Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany, and Nadine Naber, editors, Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, and Belonging. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this collection?
Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany, Nadine Naber (RA, EA, NN): It was a year after 11 September 2001, and the three of us were on the same panel at the American Anthropological Association in New Orleans. As we sat at Café du Monde, we noted how Arab American and Arab American feminist perspectives were virtually absent from the academic conferences in which we participate (for example,. the American Studies Association, Middle East Studies Association, and American Sociological Association). We discussed the challenges facing Arab and Arab American activist scholars at this historical moment, characterized by rising xenophobia, racism, and the silencing of dissent in political and intellectual spaces. We were exasperated by the countless times we had received invitations to speak on “the veil,” cliterodectomy, and suicide bombings. Although none of us was in principle opposed to discussing these issues, the ways in which these issues were framed greatly hindered our abilities to offer critical and thoughtful analysis of Arab and Muslim women’s condition. We were repeatedly forced to fit the varied, rich, and complex lives of Arab and Muslim women into limited stereotypes. These stereotypes take “women’s oppression” out of context and reinforce imperialist discourses that reduce Arab and Muslim social practices to misogyny, gendered violence, and sexual repression and have the effect of justifying anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence at home, and occupation and colonization in our homelands.
We decided to make critical Arab and Arab American feminist interventions at the academic conferences in which we participate. We began by inviting together Arab and Arab American feminists to participate in two roundtable discussions at the 2003 American Studies Association conference. We followed these panels by co-editing a special issue of the MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies (Spring 2005; we are grateful to Maha Yahya, the editor of MIT EJMES, who invited us to edit this special issue.). This book, Arab and Arab American Feminisms, builds on and expands this project. In addition to several revised essays that were originally published in MIT-EJMES, we include many new contributions. This book presents our readers with a slice of the complex regimes of power that have circumscribed and shaped our lives and a framework for challenging and resisting these regimes. As our contributors show, despite the many points of unity that bring us together, there is no single site of Arab and Arab American feminist struggle.
J: Who do you hope will read this book?
RA, EA, NN: We hope that this book will appeal to people with various interests. The book might appeal to readers who are interested in feminist and queer perspectives on Zionism, Islamophobia, Orientalism, racism, and US Empire. We also expect readers interested in themes such as gender, violence, and belonging or displacement, exile, and diasporas to pick up the book. The book also speaks to academics who are connected to transnational studies, Indigenous feminisms, women of color feminisms, queer studies, ethnic studies, Middle East studies, Palestine studies, race and resistance studies, American studies, and Arab, Muslim, or Arab-American and Muslim-American studies. In fact, we hope that anyone interested in reading essays, stories, poems, and interviews by and about Arab and Arab American women, queers, and trans people will also read this book.
J: How would you like to see this book affect current intellectual and political discussions within feminist and Arab American studies?
RA, EA, NN: The book offers an analysis on the interconnection between gender hierarchy and Muslim and Arab bashing, especially the relative ease with which anti-Arab racist statements and actions are made without fear of retribution or sanctions over hate speech. Contributors discuss colonial feminism, which draws on Orientalist discourses to dehumanize Arab women and to justify US and Israeli state violence and war against Arabs and Muslims in general, and Palestinians in particular. For example, some contributors hold US hegemonic liberal feminisms accountable for reifying colonial feminist discourses and practices. As our volume illustrates, there is an urgent need to put a stop to what liberal and colonial feminists view as the “inherent cultural” or “religious” practices in our communities. Several contributors criticized superficial analyses that view the category Arab feminism as an oxymoron—as if Arabness or Muslimness were incompatible with feminism, or as if Arabs were “inherently” or genetically incapable of understanding, advocating, or fighting for an end to gender and sexual oppression.
Some contributors challenge dominant paradigms in Arab American studies that exclude the experiences of Arab Jews. Others call into question masculinist frameworks that suggest that the larger society only suffers from racism while Arab and Muslim American communities suffer from sexism, as if our communities were living in a vacuum or as if the larger society were immune to gender and sexual oppressions. We argue instead that racism and sexism, as well as other forms of structural inequalities, exist in both the larger society and in our communities; that they are dialectically connected; and that they reinforce and strengthen each other. Therefore, we propose in the book that our responses to and struggles against racism, sexism, and homophobia must be crafted in a nuanced manner that does not prioritize one liberation struggle over another nor engage in a marathon of victimhood.
Many of our contributors enlist a historically specific analysis of anti-Arab racism, highlighting the targeting and smearing of Arab and Arab American feminists who publicly support justice for Palestine. Others focus on the racial ambiguity of Arab Americans beyond their official classification as white and our own identification (and treatment) as communities of color. Another group of contributors historicize the centrality of homophobia to anti-Arab racism, exemplified by the torture in Abu Ghraib. (The most recent ads on the buses of the MTA in New York and MUNI in San Francisco represent a renewed effort to smear Arabs and Muslims by invoking homophobia.) The volume makes clear that the co-editors and contributors alike share a commitment to struggle against homophobia and the marginalization of queer and transgender people within dominant Arab and Arab American spaces and discourses.
