Arab American Women and the US Gender Discourse

mai abdul Rahman                             March 2015

Arab American women and their daughters celebrate Women’s International Day (courtesy of the Anti Discrimination Committee-ADC).

Arab American women and their daughters celebrate Women’s International Day (courtesy of the Anti Discrimination Committee-ADC).

During the entire month of March, Americans celebrated the remarkable achievements of American women, and the important role the US feminist movement has played in shaping gender discourse in the US. No one can deny the relevance of the US feminist movement in advancing American women’s rights. Likewise, none can dispute that since the 1800′s Arab American women have continued to push the glass ceiling, yet few are aware of their significant contributions in the US. While the dominant Eurocentric influence on gender discourse in the US, heavily contributes to this glaring omission, however it is not the sole factor.

Arab American women joined the US labor force several decades before the emancipation of women in the US. In the late 18th and early 19th Century, Arab American women were business owners responsible for seeding numerous profitable business enterprises across the US. They were America’s first wholesale women entrepreneurs whose successful business ventures enriched their communities and their states’ tax coffers. And while their American experience was considerably more difficult than most American women, a considerable number of Arab American women were first to break the gender barrier. As a group they are highly educated, have higher labor force participation rates than most Americans, and earn higher incomes than average Americans. So what are the reasons that make it possible to ignore the contributions of Arab American women? And what are the specific factors that contribute to their omission from the US gender discourse? The answer is complex and multi fold.

Historically, the US feminist movement was largely shaped by the US colonial paradigm. From inception American feminists were dismissive of the role and contributions of other American women. Nonetheless, in recent years the US feminist movement embraced the gender narrative of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinas, and Native Americans. The inclusion of these four distinct ethnic classifications are certainly a positive step. Notwithstanding, by design it excludes Arab American women.

The US feminist scheme, which adheres to four distinct racial identities (African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinas, and Native Americans), by design is narrow and limiting. Intentionally or unintentionally the US feminist movement overlooks Arab American women’s diverse racial identity and broad cultural affinity. Arab American women ancestral roots stretch from the Atlas Mountains of North Africa to the oldest inhabited cities along the Mediterranean Sea. Arab American women are White, Brown, Black and every shade and color in between. They are atheists, agnostics, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

Arab American women represent a rich ethnic mosaic, and a complex cultural and faith diversity. Accordingly, as a group Arab American women don’t neatly fit within the US feminists’ scheme. Furthermore, Arab American women’s fluid and unique ability to adopt overlapping ethnicities allows them to identify with a host of social and political struggles that are often neglected in the US.

Consequently, Arab American women are more aligned with the global feminist perspective that is committed to social justice as a means to advance women’s social, cultural, and political rights. Their view of gender equality encompasses the domestic and local domain, and includes the universal struggle for social justice, and equality- nationally and internationally.

So why are a swath of American women whose presence in the US predates the 19th Century remain an enigma? Some assume that the horrific 9/11 attack that violently killed thousands of Americans including Arab Americans is the reason for the recent rise in discriminatory attitudes towards Arab American women, but history shows these biases existed prior to 9/11.

Syrian Immigrants at Ellis Island, ca. 1906 .Courtesy of Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Syrian Immigrants at Ellis Island, ca. 1906 (courtesy of Ellis Island Immigration Museum).

In fact, American negative attitudes towards Arab American women are rooted in common racial biases that our country has suffered since its inception. In July 16, 1901 Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette carried an article entitled  “Don’t Like Arabs,” where Arab Americans were collectively smeared and openly attacked. While it is true that during that period America’s middle class overall projected a patronizing attitudes towards most immigrants, nonetheless Arab American women suffered more disdain than most. Interestingly, the earliest Arab American women were Christian, but their Christian faith did not spare them. As a matter of fact, racial biases towards Arab American women were as common then as they are today of all Arab Americans whether Christian or Muslim.

Early Arab American women were viewed as part of the Eastern Christian culture of Bethlehem, imagesJerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut- their ancestral claim to these Biblical cities was of no help to them or their community. These first Arab American women were faced with two irreconcilable contradictory pressures. While they made every effort to live and raise their families within the folds of their new county, they lived in communities that stereotyped and shunned them, and ostracized their families. At the same time they were confronted with Americans of ‘good faith’ who wanted to ‘Americanize’ them and ‘free’ them from their cultural and ethnic bondage.

