The Invisible American Half:
Arab American(1) Hybridity and Feminist Discourses in the 1990s
Mervat F. Hatem, 1998
In the middle of the Gulf War, Bob David, a Michigan Republican congressman used Arab women to offer an anti-Iraqi joke He asked: "What is the difference between a catfish and Iraqi women?" In answer, he replied: one was a fish and the other had whiskers and smells bad. Activist Arab American women reacted very quickly to David's offensive joke by holding a press conference the next day with a crate of catfish which they held up to photographers to correct what the congressman knew about both catfish and Arab women.(2)
The joke showed the intersection of sexism and racism in U.S. attitudes toward Arab culture and/or Arab women. The quick and assertive reaction by Arab American women showed that in 1991 a new generation of Arab American feminists understood the reciprocal effects of the devaluation of women and the racist denigration of Arab culture. In this short essay I want to trace briefly the history of Arab American feminism prior to the Gulf War. Next, I ,want to show how racism and sexism during the war and its aftermath left their imprints on the agendas of the community leading to post war reassertion of Arab American feminism. Finally, I want to examine these different discourses. Conscious of the impact that racism and sexism had on women, they developed a double critique of their "Arabness" and "Americaness." This position placed Arab American women firmly but uneasily within the camp of "women of color."
Arab American Consciousness and Arab American Feminism
Up until 1990, Arab American(3) political consciousness had been shaped by the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and its different wars. During and after the 1967 war, overwhelming U.S. Support of the Israeli military effort against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan galvanized the Arab American in middle class and pushed its organizational effort. First, the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG) was formed in 1967 to speak for the group and to educate the U.S. public about the Arab world.(4) In 1972, the National Association for Arab Americans (NAAA) emerged as a political lobbying group.(5) The American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC) followed in 1980 to fight against the prevalent public defamation of Arab Americans in the United States.(6)
U.S. support of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 unsettled the oldest and most established Lebanese American community and challenged their belief in a common Christian bond as a means of assimilation into the American mainstream. For Lebanese Americans, both Christian and Muslim women, who were becoming active in the U.S. womens movement, the attempt to mobilize opposition against the war brought a rude awakening. In 1982, they asked the Third World caucus of the National Women's Studies Association to condemn the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The caucus unanimously recommended such a resolution to its overwhelmingly white delegates, who rejected it.(7) Subsequently, an article written by a prominent(8) Euro-Jewish-American(9) member of the feminist establishment for Ms. magazine accused Arab and Arab American women, along with other critics of Israel, of being anti-Semitic. Despite many responses by Arab American women to the article, the magazine, which served as a voice of the white mainstream, did not acknowledge or publish any of their reactions.(10)
These encounters with different institutional representatives of the women's movement persuaded Arab American women of the racist tendencies within the feminist establishment. As one of them suggested, Arab American women were treated as an inferior "other." Their right to express a different view of Israel and of U.S. foreign policy towards the region was denied. In discussions of the Middle East, Euro-American feminists imposed on Arab and Arab American women an emphasis on the veil and cliterodectemy. These issues were forced on Arab and Arab American women by Euro-American women who also lectured them on the oppressiveness of their culture, establishing American women's authority on how the liberation of women should proceed.(11)
The frustration and rejection felt by Arab American women were behind the creation of the Feminist Arab-American Network in 1983. It represented a loosely organized group of Arab American academics and activists who were committed to increase public awareness of issues affecting Arab American feminists, to eliminate negative stereotypes of Arabs particularly within the American feminist community and to work in a coalition with our sisters in Arab countries and to share resources and support among ourselves.(12) The Network also debated how it could carve a space for itself within the American feminist community. According to the founder of the Network lack of funding and clerical support were behind its demise.(13)
Without discounting the importance of the reasons listed above for the demise of the Network, its statement of purpose suggested others. With the negative reaction of the U.S. feminist establishment, the Network was unable to consider working with other women's groups that were similarly marginalized. Other than educating the American public and the feminist community about Arabs and Arab American feminists, the only coalitions that it considered were with women in Arab countries. While in and of itself this was a worthy goal, it shifted practical attention from the specific experiences of Arab American women in the U.S. to the experiences of women in the Arab world whose social and political conditions were different and distinct.
