‘Our diversity is our strength’: Movita Johnson-Harrell will be Pa. Legislature’s first female Muslim lawmaker

By: - March 13, 2019 3:24 pm

Movita Johnson-Harrell (Courtesy campaign Facebook page)

On Tuesday, voters in West Philadelphia elected the first Muslim woman to serve in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly.

Democrat Movita Johnson-Harrell, an anti-gun violence advocate and former staffer for District Attorney Larry Krasner, won two-thirds of the vote in a four-way special election for the 190th District.

When she is sworn in March 25, Johnson-Harrell will be one of three practicing Muslim* members of the Legislature. The other two are Rep. Jason Dawkins and Sen. Sharif Street, both Philadelphia Democrats.

“I think this is a good sign for Pennsylvania,” Johnson-Harrell told the Capital-Star after her win. “Our diversity is our strength.”

She added that her election, as well as the election of the first two Muslim women to Congress last year, are a show of force against discrimination and bigotry.

During her campaign, Movita Johnson-Harrell told PhillyMag she would be the first Muslim woman elected to the state House.

In fact, she is believed to be the first Muslim woman to serve in the entire General Assembly.

Both House Parliamentarian Clancy Meyer and Senate Parliamentarian Megan Martin could not recall any other Muslim women who previously serve in either chamber.

Meyer, who has worked in the Capitol since the 1970s, said he was “virtually certain” Johnson-Harrell is the first.

Dawkins, the first Muslim known to serve in the General Assembly, said Johnson-Harrell would be a welcome addition to the building’s fledgling caucus.

Fighting by himself, he was not able to pass a resolution honoring the Muslim holy month of Ramadan until his fourth year in the General Assembly. Three previous attempts died in committee.

Johnson-Harrell wears a hijab, a head covering, which Dawkins said could help break down stereotypes for Muslim women just as he has for Muslim men.

“If you see me as a colleague every day, you haven’t felt threatened by me,” Dawkins said. “So don’t allow a news article or news station to tell you that somehow I am dangerous when you have never had that experience when you dealt with me.”

While Dawkins did not name names, at least one sitting member of the General Assembly has made Islamophobic statements in the past.

In 2008, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, voted against a resolution to recognize a Ahmadiyya Muslim Community convention because “Muslims do not recognize Jesus Christ as God,” he said on the House floor.

Metcalfe — with 20 Republican co-sponsors — also advanced legislation in 2016 designed to stop an “alarming trend”: the introduction of “Sharia law” into U.S. courts. The bill was part of a nationwide push by the American Laws for American Courts project.

“Driven by hate groups, the ALAC initiative has created unfounded fear, and has sought to demonize Islam and American Muslims across the nation through legislation and rhetoric,” the Southern Poverty Law Center writes.

The bill was voted out of the House State Government Committee on a party-line vote, but was not considered after that. The American Bar Association opposes anti-Sharia measures.

“We can’t focus too much of our time on those who never want to learn or increase their knowledge about a subject,” Dawkins said.

All three lawmakers are from Philadelphia, which is home to a large population of black American Muslims.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to replace the phrase “openly Muslim” with “practicing Muslim.”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.