Omar Went to Istanbul for Conference With Left-Wing Activists

Congresswoman appeared alongside 'abortions beyond laws and borders' group

Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar / Getty Images
March 14, 2019

Ilhan Omar attended a 2017 conference in Istanbul with left-wing advocates, including a pro-abortion group that calls for "abortions beyond laws and borders," and activists who aim to "challenge patriarchal structures."

Rolling Stone recently lauded the congresswoman, who has repeatedly made anti-Semitic comments, as "everything Trump is trying to ban." Omar told the magazine she was afraid to leave the country in early 2017 after President Donald Trump signed an executive order restricting travel from seven Middle Eastern countries the administration identified as terrorist hotbeds.

"I had just gotten sworn in [to the Minnesota Legislature] two weeks before," Omar said, remarking on the executive order 13769, signed on Jan. 27, 2017. "There was lots of chaos, people being stopped at the airports. I had a flight scheduled a week after to speak at a human-rights conference in Turkey. I didn't know whether I could go."

"My father said, 'I looked at the lineup at this human-rights conference—they're risking everything. You are not gonna sit home,'" Omar said. "I ended up going."

The conference was in Istanbul, Turkey, which was not affected by the travel ban. Nevertheless, Omar used her upcoming appearance at the International Human Rights Defenders Conference, which was organized by the local Turkish government and the British Embassy in Ankara, as a cudgel to attack the president.

"As an elected official Ilhan Omar has some privilege but she expressed her own concerns for not wanting to leave the country for a speaking engagement in Turkey that will occur in a few days," according to Mshale, an African community newspaper based in Minneapolis, which reported on a protest Omar organized against the travel ban in January 2017. "After already dealing with profiling and extra scrutiny Omar said she is not sure if leaving the country is worth the risk of possibly not being able to return immediately after her engagement."

"[Omar] says she's reconsidering traveling to Turkey for an upcoming speaking engagement," the Associated Press reported at the time. "Turkey is not on the list of countries in Trump's order, but Omar fears she'll run into trouble with immigration officials when she returns home."

Omar seemingly had no trouble, and attended the conference held at the Nazım Hikmet Culture and Art House in Istanbul on Feb. 4. She gave an interview while overseas to Kurdistan 24, bashing the president's executive order.

The agenda for the conference, organized by the Şişli Municipality, lists Omar as the first member of the U.S. Congress to wear a headscarf, according to a loose translation.

"In particular, the conference will focus on the fight against discrimination based on gender," according to a write up two days before the event.

An annual report released by the Şişli government said the International Human Rights Advocacy Conference brought together activists "in order to make the struggles that are going on in different countries visible and to open space for sharing experiences." Two hundred and sixty-four people attended.

"We are working to make life easier for Syrian refugees," Osman Korkmaz, deputy mayor of Şişli, said at the conference according to a translated article published in the Turkish press.

Omar appeared on a panel, "Bir insan neyi değiştirebilir?" or "What can a person change?"

Ruhat Sena Akşener, who is director for Turkey Amnesty International, moderated the panel. Ayta Sözeri, a trans woman activist and actor, delivered an opening speech. Sözeri said it was scary growing "up in a patriarchal family."

Also on the panel was Sherin Khankan, a feminist imam who opened the first female mosque in Denmark. In an interview following the event, Khankan says her goal is fighting "Islamophobia" and challenging "patriarchal structures."

"Our aim is to fight the growing Islamophobia in the world—not only in Europe— but to change the concept of Islam, which is seen as an oppressive religion," she said. "We want to show that Islam is a religion of peace and we want to show that the Muslim majority is peaceful people and worship peacefully."

Omar describes herself as an "intersectional feminist," and discussed "dismantling patriarchy" during an event with Witness for Peace, a radical anti-Israel and anti-American group.

The panel featured Nazir Afzal, who was the first Muslim to serve as Chief Prosecutor of the Royal Prosecutor's Office in England, and Saadet Özkan, a teacher in the İzmir province of Turkey who received an International Woman of Courage Award in 2017 for exposing sexual abuse in her school.

Natasha Walter, a feminist and refugee activist from the United Kingdom, also spoke on the panel with Omar. Walter is the author of several feminist books, including, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism. Walter argues being a feminist includes buying dolls for your son, and has given lectures stating that "feminism must speak up for all women, must cross borders and classes, may pull us into truly radical change."

The subject of the only other panel at the conference was "Transformational Social Initiatives," and featured Hazal Atay, a pro-abortion activist from a Dutch pro-abortion group Women on Waves, also known as Women on Web.

The organization's website features an explainer of "how to do an abortion with pills" on its homepage, as well as cartoon illustrations, and articles on "Abortion Robots" delivering abortion pills.

"Every year 42 million women have an abortion," Women on Web states. "Show your face, share your story, donate your money and help women around the world get access to safe abortions."

Atay is described as a "passionate and committed feminist," who has been "working in the field of sexual and reproductive rights for the last four years."

Atay wrote earlier this year that Women on Web has carried the "abortion battle online," and has consulted 200,000 women seeking abortions, and helped facilitate 50,000 abortions by providing "medical-abortion supplies for home use."

"By navigating around restrictive laws, such organisations have been able to provide safe abortions beyond laws and borders," she said.

The one-day conference also included a "Country For Syria Concert," with a performance by a band made up of American, Czech, English, Spanish and Turkish musicians, who combine "American Country classics with Middle Eastern melodies."

Omar has not commented publicly about her appearance at the conference. Seven months after her visit to Istanbul, President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hosted Omar at a closed press meeting in New York.

Published under: Ilhan Omar , Turkey