The Many Voices of Arab Women in America

Judith Gabriel
Judith Gabriel.

Bint Arab: Arab and Arab American Women in the United States
by Evelyn Shakir
Praeger Publishers, 1997

Before they can be said to have truly “arrived,” hordes of America’s immigrants have had to pay some bitter dues, encountering discrimination and persecution – chilly onslaughts from which they naturally seek refuge within family and clan.

Yet for the Arab woman, another struggle might lurk within that very haven. Hers is still a patriarchal culture rife with ancient proverbs about the sorrow felt when a daughter is born; it is a culture which, among others in the world, often cloisters those daughters, and sometimes even kills them, in the isolated incidents of so-called “honor-killing.”

At the same time, the Arab woman in America sees any criticism she might direct at her own culture co-opted to feed a media beast already bulging with malicious stereotyping. Little wonder, then, that her story – submerged as it is in the problems facing an entire people, and veiled by the reticence of conservative tradition – has long been neglected.

A new book by Evelyn Shakir, herself the daughter of Lebanese immigrants and an avowed feminist, sets out to tell that story with all its diversity and controversy. Entitled "Bint Arab" [Arab Daughter] and subtitled "Arab and Arab American Women in the United States," it presents an overview of these immigrant women and their daughters, with copious references to previous works and studies on the topic.

Drawing heavily from her own family’s saga, Shakir describes the “first wave” immigrants who ventured west from Greater Syria in the late 19th century, including women who came on their own, some working to support their families as street peddlers.

Focusing primarily on Lebanon and Palestine, the book bursts forth with a panoply of interviews and oral history excerpts from these pioneer women, their second and third generation daughters, and women born in several Arab countries, spanning decades, social class and religion.

The interwoven voices swirl up from the existing blur of stereotypes and the delicate muffle of cultural propriety. The result is a sweeping mosaic, rich and colorful in human experience, brought to life in a collection of observations of life in their lands of origin and, primarily, in the U.S., where events in the Middle East continued to shape their identity.

“Of course, among ourselves we had always been Arab, bint arab (Arab daughter) for females and ibn arab (Arab son) for males. It wasn’t until the late 60s that large numbers of the immigrants added on the label ‘Arab’ partly as a political statement, a declaration of solidarity with Arab states that had been humiliated in the Six-Day War with Israel,” writes Shakir, an associate professor of English at Bentley College who has been writing about Arab and Arab-American women for several years.

The women certainly do not agree with each other on many matters of major concern. While Shakir wanted to dismantle any notion of there being a single, definitive Arab or Arab-American woman, she nonetheless found that as one listened to their stories, certain subjects recurred, such as women’s roles in the family, dating and marriage customs, educational and professional options.

Most agreed, however, that their struggle for personal liberation has been tempered by larger issues. Shakir quotes some Palestinian feminists, for instance, who complain that not only did they have “to battle against foreign occupation and against reactionary forces within their own community but also have had to mount a third front against Western feminists who claim to speak on their behalf but wind up, in effect lampooning them.”

This dichotomy lies at the core of most Arab-American women’s experience, as several daughters disclose their painful experiences of initiation into the ubiquitous anti-Arab toxins permeating the mainstream atmosphere.

It is little wonder then, that “humiliated and on the defensive, Arab women – especially in this country, where denigration of Arabs is still the rule – have sometimes responded by muting their own criticism of Arab society,” writes Shakir.

Because of the supportive and illuminating context of "Bint Arab," (and the freedom to use pseudonyms) many women found themselves willing to express some of that criticism, along with their criticism of the West (and approval, where merited, in both cases.)

Their stories are poignant and hard-hitting. Several describe the pain incurred by stepping outside the time-honored paradigms, as when a second generation daughter discloses to her conservative family that her “significant other” is not an Arab, or not even a male.

While many of the "Bint Arab" women speak about positive elements of the traditional family circle, some acknowledge resentment at the control exerted over daughters. At the same time, several credit their families for supporting and encouraging them as they struck out on less traditional paths.

In "Bint Arab" we are privy to the inner landscape of grandmothers, students, feminists, women who played heroic roles in the intifada, women who worked with the Syrian Ladies’ Aid Society at the turn of the century, or with Arab women’s organizations today, Muslims and Christians, believers and free-thinkers, mothers and daughters speaking with candor.

As Shakir writes in an epilogue dedicated to her late mother, there are “voices tumbling over one another. Point and counterpoint, yes and no. Issues worried in every room, on every story from generation to generation; how to be a good daughter, sister, wife, mother, how to be a good Arab, how to survive. In the house our mothers built, shame lurked at every landing, so we proceeded cautiously, ears cocked to hear others (mnaas) whispering. Hearts divided between two urges. The need to make a getaway (crash out the back door, run for your life), the need to belong (pull up to the table with women who call you ‘sister’ and know your people for three generations back). Mother, you remember.”

It is in the crucible of being Arab in America that these women’s lives are being shaped. With mothers and sisters part of the immigrant scenario for more than a century, their voices are rising with new pride and definition. And Shakir sees that as part of the “passage into a new identity, neither arab or ameerkan. A new story to tell the children.”

This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 21, Fall 1997.

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