Walking Through an Open Door

17 Dec

Left: Tulsi Gabbard, Congresswoman-elect for Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district.  Right: Mazie Hirono, United States Senator-elect for Hawaii.

by Priya Chhaya

Being the first at anything is always a challenge, especially when it involves breaking glass ceilings.

This January when the new members of the House of Representatives are sworn into the 113th Congress there will be something new, when the first Buddhist in the Senate and the first Hindu in the House are sworn in. Neither Mazie Hirono or Tulsi Gabbard are of South Asian descent, but they are both part of integral religions in the South Asian culture.

I first heard about Tulsi Gabbard a few months ago during one of the local morning Indian television shows. At that time, I remembered thinking idly how nice it would be to have a representative that was a part of my faith—without actually analyzing my reasons for it.

And now I am asking myself the question: So what?

On one hand Gabbard and Hirono will be representing their state of Hawaii, while also voting on issues of importance to the whole country. On the other hand, like many of us in our day-to-day jobs, they wear different hats that are a part of their own individual identity.  These hats, so to speak, influence how they look at issues and think about how citizens interact with one another.

I see it as further evidence that congressional make up will soon be just as diverse as the country that it represents. At a time when our political options seem to be limited having fresh voices, and individuals who come from varied backgrounds, can only help in our decision making processes.

But as an Indian American and a Hindu? Having Gabbard in Congress is one more way that my perspective is addressed more directly. And, being honest with myself, she becomes a spokesperson for one element of my culture that is beyond the now mainstream singing and dancing of Bollywood. She also represents looking beyond stereotypes. To see how someone can represent the issues of the South Asian community, share some of our belief systems, without actually being South Asian.

It’s a lot of pressure for one person to achieve the “first” moniker.

So I guess the answer to my “so what” question is this: as barriers are broken and individuals like Hirono and Gabbard take steps into august halls of the United States Congress they become a proverbial open door. Their success makes it clear that others from every corner of the nation can walk on through and be a part of the governing fabric.

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.


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