Habon Abdulle

WOW: Encouraging East African Women Leaders

Photo by Sarah Whiting

Habon Abdulle wanted a change. The Muslim Somali immigrant wanted more East African women in leadership positions around the Twin Cities. “I got tired of seeing more East African or Somali men running for office, and women always working behind the scenes on the campaign or being a campaign manager,” she says. 

In 2012, she called friends and acquaintances interested in civil leadership to see what could be done to bring more women into politics. A group met over dinner in 2012 to discuss who in the East African community could run for office or get appointed to civic leadership positions. Monthly meetings continued.

Two women in the group wanted to run for public office, but “they were hesitant because no one ever told them that they were good enough or had the required credentials to run for office,” Abdulle says. 

One of those women was Ilhan Omar. She couldn’t envision herself in the role of political candidate. “In most countries, including the United States, politics is seen as a man’s thing,” Omar says. “I think it’s easy for voters to think of supporting a man in campaigns.” 

Abdulle didn’t let Omar get away that easy. “We talked to her and encouraged her and uplifted her and finally she decided to run for office,” Abdulle says. 

It took several years, but in 2016 Omar became the first Somali-American legislator elected to office in the United States. In 2018, she is running for the U.S. House of Representatives for Minnesota’s Fifth District. 

Seeing Omar’s success inspired Abdulle to make the community group a formal organization, which would provide it with legitimacy and structure. In 2013, Abdulle applied and received a Bush Fellowship. By 2015, the group legally became Women Organizing Women (WOW). 

Changing Minds, One at a Time

Several barriers stand in the way of East African women running for office. First, there’s the cultural assumption in the U.S. that women should not be in political leadership. Interestingly, women living in Somalia tend to be more progressive than those living in Minneapolis, Abdulle says. 

She explains the contradiction this way: “Diaspora immigrants, when they move to a new country, the most fundamental and conservative aspects of that culture are the ones we try to preserve. Because of guilt, because we are living in a new society, because maybe we feel if we don’t preserve our culture we will not be who we used to be.”

Racism, Islamophobia, and simple ignorance further complicate matters. “There’s this notion that Muslim women or African women don’t have a desire to have a powerful position because the culture or religion oppress them,” Abdulle says. In conversations with people about supporting WOW, she has often heard the comment, “We thought your religion prohibited women to even step out of their house.”

One part of WOW’s activism involves talking to the elderly male and female members of East African communities to ask them why they think women shouldn’t be in leadership positions. One of the top responses: promoting male candidates from the community is radical enough.

Omar says Abdulle has created a space where community 
members can talk through their internalized barriers and “see 
those barriers as not being real, but being something that we are creating for ourselves,” Omar says. “If we really believed in our ability to succeed, then we could succeed. For me, having someone who really believes in our ability to take on this challenge and see us through it has been wonderful.”

A Tailored Approach

Abdulle continues to push to change rigid perspectives. So far, the Minneapolis-based WOW has worked with more than 80 women, though Rep. Omar remains the most prominent and public figure to emerge from the group. 

Over the years, Abdulle has realized that asking East African women to show up at a certain time and place was ineffective. These women may work multiple jobs, suffer from mobility issues, or lack childcare. 

Now WOW engages women at East African gathering spaces, like mosques, at events, and through word-of-mouth. The organization educates women by holding meetings in convenient locations, like the party rooms of apartment buildings where large populations of East Africans live.

“I think once the camaraderie builds around the idea,” says Omar, “it’s easy for individuals like myself to think there is actually support, and to take the leap knowing that there is a group of like-minded women that will have your back.”

Even if women don’t feel called to leadership or politics, Abdulle insists they can still make an impact in the Twin Cities and in their communities.

“We know that in the United States, much social change has come about through voting; therefore, that’s what we tell them,” Abdulle says. “You have to go and participate. Political participation is not necessarily taking a leadership position. They have to vote if they want their voice to be heard.”

Details: wownetwork.org

RevivingSisterhood.org (Muslim women)

aaopmn.org (Asian American Organizing Project)

mn.gov/mcla (Latina policy)

nativevote-mn.org (Native voting rights)

Ilhan Omar says Habon Abdulle has created a space where community members can talk through their internalized barriers and “see those barriers as not being real, but being something that we are creating for ourselves.”