What to Make of the US Feminists’ Disregard of Arab American Women?

18 Mar

Arab American women are highly educated, have higher labor force participation rates than most Americans, earn higher incomes than average Americans, and are well represented in every professional sector, yet their collective contribution to community and country are glossed over and unappreciated. This glaring omission is attributed to deeply embedded prejudice that taints all Arab Americans, an outmoded narrow US racial construct of group identity that Arab American women transcend, and their shared core belief that wars and occupation harms the two worlds’ they love.

mai abdul rahman    March 2016


This March, Americans celebrated the remarkable achievements of American women, and the important role the US feminist movement has played in breaking the gender barrier and shaping the 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 through the glass ceiling, yet few are aware of their significant contributions in the US. While the Eurocentric and micro political orientation of the feminist movement in the US heavily contributes to the exclusion of Arab American women, however it is not the sole factor.

Deep-rooted bias towards Arab Americans has influenced the US feminist views of Arab American women. Specifically, stereotypical inferences of Arab American women contribute to the historical failure of the US feminist movement from including Arab American women’s narrative in the US gender discourse. 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. While Arab American women’s historical role in advocating for gender equity, and their considerable success in breaking the gender barrier in the US is ignored, they are well represented in every professional sector. Nonetheless, archaic views of Arab American women continue to be peddled in every US medium.

Moreover, Arab American women’s decades long principled opposition to the Iraq war and Israel’s occupation policies did not align with the mainstream views of the vast majority of Americans. Arab American women’s consistent objection to US policies in the Middle East was in contradiction with the publicly accepted position of the US political establishment. Today, most Americans believe the US Iraq war as an unnecessary costly fete, and many are aware of the tragic cost of subsidizing Israel’s occupation of Palestine, but these views slowly developed and after many years of apathetic silence.Woman Hiding behind An American Flag

For decades, and in spite of the political correctness that mums most Americans, Arab American women invariably stepped up challenging Americans to assess their accepted notions. Arab American women stood apart from the mainstream consensus 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, decades long wars, and Israel’s military occupation of Palestine contributes to their conspicuous absence from the US gender discourse.

Regardless, 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 due to the inherent cultural bias against women of Arab descent, 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.

The US feminist movement is largely shaped by the US colonial paradigm. By and large, the US feminist movement is dismissive of the role and contributions of other American women of color, and continues to struggle to accommodate African American women, Asian American women, Latinas, and Native American women. While the US feminist narrative has made some effort to include these four distinct ethnic classifications, today, most women don’t fit well in the simple categories that define American women whether by US feminists or others in the US. As a matter of fact, the US scheme, which adheres to distinct racial identities, is too narrow and limiting to capture the complexity of centric and overlapping identities of any group of American women. These categorical distinctions are outdated and restrictive, and should be challenged.

For example, Arab American women ancestral roots stretch from the African Atlas Mountains to the longest inhabited cities along the Mediterranean Sea, and across the Arabian Desert. Arab American women are White, Brown, Black, and represent every shade and color in between. They are atheists, agnostics, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. They adopt and comprise several macro and micro identities. Arab American women are African, European, Hispanic and Latin American. For example, Pop star Shakira, is Colombian, Arab, and American, and the well known Hollywood actress and producer Salma Hayek is Mexican, Arab, and American.The complex nature of the racial, ethnic, and religious make up of Arab American women transcend the fragmented and narrow descriptive definitions that most Americans observe.

eipostcard-1American attitudes towards Arab American women are rooted in the historical racial divisiveness and biases that our country has struggled with 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 immigrants, indigenous populations, and Southern Europeans, Arab American women suffered more disdain than most. Interestingly, the earliest Arab American women were Christian, but their Christian faith did not spare them.

Early Arab American women were members of the Eastern Christian culture of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho, Damascus, Byblos, and Beirut- their ancestral claim to these ancient Biblical cities was of no help to them or their community.images While they made every effort to live and raise their families within the folds of their new country, they lived in communities that shunned them and ostracized their families and faith.

Since the 19th Century, Arab American women have advocated for gender equity. 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 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.

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 img_3058biannual Gaza wars and continuous siege, the use of US taxes to build and sustain Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise, and Israel’s wars and incursions in Lebanon were often misconstrued as illegitimate and erroneous, and in opposition to American values.

Despite the justifiable reasons for calling on the US government to genuinely support policies that would bring an end to Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, and Gaza siege that equally harms Palestinians and Israelis, most Americans are inclined to accept their government’s policies than critically evaluate the human cost or political implications of these policies. Additionally, Arab American women’s opposition to US surveillance tactics and torture practices, contrasted with the vast majority of Americans who accepted the use of these extreme measures.

The US feminist movement’s adoption of the prevailing US social and political structural perimeters has helped it secure its prominence within the US establishment. Unfortunately, this has made it less relevant to most American women. The structural biases that provide the US feminist movement the acceptance it needs to remain pertinent to the US political elite and establishment requires it to disregard Arab American women, and their political and social contributions. While Arab American women are not the only segment of American women ignored by the US feminist establishment, their systematic exclusion has been consistent since the 1800’s. Meanwhile, Arab American women continue to play a crucial role in raising awareness of the most relevant issues that face our nation.

As a group Arab American women don’t neatly fit in any categorical scheme. 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 by the US feminist movement. Their macro view of gender equality encompasses the domestic and universal struggle for social justice and equality. Consequently, Arab American women feminists are more aligned with the global women’s movement.

While many in the US still refuse to recognize Arab American women’s considerable accomplishments, no one can dispute that since the 1800′s, they have made enormous contributions in breaking the gender barrier and creating the space for American women to follow. More critically their advocacy for social justice here and abroad has challenged Americans to question their common assumptions. Meanwhile, their visceral understanding that wars and occupation harms both the victims and victimizers in equal measure, where each leaves lasting unshakable scars on the perpetrators and their victims will continue to ire American interventionists and the US establishment.

3 Responses to “What to Make of the US Feminists’ Disregard of Arab American Women?”


  1. What to Make of the US Feminists’ Disregard of Arab American Women? - Post - Arab America - March 24, 2016

    […] Source: americanpalestinianwomen.wordpress.com […]

  2. An Open Letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern | American-Palestinian Women's Association - March 30, 2019

    […] fact. Arab Americans immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800’s, and yet their innovations and contributions to community and society are […]

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