For years, Rana Abdelhamid has been teaching self-defense to women in Queens through her organization, Malikah. This work began after a man attacked Abdelhamid – trying to rip her hijab from her head – when she was a teenager, and it has since become a much larger project with global partners training women with defense techniques and other skills to harness their own strength.
And though it might sound strange, Abdelhamid sees a strong connection between teaching a self-defense class and latest undertaking: running for Congress.
“When I’m teaching a class self-defense class, it’s about allowing people to understand their own power. It’s helping women, and people who have been stripped away from their power in certain moments of their life, to understand that they actually are really strong,” said Abdelhamid, who is challenging longtime incumbent Rep. Carolyn Maloney in the Democratic Primary. “And in parallel, all of our communities hold so much power to concrete change and build a world that’s equal. There’s this type of joy of discovering our collective power that I see within a self-defense class that I hope to bring into this campaign.”
Abdelhamid, a 27-year-old Astoria native and daughter of Egyptian immigrants, formally launched her campaign to become the next representative for New York’s 12th Congressional district two weeks ago. In that announcement, she spoke of inequalities she sees between where she grew up in Queens and the parts of Manhattan that make up much of the district. She sees herself as the candidate who can bridge that gap and create a coalition that could propel her past Maloney and all the way to Congress.
In a recent interview, Abdelhamid talked to Our Town about her candidacy, potential opponents, and a federal approach to police reform:
What made you decide to run for Congress?
I never anticipated at this point in my life I’d be running for Congress. For me, it was really a combination of, over the past year, the ways in which the pandemic really impacted people across the district and across the city so disproportionately. And I didn’t really feel represented, and I felt that my community was kind of being left behind. And I really believe that we deserve more effective representation. I was in conversation with a lot of different organizations, I was in conversation with Justice Democrats (a political organization working to elect candidates from the progressive left), and really understanding that we need the right representative at all levels, which is what inspired me to want to run for office, run for Congress to create that massive structural changes required for us to see more equality.
With the backing from Justice Democrats, which helped candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat establishment Democrats, there have been comparisons made between yourself and those representatives. Do you welcome those comparisons or does that bring a lot of pressure?
I feel really inspired by those representatives, and I’m also aligned on many values. But I also think I’m going to be running a very distinctive campaign. I’m going to be running a campaign very rooted in the district, and that’s my focus right now of how do I run and bring together the most beautiful coalition possible? But, I mean, I really feel inspired by all [those representatives], so it’s very humbling.
You grew up in Astoria and have been a community organizer in Queens. What’s your relationship to Manhattan and that part of the district?
I’m really excited by how expansive the district is. I’m a New Yorker, and so I’ve spent my whole life across the city, in different parts of Manhattan, parts of Queens, and in parts of Brooklyn, and I’ve built relationships and friendships with folks, both as an organizer, but also as someone who grew up here and has built community here. I find this to be a really exciting opportunity to be able to build a very diverse coalition of folks from across different backgrounds to create a vision and a policy platform that is progressive, that would improve the lives of all New Yorkers – not just specific communities in the district.
Last week, the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd has prompted questions of whether President Biden should be taking more of a lead on police reform. For you, what would that reform look like on the federal level?
At the federal level, the ‘94 crime bill, and even just the culture of policing and lack of police reform, historically, has done a lot of harm and damage not only to folks across the country, but particularly to black and brown communities in this district. And for me it’s really thinking, how are we going to channel resources to community services that rethink and reimagine what community safety can to look like, and that doesn’t require policing at every point. Even though there was an instance of accountability ... we haven’t been able to see true justice, and what does justice look like? I think that the investment in community create opportunities for healing in communities, and I think that that deep level of structural change needs to happen at a federal level because it is a massive shift in the way we think about policing in this country overall.
What are some of your other top priorities?
What I’m really running on and building my platform on is focused on health and justice. And I see housing justice as an issue that is intersectional. It has to do with gender justice. [I’ve] worked with domestic violence survivors over the past 10 years, and understand that [they] need shelter, need a place to feel safe when they’re trying to escape an abuser. It’s understanding it’s a climate justice issue, as someone who grew up in an area literally named “asthma alley.” Parts of our districts have some of the highest pollution rates, both in air and water in the city. It’s a food desert issue, it’s a food swap issue. Nobody should have to worry about where they’re going to sleep at night ... because of high rising rent costs in the city. For me it’s thinking about ways in which we’re going to extend eviction moratoriums. We’re going to subsidize local initiatives that ensure proper community development that we’re going to create more job opportunities through infrastructure development, and housing development that is also addressing climate justice as an issue.
Suraj Patel, who has painted himself as the insurgent progressive candidate in the two times he unsuccessfully ran against Maloney in the Democratic Primary, has said he expects to join this race. Are you worried that could split the progressive vote?
[Patel] is someone who’s already run twice, and lost both times and proved he couldn’t be the progressive candidate. Even the Sunrise Movement enthusiastically endorsed Maloney in 2020, which I think was more of an endorsement against Patel. I don’t think he would be able to consolidate the progressive left, and to beat Maloney we are going to need a representative that provides a real contrast to her. And so far I’ve been able to do that.
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