Every four years the US elects a new president. It is a process that is scrutinised the world over. But the democratic system includes many other, smaller contests which regularly reflect the nation's character and mood.

The mid-west state of Minnesota was the first to elect and then re-elect a Muslim-American to Congress. And although it was a major milestone for US democracy, it did not necessarily indicate a wave of broad acceptance.

Farheen Hakeem, a maths teacher and girl scout troop leader, wanted to show her students and scouts that democracy is more than just casting a vote and that it can also be about faith.

In the following account filmmaker Sarah Zaman looks at a young Muslim woman that runs for office in Minnesota and tests the system.

Farheen Hakeem is anything but a Barbie doll, but it was a Muslim version of Barbie that lead us to her. In the spring of 2006, we were in Gainesville, Florida, looking for a subject for a documentary when our research led us to a Muslim Barbie doll called Razanne. Among various styles and themes, Razanne also appeared as a Muslim girl scout.


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We wondered how popular girl scouting really was among young Muslims in the US. When we googled "Muslim girl scout" we found articles about Farheen leading groups of Somali Muslim girl scouts all over the internet.

Pictures of Farheen showed her wearing a white hijab and t-shirts with messages like "this is what a Muslim feminist looks like" and "don't hate me because I am Muslim and beautiful". These offered us a glimpse into her personality - opinionated, unapologetic and unafraid to make a statement.

Passion for politics

But Farheen did not just channel her personality through her clothes. She had another passion - politics.

When we called Farheen she was not only the full-time leader of the first official Muslim Girl Scouts Initiative of the Girl Scouts Council of America but also the Green Party candidate for Hennepin County Commissioner District Four in the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The daughter of immigrant parents from India, Farheen was born and brought up on the north side of Chicago. She is the first Muslim woman to run for office in Minnesota. A year before running for the office of county commissioner, and at just 30 years old, Farheen had run for the Minneapolis mayor's office.

While she ultimately lost the mayoral race she did come third in the primaries with 14 per cent of the vote and this gave her the the confidence to run for office again.

When we filmed her she was running for the office of county commissioner and was up against the 16-year Democratic incumbent, Peter McLaughlin - the same man who had beatern her in the mayoral primaries the year before, but who had himself lost to another candidate in the final race.

But in the year since the mayoral primaries, Farheen had gone from a political unknown to a local celebrity working to bring her Muslim community out from the shadows of terrorism and racism. Her campaign, surprisingly, was not run by local Muslims but by a few non-Muslim, white men. Among her sources of moral support were her family, a diverse group of friends and young girl scouts.

Shifting political arena

Running for office as a young, single Muslim woman on a Green Party ticket was definitely unusual and even the city of Minneapolis itself, with its large Somali immigrant population, presented a unique backdrop to the story.

The city has accepted its new dwellers - many of whom fled civil war in their country during the 1990s and lived in Kenyan refugee camps before arriving in the US. But questions still remain about the extent to which young Muslims born or growing up in the US are embraced as part of the fabric of American society.

There may not be a single clear answer to those questions. We saw one of Farheen's hijab-wearing Muslim girl scouts explain how she felt when she thought a caucasian man had signaled his daughter to take farm supplies from a caucasian women instead of her at the Minnesota State Fair. But if skin colour or religious symbols mattered to some, they did not to the men and women of various ethnicities and sexual orientations who supported Farheen's bid for office.

What was clear was that as a Muslim girl scout troop leader Farheen believed it was her job to guide a new generation of young American Muslims to balance their American and Islamic identities without having to compromise. As a political leader it was Farheen's mission to give a voice to an often misunderstood community post 9/11.

As we followed Farheen while she door knocked in the evenings, put up campaign signs around town in the dead of the night, debated with her opponent, sold girl scout cookies and waited with bated breath on primary and election nights another thing was clear - this race was not about winning or losing; it was about making room in the US political arena for a new voice and a new point of view.

Today, Farheen is the co-chair of the Green Party - the highest ranking in the US for any Muslim woman or any Muslim in any political party.

On November 2, 2010 she is running for the Minnesota governor's office. Before this she also contested the office of Minnesota state pepresentative for District 61B, finishing with 30 per cent of the vote.

Farheen is also a foster parent to one of her former non-Muslim girl scouts and continues to volunteer as a youth leader.

Bismillah aired from Tuesday, November 2, 2010.

Source: Al Jazeera