The Significance of Rashida Tlaib Wearing a Palestinian Thobe

Rashida Tlaib's decision to wear a traditional Palestinian thobe to be sworn into Congress honors both her roots and her politics—and symbolizes a turning point for Palestinian representation in American politics.

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Jan 3 2019, 7:23pm

AP Photo/Al Goldis, File, Padres Hana

As the 116th United States Congress is sworn in today, new representatives from across the country are cementing their place in American history as "firsts." Among them—becoming the first Palestinian-American woman and one of two of the first Muslim women in Congress—is Rashida Tlaib, who is attending the swearing-in ceremony dressed in an intricate thobe, a traditional, embroidered Palestinian garment.

Despite making history twice today, firsts are not new to Tlaib, who, in 2008, became the first Muslim woman to serve in the Michigan state legislature. In consideration of her professional accomplishments, her wardrobe may seem trivial, but the thobe draped over Tlaib's shoulders this afternoon is meant to draw attention.

In mid-December, Tlaib posted an image of the garment, woven delicately with red thread, and small bursts of blue, yellow, and green, to her Instagram. "Sneak peak," she captioned the photo. "This is what I am wearing when I am sworn into Congress. #PalestinianThobe #ForMyYama."

According to Tlaib, in an essay she penned for Elle published this morning, wearing a thobe to the swearing-in ceremony is a way to honor both her roots and her mother, who dropped out of eighth grade in the now-occupied West Bank village of Beit Ur El Foka to embroider dresses in order to make money for her family.

Tlaib's decision to wear a thobe inspired a social media trend started by Palestinian-American writer Susan Muaddi Darraj calling upon people to post photos in their thobes with the hashtag #TweetYourThobe. "I was raised in a Palestinian-American family that celebrated the strength of women," Darraj told the Institute of Middle Eastern Understanding. "Seeing Rashida Tlaib wear her thobe today is a powerful affirmation of that strength. I started #TweetYourThobe to celebrate her achievement and educate our fellow Americans about our culture."

The thobe along with Palestinian embroidery in general, known for its unique patterns and regional styles, have held space in Palestinian culture as "a source of great pride and joy" dating back to 1200 BC, according to the Bethlehem Museum.

While Tlaib's outfit choice today is clearly sentimental, Palestinian pride on a national stage before a Congress with a history of funding and supporting Israel more than any other in the world (over $121 billion to date) is not without political connotations. Tlaib has said that as a Congress member she plans to work to "humanize" Palestinians in the eyes of Americans and fight against AIPAC, a largely influential and controversial pro-Israel lobby. But Tlaib may have her work cut out for her: In 2014, former Congressmen Brian Baird told The New Yorker, "Any member of Congress knows that AIPAC is associated indirectly with significant amounts of campaign spending if you’re with them, and significant amounts against you if you’re not with them.”

On her first day as congresswoman, as she is sworn in on a Qur'an formerly owned by Thomas Jefferson while wearing her Palestinian thobe, eyes are on Tlaib to see how she'll fare in the political battles ahead and, of course, because Palestinian thobes are far more interesting to look at than the average suit.