The rejection and lack of recognition experienced by Arab American feminists were collectively felt by the larger community during the 1984 presidential campaign. The Democratic contender, Walter Mondale, returned campaign contributions from Arab Americans. (14) His democratic rival, Gary Hart, repaid a loan from a Washington, D.C., bank that had Arab financial interests to dispel any connections to the group. These experiences led to the creation in 1985 of the Arab American Institute whose goal was to work towards greater Arab American participation in the U.S. political system.(15) In its search for support of the Arab American agendas at the local and national levels, the Institute found in African American political figures and organizations, such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Congressional Black Caucus, valuable allies during the 1988 elections. At a time when no one within either major political party would support the principle of a Palestinian state as a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Reverend Jackson's Rainbow Coalition put that issue on the agenda of the Democratic party.(16)
It gave Arab Americans visible positions in its campaign. In exchange, the community raised $700,000 for the campaign and delivered the votes of 50 delegates.(17) Finally, the alliance between the Jackson campaign and the Arab American constituency placed the community for the first time within the rainbow of colors that included other "minorities." This was where the community and its feminists stood when the Gulf crisis and then the War broke out.
Race and the Gulf War
Setting aside the Palestinian-Israeli question, the Gulf War concerns provided an opportunity to focus attention on the troubled relations between Arab Americans and the hegemonic culture and its political institutions. The Gulf War(18) was the first regional war that did not involve a military confrontation between Israel and other Arab states. The war pitted the U.S., backed by an international alliance that included Arab states like Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. In this sense, the war was an American-Arab war: it pitted the U.S. against an Arab country (Iraq), but cemented the alliance of some Arab states with the U.S. American policymakers viewed the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait as a threat to the security of the Arabian Gulf's oil resources and their control by friendly Arab states. The U.S. led international alliance successfully liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation and reduced an industrial Iraq to preindustrial status.(19) It also dramatically displayed the United States' political and military strength as the world's only superpower. In the aftermath of the war, an unstable Pax Americana was set up in the region.(20) It was supported by unpopular and undemocratic Arab governments whose legitimacy was contested by their Islamist opponents. This new level of U.S. military and political involvement in the affairs of the region had ominous political consequences for Arab Americans.
At the outset of the Gulf crisis, the public discourse that mobilized the American public for war initially focused on the past and present horrific record of the Iraqi regime. The anti-Iraqi political discourse very quickly deteriorated, however, into a broad anti-Arab one. The daily reporting, analysis, and discussion of the crisis denigrated Arab culture, history, politics, and character. The new anti-Arab discourse was both old and new. It tapped into an existing latent reservoir of prejudice against Arabs (as treacherous, warlike and cruel to women and children)(21) to describe the Iraqi regime as an enemy, thus reasserting the public belief in the unflattering views of the entire region and its people.(22) The fact that the governments of Egypt, Syria, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia condemned Iraqi actions and supported U.S. war against Iraq did not yield differentiated views of the region and its people. The "Arabs" continued to be homogeneously represented as a cultural and political "other."
Nowhere was the U.S. public's repudiation of the Arab "other" clearer than in the way it asked Arab Americans to respond to the war. According to one radio commentator, "In war there are no hyphenated Americans, just Americans and non-Americans."(23) Given this view, it was not coincidental that the media only sought "Arab protestors ... to voice opposition to war."(24) In either case, Arab Americans' questionable loyalties were highlighted. Arab Americans could not define themselves in nuanced or complicated terms reflecting their greater familiarity with and sensitivity to the reality of U.S.-Arab relations. Only crude choices and definitions were available. One could support the war and in this way prove one's nationalist credentials as an American. Or, one could oppose the war and be identified as un-American/ traitor/ enemy/ Iraqi/Arab. There was no place for the many Arab Americans who simultaneously disapproved of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the U.S-military plans for its reversal. Those who wanted the liberation of Kuwait through political negotiations were considered at best foolish or, at worst, unwitting agents of the Iraqi enemy. These views indicated the deeply held belief that being both Arab and American was an oxymoran to the mainstream: one negated the other.
