US Feminists’ Omission of Arab American Women Explained

20 Mar

Since the 1900’s, Arab American women have advocated for gender equity. Early Arab American feminists were first to shed light on the unique challenges of being Arab and American. They were the first in the New York City garment district to establish child care programs to facilitate the entry of women into the labor force. Today, Arab American women are highly educated, have higher labor force participation and professional representation rates than most American women, and earn higher incomes than average Americans, and many amongst them were first in breaking the gender barrier. Yet their collective contributions are glossed over and unappreciated. While this glaring omission is attributed to the deeply embedded prejudice that taints all Arab Americans, it is not the sole reason.

mai abdul rahman     March 2021

This March, Americans will again celebrate the remarkable achievements of American women. They will learn about the important role that feminists played in breaking the gender barrier and shaping the gender discourse in the US. While no one can deny the relevance of the US feminist movement in advancing American women’s rights, no credible scholar or historian can dispute that since the 1800′s Arab American women have helped expand women’s participation in every professional sector.

So the question that merits consideration is what are the reasons that could help explain why few Americans are aware of the significant contributions that Arab American women made to advance the rights of women in the US. While the Eurocentric and micro political orientation of White Americans measurably influences the US feminist movement, there are additional factors that makes it possible to ignore Arab American womens’ considerable success in breaking the gender barrier.

To date, Arab American women continue to be well represented in every professional sector and medium. However, deep-rooted implicit and explicit bias towards Arab Americans has influenced the US feminists’ leaders and followers. American attitudes towards Arab American women are an ingrained cultural perspective that reflects the 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. It is true that during that period America’s White middle class projected a patronizing attitude towards the Irish and Southern European immigrants, Arab American women suffered more disdain than most.

Stereotypical inferences of Arab American women are one of the many factors that contribute to the historical failure of the US feminist movement from recognizing Arab American women’s narrative in the US gender discourse. Also of note, is the dynamic inter-lapping nature of US mediums and institutions that play an important role in reinforcing disparaging views of Arab American women, their women leaders, and community across every sector. This includes, the media, social platforms, the arts, academia, civil society, political organizations, public policy, and American popular culture. Each and all help to cement the deep seated bias towards Arab American women and their community. In other words, the peddling of negative stereotypes are necessary social instruments that help fortify American’s dismissive attitudes towards Arab American women. All of which makes it possible for American women to willfully ignore Arab American women’s role in advancing gender equity in the US.

Arab American Women’s Inclusive Identity Challenge U.S. Feminist’s Narrow Racial Constructs

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 represent African, European, Hispanic, and Latin American women. For example, pop star Shakira, is Latina, Colombian, Arab, and American, and the well known Hollywood actress and producer Salma Hayek is also Latina, Arab, Mexican, and American. International model Gigi Hadid, is Arab, Palestinian, and American, and the youngest female Nascar driver, Toni Breidinger, is Arab, Lebanese, and American, The complex nature of the racial, ethnic, and religious makeup of Arab American women transcend the fragmented and narrow descriptive definitions that most Americans observe.

In addition, the historically narrow US racial paradigm is the most dominant factor in shaping US social and political structures and American’s cultural beliefs and attitudes. The US feminist movement was borne when slavery dominated and determined the values of White Americans. The influence of the dominant US colonial paradigm helped form the perspective of past feminist leaders and their followers. These values are an embedded feature of the feminist movement’s operating structural and racial constructs. They are the underlying reason that make it possible for feminist leaders to persist in dismissing the role and contributions of other American women, especially women of color. It is also the reason why the feminist movement still struggles to accommodate African American women, Asian American women, Latinas, and Native American women. Notwithstanding, the US feminist narrative has made some effort to include the above four distinct ethnic and racial classifications. However, Arab American women don’t fit well in these restrictive and simple categories. The US feminist distinct racial and ethnic identities are too narrow and limiting to capture the complexity of centric and overlapping identities of Arab American women. The US ethnic and racial paradigm is unsophisticated and outdated- and should be challenged.

Arab American Women Principled Political Orientation on Military Occupations and Wars

By and large, most Americans are inclined to accept the US government’s international policies than critically evaluate the human cost or political implications of these policies. Arab American women’s decades-long principled opposition to the Iraq war, US Middle East policie, Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories and wars on Gaza did not align with the mainstream views of the vast majority of White American women. Additionally, their disapproval of US surveillance tactics and torture practices, contrasted with the views held by the vast majority of Americans who unquestionably accepted the use of these extreme and intrusive measures. More specifically, Arab American women’s opposition to the use of US taxes to build and sustain Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise, were often misconstrued as illegitimate and erroneous, and in opposition to American values. Despite their justifiable reasons for calling on the US government to genuinely support policies that would bring an end to Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, which equally harms Palestinians and Israelis.

Furthermore, 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, and most especially, the Democratic Party’s political elite who embraced the US feminists’ domestic political objectives. The feminist movement’s adoption of the prevailing US social and political structural perimeters helped it secure its prominence within the US establishment. Which gave US feminist leaders the credence to remain pertinent to the political establishment. It also made it politically acceptable for American feminist leaders to disregard Arab American women’s political and social contributions. In other words, the systematic exclusion of Arab American women aligns with the US dominant social, cultural and political class.

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 and expansive settlements across the Palestinian territories, but these views slowly developed and after many years of apathetic silence. Arab American women were one of a small number of Americans who stepped up to challenge Americans to assess their accepted notions. They called attention to the human and financial cost of US policies in the Middle East. All of which helps explain their conspicuous absence from the US gender discourse.

Early Arab American Women and their Role in Advancing Gender Equity

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. 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.

During the 19th Century, Arab American women strongly 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. Arab American women championed and defended the rights of women, and addressed the social and economic factors that delayed woman’s progress. Many Arab American women writers documented the structural biases that Arab American women and their community faced during the early 1800′s. Their work sheds light on the evolution of the structural prejudice that influences a wide range of US social and political institutions that continue to vilify Arab American women, their leaders and community.

In spite of their difficult conditions, Arab American women made enormous contributions in breaking the gender barrier and creating the space for American women to follow. As a group Arab American women don’t neatly fit in any of the narrow categorical schemes and political constructs observed by the US feminist movement. 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 leaders and members of the US feminist movement. 

Moving Forward

Recognized or not, Arab American women play an important role in broadening the national debate on race and gender that continue to befuddle Americans. Additionally, their macro view of gender equality that encompasses the domestic and universal struggle for social justice and equality helps Americans to question their common assumptions and expand their perspective. Most critically, Arab American women’s visceral understanding of the human cost of wars and occupation that harm both the victims and victimizers helps Americans understand the cost of wars on the natives, as well as the American soldiers and war veterans.

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