Arab-American Feminism vs. US Feminism

Shehabat, Abdullah Kheiro A., “Contemporary Arab-American and Middle Eastern Women’s Voices: New Visions of “Home”” (2011). Dissertations. 464.


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Arab-American Feminism vs. US Feminism

Given that the authors covered in this study engage with feminist ideas and practices and sometimes find themselves in conflict with Western feminism, a brief discussion of Arab-American feminism and US feminism is necessary. While reviewing the histories of the Arab-American feminism and the U.S. feminist movements, I have found that there are two main reasons that contribute to a lack of communication and collaboration between Arab-American and mainstream feminists. The first cause is related to the way US feminism deals with matters related to Arab-American cultural life; when discussing Arab-American experience, many US feminists have focused exclusively on factors such as the veil, the Hijab, the burgaa, and the manner in which some Islamic women relate to the patriarchy. Recently, Steven Salaita, among others, has criticized the idea of passing judgment on Arab-American feminism by only considering the part rather than the whole; he has been particularly critical of those US feminists who generate an image about Arab-American women by studying the behavior of few Muslim-American women. In other words, he maintains that American feminisms should not look at Arab-American feminism as one “single, unified entity” because not all Arab-American women are Muslims who adhere to strict patriarchal norms (1). One consequence for this kind of relationship has created a gap by always stereotyping ArabAmerican woman as “…Islamic traditionalists-veiled, submissive, and secluded within the home” (qtd. in Read 2). Haddad and Smith join this critique, noting how some 25 feminist movements in the West cannot “…free themselves from unfortunate kinds of stereotyping” (37). The second cause that may have led to the lack of communication and interaction between Arab-American feminism and US feminisms is the former’s lack of experience in the world of feminism theory and discourse, and its lack of experience regarding how to collaborate with the other US feminisms. Nouha al-Hegelan refers to the term frequently used by many Western women which is the “…born yesterday assumption,” indicating that the Arab-American feminism movement has no lengthy history (qtd. in Haddad and Smith 37). Al-Hegelan observes, Westerners begin by comparing the Arab /Moslem [Muslim] woman to her sisters in the West. Using Western women as a standard is only part of the insult. The injury is magnified by the added assumption that the Arab woman began her struggle yesterday – as if she was somehow born whole out a newly tapped oil well – a veiled, uncivilized no-entity, (qtd. in Haddad and Smith 37) Clearly, Al-Hegelan expresses her concerns about the lack of political support the Arab-American feminist movement receives. This lack of support, consequently, has created an impasse in the relationship between Arab-American feminism and American feminism, causing much more alienation, separation, and marginalization for ArabAmerican feminists and also depriving them of sharing a knowledge base with their US feminist counterparts. However, sometimes Arab-American feminism has been challenged from the inside. That is, some, if not many, Arab-American (especially Muslim) women have argued against all attempts to unify and or coordinate with US feminism(s). These women, thus, would refuse all aspects of Western feminism; they would never accept or 26 absorb the Western feminist ideologies and patterns of thought. Further, they have believed that whatever might work for Western feminism may not necessarily work for “Islamic feminism,” a term which has created much controversy. This group, in other words, rejects the combination between Islam and feminism, claiming that feminism as a term stands for “whiteness and elitism,” and also they “reject the common assumption that Western feminists formulations of equality are necessarily appropriate in the Islamic context” (Haddad et al. 18, 19). As I will demonstrate, all three authors featured in this study have had conflicts with US or European feminism along the lines described above. Ahmed, as a professor of women’s studies, has been a vocal advocate for US feminism(s) to recognize and to respect the unique features of Arab-American women’s lives. Similarly, Salbi has encouraged US feminists to possess a more global outlook, and Satrapi has focused on the visual, as well as the textual aspects of feminism in her graphic novels. In other words, although at a microlevel, Satrapi was able to enact change with regard to women who study graphic arts by enabling them to change the style of the veil which they used to wear to become more fashionable and more modern.


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