Afifa Karam (1883-1924) an Arab American feminist devoted many of her articles shedding light on the unique challenges that shaped Arab American women’s early experience in the US. Karam advocated for gender equity, defended the rights of women, and addressed the social and economic factors that delayed woman’s progress. Her writings were serialized and published in Al-Hoda magazine, an Arab American women’s magazine that was established in 1903. Her work sheds light on the evolution and structural prejudice practices that still influence a wide range of US social and political institutions that continue to vilify Arab American women, their families and community. In fact, a considerable number of Arab American women writers substantiate the structural biases that Arab American women and their community have endured since the early 1800′s.

Deeply rooted cultural stereotypical inferences of Arab American women are factors that also contribute to the historical failure of the US feminist movement from including Arab American women’s experiential narrative in the US gender discourse.  Intriguingly, while Arab American women are well represented in every professional sector, their collective contribution to community and country are glossed over and unappreciated. This collective failure is attributed to conscious and more often subconscious perception of archaic views of Arab American women, that falsely assume that women of Arab decent are docile and housebound.

Moreover, Arab American women’s decade long principled opposition to the Iraq war and Israel’s occupation policies were not aligned with the mainstream views of US feminists. As a matter of fact, Arab American women’s consistent objection to US policies in the Middle East was in contradiction with the publicly accepted position that characterized most Americans. Today, most Americans view the US occupation of Iraq as an unnecessary costly fete, and are well aware of Israel’s atrocities in Palestine. For decades Arab American women stood apart from the vast majority of Americans by calling attention to the human and financial cost of US policies in the Middle- East. Arab American women’s unique and long standing position on the US- Iraq invasion and war, and Israel’s military occupation of Palestine help explain their conspicuous absence from past and current US gender discourse.

Young Arab American women protesting Israel's war on Gaza, Washington DC, 2014.

Young Arab American women protesting Israel’s war on Gaza, Washington DC, 2014.

More specifically, the role of Arab American women organizations in speaking out against the US invasion of Iraq, consistent opposition to Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, Israel’s decade long siege of Gaza, the use of US taxes to build and sustain Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise, and Israel’s wars and incursions in Lebanon and Gaza were often misconstrued as illegitimate and erroneous, and in opposition to America’s Eurocentric values. Most troubling, some Americans still continue to malign Arab American women and label them anti Semitic despite their Semitic roots and justifiable reasons for calling on the US government to genuinely support policies that will bring an end to Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, and Gaza siege.

In addition, Arab American women’s unanimous opposition to US surveillance tactics, the militarization of US police, and torture practices, contrasted with the vast majority of Americans who were more inclined to accept the use of these extreme measures. Understandably, the US feminist movement is influenced by the prevailing social and political structural confines held by most Americans. These inherent blind spots allow the continued disregard of Arab American women, and their important political and social contributions in the US. More significantly, while, Arab American women continue to play a crucial role in raising awareness of the most relevant issues that face our nation, their voice is muffled, and their historical role as social and political activists is misunderstood.

Furthermore, the dynamic inter-lapping nature of US mediums and institutions continue to reinforce disparaging views of Arab American women and their community across every sector including the media, arts, academia, civil society, political organizations, public policy, and American popular culture. Whether, consciously or unconsciously these negative attitudes have infiltrated and influenced US feminists’ views of Arab American women and their community.

While many still refuse to recognize Arab American women’s considerable accomplishments, no one can dispute that since the 1800′s, they have managed to ensure the educational and financial success of generations of well-adjusted Americans.

Young Arab American immigrants on Washington Street, New York City, 1916.

Young Arab American immigrants on Washington Street, New York City, 1916.

Undaunted, Arab American women continue to enrich America’s cultural tapestry and social perspective. They remain faithful to their role, rights and obligations as American citizens and members of the global community. Meanwhile, they struggle along side every American woman, and raise their voices in unison to call attention to the multitude of challenges that women face at home and abroad. After all, here at home American women have yet to be adequately represented, where the number of American women in government still lags behind many nations-including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So what next? Arab American women will continue to advance the rights of women in the US and globally, and remain committed to social justice and equality. Unperturbed, they will carry on defying commonly held stereotypes- just like their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts before them- well aware of their important role as transformative social agents capable of transcending the confines and limits of their parochial community here at home. Meanwhile, the global feminist movement will continue to appeal to Arab American women’s sensibilities for its interest and focus on promoting social justice and equality for all women.

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One thought on “Arab American Women and the US Gender Discourse

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