The only groups to break with this public discourse on the war were activist people of color. Due to the diminishing opportunities for advancement available to this segment of the population, "many women as well as Blacks, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans opted for the military as a road for professional advancement and education."(25) As a result these communities were over-represented in the U.S. army in comparison to the rest of the population. For example, thirty percent of troops serving in the Gulf were African American and eleven percent were women nearly half of which were black.(26) For the major representatives of these groups and their kin, the political settlement of the conflict made social and national sense.
Unfortunately, the premium put on nationalist reactions to the war prevailed. It contributed to the dramatic increase in the number of hate crimes against Arab-Americans. According to the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), there were five violent attacks against Arab Americans during the period from January to August of 1990.(27) This number rose to forty from August to December; it escalated to sixty incidents during January and February of 1991 when the fighting broke out.(28) Equally significant was the FBI's decision, before the war, to interview/ interrogate two hundred Arab American business and community leaders across the country. The stated purpose was to offer members of the group protection and to also ask them if they personally knew any terrorists! Here, the stereotype of "Arabs as terrorists" became the basis of the FBI's interviews. The political views and beliefs of individual Arab Americans were no longer private matters protected by the law. The leadership and other members of the community were suspect as representatives of a group whose loyalties were suspect. They were suspected of knowing recruits for "terrorist" operations by the opponents of the U.S. and/or of giving them support. In either case, Arab Americans were a national security concern.
This discourse continued to define Arab Americans in the post-war period. Islamist attacks on the Arab states that supported the Pax Americana in the Middle East led to the suspicion that Arab Americans could become surrogates of these new international enemies. The group was misrepresented as homogeneously Muslim and anti-American. This disregarded the fact that many Arab Americans were Christian (e.g., Egyptian Copts, Lebanese Christians, and Iraqi Caldians) and that many American Muslims were not Arab (e.g., African Americans, Asian Indians, and Pakistanis) and that many who were opposed the Islamists. The arrest of Arab American Muslims of Palestinian and Egyptian origins in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York seerned to lend credence to the U.S.'s suspicious and narrowly defined views of Arab Americans as American Muslims and as internal enemies.
Two years later, the investigation of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City showed how these deep suspicions contributed to the very precarious political standing of Arab Americans. Without much evidence to support their claims, the early reports by the U.S. media and a variety of local and national public figures blamed Middle Eastern terrorists for the incident. Some in the American public suggested putting Arab Americans in internment camps, just as the government did to Japanese Americans in World War Two.(29) A Palestinian American computer programmer was held as a suspect, freed, then reapprehended because he happened to be traveling from Oklahoma City to Jordan on the day of the bombing.(30) The homes of Arab American families in the Oklahoma City area were attacked. Arab American school children were taunted by classmates who told them to go back to where they came from.(31) Even after the arrest of white Americans with no links to Muslims, some callers to a radio talk how in the area refused to believe that Muslims were not responsible!(32) Not only did this indicate the depth of American suspicions of Arab Americans and American Muslims, but it also showed how these suspicions persisted even when contradicted by the facts.
An American Muslin, summed up the dilemmas facing the community in the following way: "Thank God it was not a Middle Eastern person this time, but even if it had been that does not mean that we are all terrorists anymore than violence by members of the Irish Republican Army makes all Catholics dangerous."(33) Unfortunately, discrimination against Arab Americans and American Muslims in the U.S. worked by setting Arabs and/or Muslims apart as different from the rest of us. In this way, one could make statements about them that would be considered ridiculous or slanderous had they been made about any other groups. In short, the Gulf War and political developments that followed it showed the proliferation of old and new forms of racism against Arab Americans in the United States.
