al-Khatahtbeh’s hair tucked into a hijab, her barrettes bearing the words “Vote 2020” and a tagline promising to “make democracy happen.” It was met with thousands of likes and hundreds of comments from other female media heavyweights and high-profile activists, including author Amy Cuddy and Rise founder Amanda Nguyen: “Wish I could vote for you!,” “Yes you are!,” “Amani!!! Thank you.”
Al-Khatahtbeh is running to unseat 16-term incumbent Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in New Jersey’s 6th Congressional District. But her followers likely know her as the woman behind MuslimGirl.com, which she started as a blog in 2009 when she was 17. Now, it’s an online magazine with a large global audience, and its founder is well-recognized, too: Al-Khatahtbeh founded Muslim Women’s Day and created the hashtag #MuslimGirlArmy; was featured in Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list; and sat on a panel moderated by former president Bill Clinton.
Sadaf Syed, an author and photojournalist living in Chicago, has been following MuslimGirl.com for several years. She says she wasn’t surprised when Al-Khatahtbeh announced her run for office: “She seems to understand that time is of an essence and being a woman of color, and a daughter of a Jordanian immigrant and a Palestinian refugee, she is relatable and will have a lot to offer as a congresswoman,” Syed wrote in an email.
Al-Khatahtbeh’s announcement comes at a critical moment. As the United States is in the midst of a presidential election year, the coronavirus pandemic is raging across the country — and New Jersey has the second highest case count after New York. Political campaigning is moving online and states are postponing their primaries, and Al-Khatahtbeh is positioning herself as a leader amid the chaos. “This moment is a stark reminder that we can no longer wait for incremental change. Our leadership can and must put the health and well-being of working families and the most vulnerable among us front and center,” she said in a statement. Al-Khatahtbeh could not be reached Monday for an interview.
Although the current moment is unprecedented in terms of both campaigning and voting, Al-Khatahtbeh’s run does feel reminiscent of the recent past. In 2018, as part of a historic wave of female candidates from diverse backgrounds, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) became the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Al-Khatahtbeh is running on a platform of liberal policies championed by Omar and Tlaib, too, such as the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all.
Al-Khatahtbeh recognized the resonances in a Saturday interview with Katie Couric, who asked specifically about the influence of congresswomen such as Omar and Tlaib. “I’m very lucky to have incredible examples in Congress already, with the representatives that we do have,” Al-Khatahtbeh said. “Us just having elected the most diverse and the highest number of women in Congress in history that have really blown the doors wide open of what the possibilities are.”
Still, women remain vastly underrepresented in Congress: They made up only 25 percent of the Senate and 23.2 percent of the House of Representatives in 2019.
And this won’t be an easy challenge for Al-Khatahtbeh, according to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. Al-Khatahtbeh is running in New Jersey’s 6th Congressional District alongside three other challengers and Pallone; the primary is set for June 2. The district is where Al-Khatahtbeh, a first-generation American, grew up. It’s also where she attended college at Rutgers.
Although New Jersey itself is “well-positioned” to elect a Muslim woman to Congress — it’s a “very diverse” blue state, Walsh says — running against incumbents, especially one who’s as well-liked as Pallone, would be difficult for anyone. (The 6th District is particularly diverse, with higher-than-average percentages of Asian and Hispanic populations.)
New Jersey’s state party also plays a powerful role in the primaries by endorsing candidates, which brings in resources such as get-out-the-vote efforts, polling and mailing.Walsh says that Pallone, who has the backing of the state party, often gets challenged in the district, so he “campaigns hard.” That’s what sets this race apart from one like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.); unlike 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley, whom Ocasio-Cortez defeated in the 2018 primary, Pallone “has paid a lot of attention to his district,” says Walsh.
Even if she loses, Walsh says, it could be a boon if Al-Khatahtbeh “runs this race well in this moment.” It may spell a promising future for her in politics: “When women candidates run in these really difficult races, it’s about thinking what’s the goal. Obviously the goal is to win, but you also think about what someone can get out of this beyond this one race.”
Historic, age-defying elections are continuing to happen across the country. Take Nadia Mohamed, a 23-year-old Muslim refugee who came to the United States when she was 10. Mohamed decided to run for City Council in St. Louis Park, Minn., last year, inspired by women like Omar, who had been successful on the national stage. Mohamed won — and made history as her city’s first Muslim and first Somali member.
The most important thing young women of color interested in running for office can do is believing themselves that they’re capable, Mohamed says:
Even as she began campaigning while she was finishing up college, she had to convince herself, and others, that she deserved to win.
Watching the votes come in live on election night “was insane,” Mohamed says. “The little girl who came to America 13 years ago would just be looking at me in awe.”
Of course, the usual tactics that a little-known, young candidate might employ aren’t available to Al-Khatahtbeh during the pandemic. Walsh, of CAWP, says that political advisers would usually tell candidates like her to go door-to-door and get name recognition that way. Experts are “very uncertain” about what the campaigning landscape will look like. For now, Al-Khatahtbeh’s campaign said it will launch a digital “Campaign Quaran-Tour” live-stream schedule.
Al-Khatahtbeh’s large following certainly can’t hurt, either; the outpouring of support from other Muslim women has been obvious. As Syed, the MuslimGirl.com fan, puts it: “I’m a sucker for women who chase after their dreams and make it a reality.”