Women’s History Month 2011: Day 1- Arab/Middle Eastern American Women’s Activism in the US

Western and Saudi Arabian women.

Image via Wikipedia

Happy Women’s History Month and Women of Color Day all! Today marks the first of 31 days of blogging about women’s participation in strategic nonviolent activism. Tune in tomorrow for a look at how Asian American women are exercising their choices to change the political landscape of America.

After 9/11 Arab and Middle Eastern people in the United States faced the most overt racism the country had seen in forty years. “The FBI created the first ever Arab American Advisory Committee [on March 28, 2003] following an increase of 1700 percent in reported hate and bias crimes against Arabs, Muslims and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim since the events of September 11, 2001.”[1] People whose ethnic identities were nowhere near Middle Eastern–Mexican, Indian, Native American–were physically attacked because of their skin color; they were supposedly mistaken for being Arab or Muslim (as if the attackers would have been pardoned had the victims been Muslim).

Let’s be honest: most Americans are ignorant of the other people and places in the world.

American society confuses the “categories ‘Arab,’ ‘Middle Easterner,’ and ‘Muslim’ as if there are no differences among them. This conflation can be seen in the U.S. news media, TV shows, and Hollywood films about the Arab world.”[2] Even the term “Middle East” shows the Anglo-centric view that white, “mainstream” Americans have adopted from their European ancestors.

Geographically, the Middle East is difficult to pinpoint but generally alludes to majority Muslim countries in Southwest/Central Asia and North Africa. The Middle East has a long and complex history of religion, custom, travel, and change. From Morocco to Pakistan Islam is the religion of many people but it is certainly not the only religion practiced in the region. Judaism and Christianity, among other smaller religions, are widely practiced in the “Middle East” as well. Ethnically there are many Arabs in the Middle East but there are also Persians, Turks, Kurds, Azeris, Assyrians, Bedouins, the list goes on and on. Linguistically–although many people in the region speak Arabic–Farsi, Turkish, Kurdish, and Hebrew are widely spoken, as are a vast number of other languages.

But, Americans see “brown people” who are not Latino and assume they are Arab Muslims… “Americans see them as foreign, not because they look neither white nor black, but because they look Muslim.”[3] The media does not help, it “exaggerates and often focuses on the victimization or violence of Arab women, in order to racialize Arabs as backwards, violent and uncivilized.”[4] Racist propaganda has long been a part of the American political machine and also reinforces the patriarchal hierarchy.

“Within mainstream U.S. media, the ‘nameless veiled woman’ is either crying and screaming or passively accepting her oppression. These images mark Arab and Muslim women as either ‘out of control’ or ‘having no control’—there is no space in between for them to assert their identities or power as agents of social change.”[5]

For these reasons and many others it is imperative that Arab and Middle Eastern women, Muslim or not, are fully included in the fight for equality in the United States. Especially with the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Gulf States, Arab women have asserted that they are powerful agents of social change. There are an estimated 3.5 million Arabs[6] in the United States, yet “most Americans seem to ignore the fact that the term ‘Arab’ does not refer to a race and even less to a religion, but rather to a language and a culture. An ‘Arab’ is a person who partakes in the history of the Arab world.”

In fact, more than 60 percent of Arab Americans are Christian.[7] Yes, you read that correctly, more than 60 percent.

Despite sharing a common religion white Americans have long had a tenuous relationship with their Middle Eastern countrymen. From the Gulf Wars to 9/11, stereotypes of Middle Eastern women as either submissive harem girls or burqa-wearing terrorists still linger in the American consciousness and “a lack of credible information about Arab peoples and their struggles contributes to Arab-American women’s invisibility within progressive and feminist circles in the U.S.”[8]

Most Americans believe that women are included in the United States Constitution: they are not. One of the biggest surprises for Americans who gave their moral blessing for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to ensure women’s equality is that the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars and millions of lives fighting for the inclusion of women in the constitutions of those countries when women stateside are not yet afforded those same rights.

Much of the activism Arab American women undertake is to re-educate Americans about what it means for them to be Arab and to make themselves visible. Have you ever noticed how it’s usually white men and women arguing over whether or not Muslim women should have the right to wear whatever clothing they deem to be religiously appropriate?

Undoing the damage the media has done is not easy but outspoken Egyptian American writer, academic and activist Mona Eltahawy sure makes it look easy. Also in the media, last year an Arab American woman, Rima Fakih, a Lebanese-born American immigrant and advocate for breast and ovarian cancer awareness and birth control, won the title of Miss USA.[9]

Women are actively involved in membership and leadership of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)across the country and have been since its inception 30 years ago. Groups like the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (ASWA) United are also internationally active in women’s issues and are not afraid to stand up to white mainstream feminists to expose their racism.

“Those who are active in the U.S. feminist movement agree that Zionist racism reinforces the myth that Arab and Arab-American women are extremely oppressed and therefore need to be saved and/or spoken for by their Western feminist ‘sisters.’ Those who speak about Palestinian rights agree that they are excluded, silenced, censored, and/or erased….”[10]

White feminists must respect every individual’s right to speak for herself and choose her own battles. Allowing racist preconceptions to cloud their judgment is unacceptable and completely counterproductive. Feminists must listen to what all women say they want and need and then work with those women to achieve their goals. Consent is an issue in fighting for human rights too.

Members of ASWA United have vocally spoken out against US-Israeli policies of discrimination and violence towards Palestinians but found that “the voices of Arab American women activists are regularly policed and silenced.”[11]

Despite this, Islamic feminists have been active in carving out space for women in mosques, conferences on Islam, and multi-faith committees across the country. Arab American women activists “have developed feminist critiques for challenging sexism within their communities, nations and the neo-colonial societies that seek to racialize them….”[12]

[2] Naber, Nadine, Eman Desouky and Lina Baroudi. “The Forgotten ‘ism:’ An Arab American Women’s Perspective on Zionism, Racism and Sexism. Arab Women’s Solidarity Association San Francisco Chapter: Berkeley, CA. 2001

[3] Karim, 2009.

[4] Naber, et al. 2001.

[5] Ibid.

[7] Habib, Gabriel. 17 March 2004 “And What About Arab Christians?” Presentation at Al-Hewar Center: Vienna, Virginia

[8] Naber, et al. 2001.

[9] Hutchinson, Bill. 20 May 2010. “Rima FAkih, Miss USA 2010 winner: Lebanon-born Miss Michigan is first Arab-American to take crown.” Daily News. 10 June 2010.  http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/2010/05/16/2010-05-16_miss_michigan_rima_fakih_becomes_first_arabamerican_to_win_miss_usa_pageant.html

[10] Naber, et al. 2001.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

About feministactivist

Many words describe me but none more so than activist. I am dedicated to equality of all people and have a special focus on gender issues including reproductive justice, sexual violence, and strategic nonviolent action. View all posts by feministactivist

4 responses to “Women’s History Month 2011: Day 1- Arab/Middle Eastern American Women’s Activism in the US

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