Gender and the Gulf War
Anti-Arab racism camouflaged sexism as another important component of the contempt Americans feel for Arab culture. It made it difficult for Arab American women to begin the exploration of the difference gender made in the position one had in the community and the formulation of its agenda. The politically precarious position of the Arab American community during the war led to feelings of anxiety, fear, and danger among its members. In response, the community relied on group solidarity and the privileging of collective concerns as defense mechanisms. Racism was the defined as the primary problem while there was silence around the sexism with which the hegemonic culture and its institutions viewed and treated Arab American women, or the way men and women were given very gendered roles in the defense of the community. The result, conscious or unconscious, was continued patriarchal control of Arab American institutions arid definitions of the group's agenda, problems, and strategies.(34)
The Gulf War presented members of the community with a major ethnic dilemma. It pitted their Arab and American identities against one another. Arab American men and women reacted to this development in simultaneously shared and distinct ways. While most disapproved of the Iraqi regime and its policies, they were divided about what the U.S. should do about it. Some supported U.S. military intervention against this repressive regime, putting American interests ahead of any ethnic sentiments. Most were opposed, however, to U.S. military intervention and stressed the potentially devastating military and human costs of the war.(35) For Iraqi Americans, in particular, the prospect of having relatives fighting in both the Iraqi and the U.S. armed forces constituted a form of fratricide that provoked unbearable anxiety.(36) Many in the larger community voiced fear over how the war would precipitate a backlash against Arab Americans in the United States. For some, this was a question of personal safety; for others, the primary concern was the safety of their small businesses.(37)
The FBI's "interviews" of Arab Americans before the war broke out reinforced the group's sense of danger. In media discussions of this event, which underlined the implication this action had for the civil rights of the group, there was silence on why the FBI agents chose to interview Arab American business and community leaders along with their wives. It could be said that the FBI considered Arab American men and women to be equally suspect. In most of the cases, the wives were not politically active. As both Arab and/or American women, they were considered by the FBI as extensions of their husbands. Only in one case was the wife the president of a local chapter of the Arab-American Discrimination Committee and could be considered a separate source of information.(38) What is clear is that these Arab and American women were questioned because of their relation to these men. The FBI did not treat these Arab and American wives as separate individuals. The American social construct of wife, which guided the FBI's behavior does not accord a woman separate legal standing but assumes that she is an extension of her husband. By not acknowledging such sexist connotations, the U.S. media seemed silently to accept them.
Arab American civil rights organizations did not question this assumption or action either. Like similar U.S. organizations, the Arab American ones largely had men as their official spokesmen. They assumed the important patriarchal role of public protectors of the rights of the community. (39) The Arab American men in charge of these organizations took on the tricky task of pressuring the patriarchs of the majority to uniformly respect the definition of the rights of citizenship. With the FBI, the policing arm of the state, they protested the use of ethnicity to deny members of their groups their right to privacy and the presumption of innocence until guilt was established. With the larger public, they argued cultural differences should not be used to undermine these legal rights. Yet, it was clear that cultural difference was the reason why minority patriarchs, as protectors of the community, were less able to defend their community against the attacks of the majority. As minority patriarchs, they had a subordinate status to white, Anglo-Saxon patriarchs who set the cultural standards of masculinity and who were able to provide better protection to members of their community.
The dilemma for these Arab American spokesmen/patriarchs, which was presented as that of the community as a whole, lay in how they could reconcile their minority status with the majority cultural (patriarchal) views and roles. As a second generation Yemeni American factory worker at General Motors in Michigan put it: "We are looking out of two windows. We love our people here, but we love our people there too. We are existing in two worlds, but one of the things that hurts the most is how little people in our world here really know about the world there." (40) In this statement, a hybrid masculine perspective of the problem is offered – a product of male experiences in two cultures. Clearly, there was equal identification with and comfort in these two cultural/patriarchal worlds even in the midst of the Gulf crisis. Despite their difference, Arab American men felt at home in both. The threat to this doubly privileged masculine existence came from the devaluation of one by the other. The goal was to eliminate the sources of misunderstanding and tension to preserve the privileged masculine gaze that these windows offered. Although this problem was described as a collective one, the interests of Arab American women would not be satisfactorily attended to through a simple elimination of cultural misunderstandings. Because they occupied subordinate positions in both cultures, their problems required the critique of these cultural systems of meaning, and then effective change.
