Why Rana Abdelhamid Chose To Run for Congress

Muslim Girl recently had a chance to chat with Rana Abdelhamid, Justice Democrats’ latest primary challenger who recently declared her campaign to take on Carolyn Maloney in NY-12. If elected, Rana would be one of the youngest members to ever serve in Congress, and the third Muslim woman ever elected to the House.

Rana is the child of working-class Egyptian immigrants. Born & raised in Astoria, rising rents forced Rana and her family to move six times before she turned nine, and eventually forced her father to close down the family store.

After being assaulted at 16 by a man who tried to remove her hijab, Rana used her black belt in karate, and founded a global nonprofit called Malikah. The organization, which Rana still runs, has helped train tens of thousands of women around the world in self-defense, along with organizing and financial literacy.

Rana has led fights against gentrification, rallied support for small businesses, and addressed the challenge of food insecurity in her communities both before and during the pandemic. She’s marched for Black lives and against inhumane immigration policies, and advocated for gender justice. Now, she’s ready to take this fight to Congress.

Here’s what Rana had to share with us.

Muslim Girl: Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to speak with you.  Your entrance into the race against Carolyn Maloney is exciting. It’s an opportunity for more representation of diversity, progressive values, and social justice by the Justice Democrats.  Can you tell us why you are entering the race now, and what you hope to accomplish?

Rana Abdelhamid: I am someone who grew up in this district under Carolyn Maloney’s leadership and I love my community.  I’ve seen under her leadership how rent and health care have become increasingly expensive.  I saw my family have to give up our family business, walk through metal detectors to get into the public schools we attended, and live in areas where public health was impacted by poverty — I literally grew up in a part of the district nicknamed Asthma Alley. Early on in the pandemic, my mom, who is an educator, got sick. We were told it would make more sense to keep her at home rather than send her to the hospital in our neighborhood, even when she couldn’t breathe well, because the hospital in our neighborhood just didn’t have the resources or capacity to care for her. While a lot of communities were impacted by the pandemic, for too many New Yorkers social distancing wasn’t an option, and neither was the ability to stay home and work remotely. Jumping into this race is about creating a community where we all can thrive — no matter where in the city we live. All of us deserve housing justice, education equity, so we don’t have to fight for our basic human rights.

MG: Why have you affiliated yourself with the Justice Democrats?  What about that party speaks to you?

RA: I love the Justice Democrats.  It feels like a really big honor for this campaign, this community, to have the backing of the Justice Democrats, a national progressive group, that has backed candidates like Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar. To know that we have their expertise, but also alignment with their values, and it’s exciting to be working alongside other elected candidates who have a vision. They provide a very progressive platform that I am ready to push for. They have a vision for our county and our respective communities.

MG:  If elected you would be only the third Muslim woman to ever serve in the House. What are your views on the representation of Muslim women in Congress?

RA: I think representation is really important and there has to be depth to that representation. I am going to come to this position rooting myself in my community, someone who grew up working class, as someone who is a New Yorker who went to city schools and values public education, and is a Muslim woman. I want to be unapologetic in my platform to benefit communities who have been underrepresented. These policies will make this city better for all of us. The value of that representation isn’t just about checking a box, having another Muslim woman just for the sake of diversity, but I think there is a value that I offer, a perspective that has not been at the table, from the various identities that I hold. We need more representation to better benefit our communities, to stand up for values that impact everyone.

Jumping into this race is about creating a community where we all can thrive — no matter where in the city we live. All of us deserve housing justice, education equity, so we don’t have to fight for our basic human rights.

MG: I think your campaign is great for all these reasons. To change topic a bit, your work on self-defense with Malika is really interesting.  Can you tell us about how that came originated, and how that formed your views on public policy and community organizing?

RA: I started my organizing journey from my experience, from personal experience, I experienced an attack by a man who tried to rip off my hijab. In response to that I thought that I would teach girls self-defense to see what community safety looks like in the face of hate-based violence and gender-based violence. What does the world look like if we are safe and in our power? I don’t think anyone should have to fear walking down the street because of the color of their skin, going to their synagogue, their mosque, fear of housing insecurity, economic insecurity, or access to health care. It is all tied together. This is a question of what our basic human needs are, what the role of government should be in ensuring that we don’t have to exist with insecurity.  That is the question that I have been organizing around for the last decade for this district, for this city, and for this country. It is a vision that is rooted in security and power for all of us.

MG:  Your work on self-defense relates to your advocacy on racial justice from what I have read. You’ve drawn some criticism for your stance on defunding the police.  What can you tell us about what you think matters in this conversation, in relation to your campaign, as well as the long-standing criticism of racist stop and frisk policies in New York?

RA: Absolutely, I am someone who experienced a violent crime and did not find safety with police. Following September 11th in our community, we were targets of police violence and state sanctioned violence, informants were placed in our mosques, and we were unsafe because of police violence. We have to ask ourselves, what a world look like where we are funding grassroots organizations, social workers, mental health workers, and giving more funding to trauma informed responders rather than just police? We need to ensure we are funding access to quality education, funding civil society organizations that work in the context of rampant violence and that understand community dynamics without the use of violence. I know that that type of world is possible, because I am a self-defense instructor.  I know that if community groups that understand that nuance of community needs, where challenges stem, and how we can fund alternative solutions that we can address these challenges. We know that statistically policing has not been effective at disrupting violent crime. Statistically, people would like to see a more dynamic, more nuanced, more connected approach that looks at healing, education, job security, that looks like creating safety from a place that is proactive and not reactive.

MG: It is about what we think about being human.  We really do need to be more connected to community.  A lot of people know our police system originated in the slave patrols, and our concept of community policing has been racist from the beginning.  Establishing community safety in a way that is holistic and productive is crucial.  

RA: It is about relationships, and so much about relational organizing. It is about establishing the basic level of trust that you can count on people around you.  It’s a process where restorative justice is possible. Communities can have these processes embedded in a way that doesn’t rely on violent institutions. There are ways to support and fund these types of approaches.

MG: The concept of relationship and what it means to count on people, relates to a lot of your platform.  You’ve built your platform in part on working to establish greater equity in housing in your district. Can you tell us more about that? 

RA: This district is very complicated.  It is very diverse — we have the largest public housing in all of North America in Queensbridge. This district includes parts of midtown, the Upper East Side, there are so many historic and ethnic enclaves, parts of Chinatown and Little Egypt, that are working class and trying to make ends meet. Also, a lot of urban professionals who have student loan debt and don’t want to pour the majority of their paycheck into paying rent. These are problems we need to address at the federal level. That is why I support the Green New Deal for Public Housing, and repealing the Faircloth Amendment, we need more public housing to address the housing crisis we’re facing. We need to invest in initiatives like community land trusts, rent control, extending the eviction moratorium — one in three small businesses were at risk for shutting down because of rents they’re unable to pay. I am ready to advocate for and on behalf of so many communities across this district.

MG: Clearly, your work is in line with work that progressives are doing, how to make government care and take care of people in way that makes everyone thrive. Thanks for taking the time to share a little about your campaign.  Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

RA: Just that my vision for this campaign is to build a movement that is rooted in a grassroots approach. One that honors the organizing that has been done across this district, that connects with communities that have been doing powerful work, and to bring that into our policy. I’m excited to be able to cocreate a better future for this very diverse, dynamic district in New York City

MG: Please support Rana’s campaign in any way you can, and thanks Rana for talking with us. 

Visit Rama’s campaign website here or sign up to volunteer here.

Sarah is a social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor in the San Francisco Bay Area, the traditional land of the Ohlone people. She likes to paint, drum, sing, and spend quality time with her family and God.