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Science & Technology

Viral Hashtag Celebrates Palestinian-American Representation

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Last week, the 116th Congress was sworn in. And it's the most diverse in American history. It includes the first Muslim women, the first Native American women and the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress. And during their swearing in, some new members chose to celebrate their heritage with traditional garments.

Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib, one of two Muslim women sworn into Congress, wore a thobe to honor her Palestinian background. The thobe is a gown with elaborate, cross-stitched embroidery. On social media, her supporters did the same. They tweeted themselves using the hashtag #TweetYourThobe to congratulate the new congresswoman and to share their own stories.

Susan Muaddi Darraj is the founder of that campaign. She's a writer and professor at Harford Community College in Maryland. She joins us now from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Welcome.

SUSAN MUADDI DARRAJ: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: Well, I guess, for those who don't know, can you talk about what a Palestinian thobe is for women?

DARRAJ: Sure. Well, a thobe is - it simply means a dress in Arabic. And they are very special dresses. And they're worn at special occasions - like baptisms, weddings, graduations.

FADEL: Right.

DARRAJ: They're gorgeous. And every region has its own color patterns and particular preferred fabrics. They're made by hand. And they're often passed down from mother to daughter. I thought it was wonderful that the congresswoman decided to wear hers at her swearing-in.

FADEL: So she's really wearing her history on her body, basically.

DARRAJ: Yes, and I believe her dress was, actually, handmade by her mother for her. So that makes it even more special.

FADEL: You came up with this hashtag #TweetYourThobe. How did this all start?

DARRAJ: So I was really excited when I heard that she was going to wear her dress at her swearing-in. And then the backlash on Twitter was immediate and fierce. People were calling it un-American, nasty comments about promoting Sharia law and Palestinian heritage and these sorts of unbelievable things.

FADEL: Because she's Muslim and because she's Arab.

DARRAJ: Because she's Muslim, right. And so what can I say? I mean, for example, there's so much diversity among Palestinians. I'm a Palestinian Christian, so I decided that I wanted to try to promote awareness of what this dress means and a little bit about Palestinian culture. So I had this movement to sort of educate people and also celebrate her achievement. There were people who participated in our campaign who were Jewish, who were Muslim, who were Christian, Buddhists, who were atheists.

FADEL: What were your favorites? Or what were the things that you were seeing?

DARRAJ: I saw several women who posted pictures of their thobes that had been made by their great-grandmothers. One woman posted a thobe that was 100 years old. People asking questions about what the dresses mean. Actually, the other day, we just posted a map of Palestinian areas that somebody made. And on the map is superimposed the pieces of fabric, so you can look at a dress and see where the person is from based on the map.

FADEL: Oh, wow. And what did you tweet?

DARRAJ: I tweeted a picture of myself wearing a beautiful thobe that I just received last year from my aunt. And she had a thobe made for me in the West Bank. And I was thrilled to wear that.

FADEL: So it wasn't just Congresswoman Tlaib who wore cultural garments. Representative Deb Haaland, who's one of the first Native American women in Congress along with Sharice Davids - she wore a traditional Pueblo dress. Representative Ilhan Omar - she's the first woman Somali-American Muslim to wear hijab - the religious head covering - in Congress. So it's a record year for women, women of color. You're a woman of color. What was it like to see that?

DARRAJ: I love seeing these women bring their heritage with them to the government. You know, we need to recognize that there are differences among us, but those differences don't have to be obstacles between us. They can be moments for celebration.

FADEL: That was Susan Muaddi Darraj, founder of the social media campaign #TweetYourThobe.

Thanks for talking with us.

DARRAJ: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.