For some Arab American Christian men, whose families had immigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the century, the solution to the above problems facing Arab Americans was assimilation. The patriarchal anxiety that resulted from the negotiations of different cultural definitions of masculinity was eliminated by emphasizing Christianity as the common bond with the hegemonic American culture and accepting the U.S. view of Arabness as synonymous with an alien and antagonistic Islam. For example, a prominent lawyer declared his full support of President Bush and, as proof of his cultural assimilation, reiterated the U.S. view of Saddam Hussein as an international thug.(41) A similar reaction came from a car salesman who, in addition to declaring his love of the U.S., volunteered the following assessment of the problems facing Arab Americans: "If there is a misperception of Arab, I think it is our fault. It is not the WASP's fault. I think it is the Arab Americans of today, who some of them can be awfully obnoxious. I do not even like them and they are my people." (42)
For many Arab Americans, the condemnation of Saddam Hussein's repressive regime was not particularly problematic. The demonization of Hussein as a Hitler or an international thug was. It evoked the stereotypical image of Arabs and/or Muslims as outlaws or terrorists. These were problematic views that many were not very interested in reinforcing in the imagination of the U.S. public. For many older immigrants, who were Christian, assimilation into WASP culture was desirable. It was the historical strategy used by that generation. It was not workable for Muslim Arab Americans for whom assimilation was hard or not desirable. The hegemonic views of the Muslim Arab Americans as responsible for their own victimization was used by some Christian Arab Americans to differentiate themselves from this hated group. It revealed the cultural and the generational divisions within the community and how some Christian Arab American men used the hegemonic definition of Arabness to devalue their Muslim counterparts. By setting themselves apart, they hoped to be treated differently. Unfortunately, the cost of this form of assimilation was alienation from other Arabs and the diverse Arab cultural heritage.
For Arab American women, a different set of dilemmas shaped their response to the war and the attacks against the community. Many women experienced both conflicts through the effects that they had on their families, neighborhoods, and communities. While many Arab American men negotiated with the majority groups and the government on behalf of the community or debated the regional and international politics of the war, most Arab American women placed their energies at the service of families that were traumatized by these events. In some cases, the war took parents away from their children and pressured other women to act as surrogates for the absent caretakers.(43) In other instances, women experienced the war as the personal trauma of sending daughters, sisters, sons and/or husbands to fight in the Gulf.(44) The possible loss of sons, husbands, and now female kin, along with the disruption of their lives and the doubling of their family responsibilities took their toll. At the same time, adults needed to be available to younger children who were feeling the disruption just as intensely.
On the home front, many Arab American professional women provided specialized care to the community as psychologists or physicians. Academics and community activists chronicled the way the community was reacting to events connected to the war. They reported and explained the feelings of anger, fear, hurt, and despair that made the war and its aftermath part of their durational collective memory.(45) They also defended the culture against numerous attacks. Community activists were particularly sensitive to the hostility shown to Arab American women by the American public. One reported how some of her women relatives in Michigan, who adhered to an Islamic mode of dress, feared that their appearance in public places during the war would provoke male violence against them as women and as visible symbols of their culture. (46) These Muslim women's fears clearly indicated that male violence against women in the U.S., combined with cultural prejudice was a problem that was specific to them as Arab Americans. Once the war was over, Arab American women called for healing the divisions within the community.(47) In all the above ways, they emerged as an important voice for the community during its hour of need.
In short, the war and the anti-Arab attacks against the community that accompanied it made it possible for U.S. and Arab American institutions not to acknowledge or to react to sexist actions and views that affected Arab American women. The problems that were specific to women went largely unacknowledged, unreported, and unaddressed. The war also reinforced the gendered roles that Arab American men and women played in serving the community During the crisis, most of the energies of Arab American women have been devoted to taking care of traumatized families and communities. While this delivered important emotional and social resources needed to survive the Gulf crisis, it also contributed to enhanced patriarchal control of community agendas. With women busy taking care of families, neighborhoods, and communities, the men and their organizations proceeded to define the problems facing the group. In claiming to speak for a community that was not differentiated by gender, they unconsciously as well as consciously maintained existing gendered relations of power. U.S. reporting of the FBI's interrogation of Arab American wives as extensions of their husbands did not question its sexist assumptions. In the discussion of nation or international crises, the reporting of and commentary on the sexist behavior of the security apparatusof the state took a back seat. While the war highlighted the conflict of interest between the majority (Anglo) patriarchs and their Arab American counterparts, cultural nationalism reinforced the patriarchal control that bothmaintained of their community agendas.
