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‘Time For Ilhan’ documentary details congresswoman’s first rise to political office

Ilhan Omar was sitting at home, twisting her daughter’s hair into pigtails, when the young girl proudly proclaimed that her mom was president.

“I’m president? What makes me president?” asked Omar, who at the time had not yet won any campaign for political office.

“You take care of your kids. That’s what makes you president,” her daughter said.

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s unlikely journey from Somali refugee to upset winner in the 2016 Minnesota Legislature race – including that touching opening scene with her daughter – is captured in fascinating detail in the documentary film, “Time for Ilhan.” The film is coming to the Capri Theatre at 1045 E. Fairview Ave. in Montgomery, Alabama, at 2 p.m. on March 7.

The free screening in Montgomery is sponsored by the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC). A question-and-answer session will follow with film director Norah Shapiro and Nancy Abudu, who directs the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group.

“We are pleased to sponsor the film ‘Time for Ilhan’ here in Montgomery, the birthplace of the civil rights movement,” said Tafeni English, the CRMC director. “The film challenges the preconceived notions about women of color, refugees and Muslims, and captures the rise of an American political star. Along the way, it demonstrates what is possible in a democracy that truly represents the rich diversity of all people in America.” 

The first Somali American woman ever elected to Congress, Omar is famously a member of “The Squad,” with three other women of color who were elected to the House of Representatives in 2018. She is also one of the first two Muslims ever elected to Congress.

After fleeing Somalia when she was 8 years old, Omar lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for four years before coming to the U.S. 

Video footage in the documentary captures Omar as a young, hijab-wearing mother of three who takes on two formidable opponents – including a 43-year incumbent who is a trailblazer in her own right – for a seat in the Minnesota Legislature. As part of that journey, Omar challenges her party’s status quo while defying lingering gender norms in her own Muslim community.

The film shadows Omar and her scrappy group of dedicated campaign staffers throughout the dramatic uphill battle of the Minnesota Legislature campaign, busting stereotypes along the way. 

In the film, Omar’s Somali American husband is shown leaving his job in order to take care of the children at home while Omar campaigns for office.

“Time for Ilhan” was released in 2018, before Omar was elected to Congress and before she joined “The Squad” along with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. The other members of “The Squad” are not shown in the documentary because it was filmed and released before any of them joined Congress.

As a member of Congress, Omar has attracted a great deal of attention, drawing rebuke on both sides of the aisle for criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. She has become one of the most outspoken critics of human rights abuses in a number of predominantly Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and Sudan. She is an ardent advocate of women’s rights and LGBTQ rights in places such as Brunei.

The first woman to wear a hijab in Congress, she has drawn vile attacks from President Trump, including at a campaign rally in her home state of Minnesota. But she has also fired back on Twitter saying, “His hate is no match for our movement.” 

Although she has faced immense pressure to fit into the neat categories where new members of Congress are consigned, she refuses to conform.

“Ilhan is remarkable,” said Shapiro, the film’s director. “She’s fearless and I think whether you agree with her politics or not, it’s really important to have people in leadership who are fearless, whether she makes mistakes sometimes or not. It’s a quality I especially value right now that she’s willing to take a hard stance. She’s tireless.”

Photo by Chris Newberry