MENA Women Played An Important Role In This Election

Supermajority Education Fund

November 10, 2020

In her first address as Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris celebrated the efforts of generations of multiracial women before her who made her victory possible. “Black women, Asian, White, Latina, and Native American women throughout our nation’s history,” she said, “have paved the way for this moment tonight.” 

As inclusive and diverse as this list is, Harris omitted a frequently overlooked, yet increasingly powerful electoral group: Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) women. Representing nearly 30 nationalities and ethnicities, as well as a multiplicity of religions and cultures, MENA women played pivotal roles as voters, voter mobilizers, and candidates this election, speaking out louder than ever on the issues that matter to them and their communities. Voter turnout, election results, and early analysis indicate that their engagement made a difference. 

Iranian American Women Responded to Discrimination with Mobilization

This year, MENA women were instrumental in mobilizing communities that have historically been less engaged. Iranian American women, for instance, comprised 65% of the National Iranian American Council’s (NIAC) Beshkan the Vote coordination team that recruited, debriefed, and worked with volunteers — including three female high schoolers. (“Beshkan,” or بشكن in Farsi, is a loud, two-handed snap common to many MENA cultures, used to encourage people to dance during celebrations.) Their efforts paid off: over 200 Iranian Americans volunteered to phone bank in October alone, which was more than the number who participated in all of the 2016 and 2018 elections. In a 48-hour push, NIAC also helped 450 Iranian Americans create individualized voting plans. “Iranian American women led the way for our community this election,” Donna Farvard, NIAC’s National Organizing Director, told Supermajority News.

This increased engagement from Iranian American women, who comprise roughly half of the estimated 500,000 Iranian Americans in the U.S., can in part be traced back to recent policies like the January 2017 Muslim travel ban that suspended or restricted immigration for seven Muslim-majority nations. “By and large,” Farvard said, “the largest group of people impacted by the ban are Iranian nationals,” with a 92% decrease in visas issued between 2017 and 2018. Little wonder, then, that 76% of Iranian Americans polled in 2019 opposed the ban, even though only 42% of the respondents identified as Muslim. 

By inaccurately conflating nationality with religion, policies like the travel ban left Iranian Americans and other MENA communities more vulnerable to the pervasive Islamophobia present in the U.S. since 9/11. Over 60% of Arab Americans, in fact, identify as Christian. As Egyptian American Rutgers law professor Sahar Aziz, whose work centers on how national security laws impact racial/ethnic and religious minorities, explained to Supermajority News, “Your [assumed] religion colors you racially.” Iranian women reported feeling especially targeted in a a September 2020 survey, with 86% feeling unsafe because of ethnic discrimination, compared to only 69% of men, and 70% actually experiencing discrimination, compared to only 50% of men. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 96% of all of those polled said they planned to vote. 

MENA Muslim Women Organized a Historic Turnout for Their Faith Community

For the estimated 3.45 million Muslims living in the U.S., the Muslim ban was the most important policy issue, according to an August 2020 survey. In fact, a 2017 report by Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR) directly linked 464 incidents of anti-Muslim abuse, or 18% of the 2017 total, to the Muslim travel ban; 35% of incidents were perpetrated by government agencies such as ICE, clearly marking Muslim Americans — and, by association, both Muslim and non-Muslim MENA Americans — as targets of government-sanctioned discrimination. 

Such policies influenced both the creation and the success of voter mobilization campaigns like My Muslim Vote, organized by the nation’s largest Muslim digital advocacy group, MPower Change. Co-founded in 2016 by Women’s March on Washington co-chair and Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour, MPower Change worked hard to mobilize a diverse faith community that has historically had lower turnout than other faiths. As with NIAC’s Beshkan the Vote, “it is women who are really holding it down,” as MPower Change Campaign Director Kifah Shah told Supermajority News before Election Day. 