Hybridity and the Quest for New Directions: Arab American Feminist Discourses in the 1990s
Following the end of the war, there were numerous attempts by Arab American women to examine how the war had influenced their self definition, the analysis of their problems, and possible strategies of social change. In this debate, generational, cultural, and political differences contributed distinct discourses on what Arab-American feminism stood for. The earliest feminist attempt to analyze the way the war influenced Arab American women's definition of themselves came from the older and more established segment. It offered a U.S. nationalist perspective on what it means to be Arab American. Elmaz Abinader, a self-proclaimed feminist who traces her family history to Lebanese Christian immigrants who came to the U.S. before the Second World War, presented her own experience as a paradigm.(48) While she noted how an Arab surname and complexion led to harassment by the authorities at U.S. airports, she highlighted her identity as a native-born American. The Arab part in Arab American signified being knowledgeable about the region and having sympathy for the woes of its women. She resented, however, the way other Americans treated Arab Americans as Arabs who were not different from those in the old world. She took pride in how other Arabs identified her as an American. As an Arab American woman, she set itself apart from that of other Arab and/or Muslim women (49). Their traditions, religion and patriarchal culture were not hers. She considers American-born Christian women of Arab ancestry as more liberated than those who were born in Arab countries, including many recent Muslim immigrants. This school of Arab American feminism internalizes U.S. views of Arab culture as patriarchal/ restrictive and of Arab women as its submissive victims and legitimate objects of U.S. criticism and attack. Assimilation into U.S. society has been seen as a means of combatting Arab sexism and of claiming for Arab American women the privileged status of Western feminists.(50)
In contrast to this older, but nevertheless still current definition of American feminism as the solution to the problems of Arab women, the anthology of Arab American and Arab Canadian feminist writings titled Food for Our Grandmothers (1994) offers the novel perspectives of a new generation of women, including many Christians. It questions the feasibility of assimilation or passing for white.(51) Many of the contributors recognize that in a race-conscious American society, Arab Americans are always identified and treated like people of color and that some of their struggles with the hegemonic culture that has devalued them are similar to the experiences of other minorities.(52) This self-conscious definition of Arab Americans and Arab American women as members of an ethnic minority represents a break with older attitudes and strategies. It represents a new emphasis on their hybrid cultural character as at once Arab and American. The Arab component is not only shaped by the past and present history of their countries of origin, their diverse ethnic/cultural traditions, but also by the history of Arabs' immigration to the U.S. and the positions they occupy here. The American component is largely shaped by widespread intercultural marriage, the experience of being a cultural and a religious minority, and the treatment of Arabs and/or Arab Americans by the hegemonic culture as a cultural "other."
Because of this distinct history and position, Arab American feminism has not sat comfortably within either of these cultures. It offers a hybrid perspective with all that this adjective signifies: the ambiguous cultural character, the multiple cultural mutations, and the equally diverse politics. As such, it promises a conscious double critique of both the Arab and the American determinants of women's experience/identity. By focusing on the analysis of the "conflicted interaction of Arab and American cultures"(53) and the particular forms of intersection between sexism and anti-Arab racism, Food for Our Grandmothers promises a new agenda.
This new discourse on what it is to be Arab American highlighted the rewarding potential of forming alliances between Arab Americans and other people of color, especially with African-Americans. This will not be an easy alliance because of historical and cultural factors.(54) Many African Americans associate Arabs with the East African trade in slaves and view them as participating in the historical exploitation of Africa and its people. Some Arabs have been equally shaped by the existence of white and black slaves in their pre modern societies into very race-conscious individuals. For those who are more conservative on race- and class-conscious, an alliance with other minorities is hard to accept in their quest for mobility. On the question of Islam, there are bases for both alliance and conflict: since approximately fifty percent of Muslims in the U.S. are African-American, Islam represents a common bond between two communities; yet many African-Americans share the American stereotypes about Islam and its treatment of women. Some African-American nationalists consider Islam not to be an African religion. It is instead the religion of the Arabs who are outsiders to the continent. In a similar vein, many Arab Muslims are puzzled by the racial views and positions taken by the Nation of Islam. In short, while American racism and sexism might provide the basis for strong alliances with other people of color, there are many historical, cultural, and political considerations that make sympathy more difficult than one might think.
Finally, a naive liberal feminism, in the name of celebrating cultural diversity, has attempted to romanticize the Arab American experience, including its history of racism and cultural stereotyping. In Arabian Jazz,(55) the author Diana Abu-Jaber revelled in a fictional account of the imperfections of Arab American experiences including the celebration of the hegemonic cultural stereotypes of the groups and its racist portrayal.(56) In using many of the cliched representations of Arabs, Arab Americans and/or Muslims as aspects of their reality that have entertainment value,(57) she claimed that these fictional accounts celebrated cultural diversity. She also claimed to follow in the footsteps of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker in offering different perspectives on the community and its experiences.(58) In invoking Morrison and Walker as literary models, she was significantly silent on how their fictional works also offered powerful critiques of racism in the U.S. Not only is this critique absent from her accounts of the Arab American experience, but she viewed the attempt by one critic to refocus attention on racism(59) as an appeal to political correctness i.e. "to prescribe on specific approved tale." (60) Instead, she offered Arab American critics the liberal promise "of celebrating the many ways that people can open up and write their lives." (61)
While the discussion of racism does not preclude the opening up of a community for internal critique, laughing at its imperfections or giving its members agency, all are necessary for a complex appreciation of a collective social experience. The idea of individuals freely writing their lives without reference to the social relations of power that shape their experiences is at best naive and at worst a defence of the hegemonic liberal ideology and its strategy of domination.
In a review she offered of the feminist anthology Food for Our Grandmothers, she offered another problematic liberal position designed to contain the subversive and critical insights of the new discourse which defines Arab American women relation to "whiteness" and its system of power relations. In discussing the political dilemma faced by Arab American feminists who are asked to align themselves with "white women" vs. "women of color," Diana Abu-Jaber observes: "No one points out that such categories are social constructs, the kind that form the underpinnings of prejudice. In other words, thinking in terms of race may be inherently racist. The challenge ... is how to celebrate heritage without participating in the same form of classification and racial otherness." (62) In this view of liberal society, it is possible to treat the category of "white women" and that of "women of color" as equally racist. Relations of power captured by these categories are lost in this equation. More seriously, Abu-Jaber's view entertains the possibility that it is possible in U.S. liberal and racist society to escape thinking in racial terms. In fact, the fight against racism requires one to critically uncover the relations of power implicit in the dominant categories as part of the effort to challenge them. For liberal feminism, the question of power is skirted by upholding the illusion that individual choices can transcend problematic categories and realities.(63)
During the last ten years, the Arab American community and its women have begun to move in new political and intellectual directions. Through the Rainbow coalition in the 1988 presidential elections, politically minded Arab American formed successful alliances with other people of color and through them were able to further their community's agenda. Two years later, the Gulf Crisis then the War served to highlight the common interests and views that Arab Americans shared with other minority groups. Despite the participation of large numbers of African American and Latino soldiers in the war, these groups were also significantly represented among the anti-war activists who underlined the human costs of the war and the disproportionate share of these costs their communities were asked to shoulder. Following the war, a new generation of Arab American feminists, who pondered the impact that the war had on their community and other communities of color, began to develop a new discourse that theorizes the similarities and differences that they shared with women of color.
This is a development that some segments within the community and its women do not view with favor. The advocates of a liberal feminist discourse have already tried to disarm this new discourse with the claim that the identification with women of color perpetuates racial thinking and politics. There is also evidence that Arab American men have used the racist attitudes within the community to discredit the mobilizing effort of this new feminist group.(64) If you add to this the fact that some women of color are reluctant to acknowledge Arab American women as members of a distinct minority with its own concerns,(65) then one can have a clear appreciation of the difficult struggle ahead. This is a struggle that is nevertheless worthwhile. The discourse that defines Arab American women as women of color gives a new impetus for the discussion of racism not just as a problem facing the community, but also as a problem within the community. The fight against the racist attitude and practices within opens the door to the discussion of homophobia and the hostility some members of the community show towards Arab American gay men and Lesbian women. These problems which are internal to the community undermines its ability to mobilize against the racism of the hegemonic culture and to build successful coalitions with other groups and communities with the U.S. political system. The fight against these problems provide important levers for overcoming the "partitioned"(66) and "ghettoized"(67) existence that have dissipated the collective and intellectual energies of Arab Americans as people of color in the U.S. The attempt to establish historical and representational connections without ignoring the differences that make each singular promises to enhance the ability of the group to effectively develop new discourses and alliances capable of challenging the hegemonic culture and forces they face in the U.S.