Exit polls have shown these efforts to be a resounding success. CAIR reported a record 84% turnout among Muslim Americans, only 5% less than the 89% that said they planned to vote in October. While removing the Muslim travel ban topped the list of the desired policy changes, moreover, so-called “universal” domestic issues like Medicare for All and gun control ranked in the top five. The takeaway, Shah told Supermajority News, is that “Muslim folks care about the same issues as you, no matter your background.”

Arab American Women Voted in Solidarity with Minority Groups

In contrast to Iranian Americans and Muslim Americans more broadly, the estimated 3.7 million Arab Americans in the U.S. have long been a highly engaged constituency, due in part to the Arab American Institute’s (AAI) popular “Yalla Vote” campaign that has existed since 1996. (“Yalla,” or يلا,, in Arabic, means “come on.”) “We’ve always skewed higher than the national average when it comes to voter turnout,” AAI Executive Director Maya Berry told Supermajority News. Record turnout this year in areas with high Arab American populations, like Michigan’s Wayne County, bear this out, flipping the state blue after Trump won in 2016 by less than 12,000 votes.  

According to an October AAI poll, the issue that mattered the most among Arab Americans when it came to the presidential vote was race relations; 40% of those surveyed choose it as their key issue, while jobs and healthcare came in at a distant second and third, at 23% and 21%, respectively. “For [race relations] to translate the way that it did in this poll among your average Arab American voters,” Berry said, “is an indication of how much this country is dealing with this issue.” With 70% of respondents expressing a positive view of this summer’s demonstrations in support of Black lives, and 39% agreeing that policing enforces systemic racism, indicates that Arab Americans considered racial injustices against other minorities as important as anti-Muslim or anti-Arab discrimination against themselves. As Hiba B., a Muslim Arab -American woman born in Beiruit and raised in Brooklyn, told Supermajority News, “I support causes and candidates that help marginalized people from all backgrounds,” she said. She also stressed the importance of her gender in determining her vote. “If a politician actively makes it a point to show that they don’t respect women,” she said, “they don’t get my vote no matter what.”

Of course, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias also factored into the importance of race relations for Arab Americans this election. “American culture is so deeply anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-Semitic in pockets,” Arab-Jewish voter Susie Nakley told Supermajority News. “It’s scary.” Anti-MENA violence was one of the key issues that motivated her to vote Democratic. “We are not target practice,” she said.   

MENA Women Won Races This Year, Too.

In reflecting on her many years advocating on behalf of the Arab American community, Berry stressed that “the foundations of our political empowerment and civic engagement have long been relying on the strength and the power and the organizing of Arab American women,” citing examples like retired Representative Pat Danner, former Secretary of Health and Human Services (under Bill Clinton) Donna Shalala, and fellow Dearborn, Michigan native, Palestinian American, and “Squad” member Rashida Tlaib (who won reelection to the House with nearly 78% of the vote). 

While Tlaib is currently the most high-profile MENA woman in national office, other candidates made waves this election year. Iranian American Sima Ladjevardian ran a surprisingly competitive race against popular Texas’s 2nd District House incumbent Dan Crenshaw, as did Lebanese American Lulu Seilaky in the Lone Star State’s 3rd District. While both candidates lost their races, Ladjevardian said it was still gratifying to see younger MENA women inspired by her candidacy. “Two young girls came up to me [after an event] and said that they understand that anything is possible for a woman no matter what their background is,” she told Supermajority News. “I had grandmothers call because they see their granddaughters doing it.”

Professor Aziz herself won a seat on her local school board in Westfield, New Jersey. While her platform emphasized remote learning and budget resources, she was keenly aware of the opportunity presented to her as a Egyptian American Muslim woman. “I talk about being Muslim, because that is also part of the way you [undermine] Islamophobia,” she said. “We [MENA women] have to be visible in ordinary ways.”

For MENA women “to be visible in ordinary ways” means to be seen in all their complexity as opposed to being erased by government classifications or flattened by social stereotypes — to be recognized and celebrated in speeches like that of the Vice President-elect on Saturday night. The MENA women who spoke to Supermajority News emphasized again and again that they are not a monolith, and that their ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural differences are strengths. “It’s such a beautiful American story,” Berry said.