Although this volume is titled Arab and Arab American Feminisms, many of us who have contributed to the book do not comfortably identify with the term “feminism”; we rather use it as shorthand for a commitment to gender justice, including an end to gender inequality, homophobia, and transphobia. We further note that not all struggles for gender justice are the same: some tend to be hierarchical; some privilege struggles against sexism over struggles for feminist, queer, and transgender justice; others position gender justice in tension with and opposition to other forms of justice. This book coalesces around a specific political vision. We imagine a radical feminist politics that insists on the simultaneity of racial justice, gender justice, economic justice, and self-determination for colonized women, men, queer, and transgender people “over here” and “over there.” In fact, we place “over here” and “over there” in quotes to signal this transnational feminist vision—a vision that acknowledges the gendered ways in which the US is already “over there” and events taking place in our homelands very much permeate our lives in the US In fact, it makes more sense to say “over here” and “over here.” This transnational feminist vision inspires us to imagine and think about social justice in ways that take seriously the impact of US Empire on the lives of people living within the US and the countries that the US is invading—and to work towards alternatives to exclusionary hetero-masculinist, xenophobic, and class-blind politics.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from each of your previous research and writing?
EA: The core of my work is concerned with questions of representations, more specifically how the media produces racial meanings about Arabs and Muslims. These interests are reflected in the online exhibit I guest curated for the Arab American National Museum, “Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes”;,my book Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (New York University Press, 2012); and my co-edited book with Ella Shohat, Between the Middle East and the Americas: The Cultural Politics of Diaspora (University of Michigan Press, 2013). This project connects to these interests in the sense that it is challenging dominant portrayals of Arab and Arab American women as docile and oppressed. While this project is not focused on questions of media representations, it does address larger questions about how Arab and Arab American feminists can represent themselves and be heard in a context in which the meanings of Arab identity are fraught and predetermined. Also, as a Masters student in gender studies and feminist theory in the late 1990s, and later as a PhD student, I was strongly influenced by transnational feminism and women of color feminism. I had the opportunity to work with M. Jacqui Alexander, Ella Shohat, and Cherrie Moraga, whose work has been inspiring and influential. I see my participation in this project as my part of my intellectual trajectory and my commitment to scholarship that is invested in social justice.
NN: All of my work has sought to develop alternatives to assimilationist approaches to Arab American Studies that represent Americanization as a struggle between an essentialized “Arab culture and tradition” that immigrants bring with them and the dynamic “modern” culture they encounter in the US. My concern is that such approaches reify Orientalist, colonialist paradigms and assume the superiority of “modern, Western culture.” In my book Arab America, I expanded upon the analytic I call “diasporic Arab feminist critique” to contextualize concepts and practices of family, gender, culture, and religion among Arab Americans in light of local and intimate intra-communal relationships and the larger political and economic context of globalization and transnational modernity—such as the experience of belonging to a “diaspora of empire.” This book also reflects my interest in reaching audiences beyond the academy and developing collective political critique that are relevant to social-justice based artists, creative writers, and activists and accountable to community-based movements. This book connects in many ways to my current research among feminist activists in Lebanon, Egypt, and Dearborn. The research focuses on the emergence of feminist activism against the backdrop of militarism, war, and the Arab revolutions.
RA: This book simultaneously connects to and departs from my and current work. My academic career started after two decades of being a community organizer and UN-based journalist, which made it impossible to separate the two. My writing on Palestinian women’s movements accompanied and was influenced by our organizing to build the Union of Palestinian Women’s Associations in North America (UPWA). My research on subaltern feminisms (or the liberation of women) as an organic part of people’s struggle against settler colonialism, on one level, and organizing to build UPWA, on the other, reinforced the idea of the transnationality of Palestine while also highlighting the contradictions of Palestinian diasporic conditions in the Americas, an older and a more consolidated site of another settler colonial project. As it was always here and here for me, the politics of naming ourselves as Arab Americans or Arab in the US, for example, represents the fragmentation of our exiled existence, as some of my earlier work shows.
As I dipped my feet deeper in the academy, it became apparent that we, as activist/scholars, needed to frame our analysis in ways that critically reflect the dynamism, tensions, and conflicts within our communities‑that is, resisting oversimplifications, insisting on the messiness of social life wherever we are and in whatever we do, and maintaining the indivisibility of justice as an underlying (guiding) principle. For me, the fact that our diasporic communities reproduce the sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Orientalism, and even the Zionism (due to internalized colonialism) of the larger society in which we live is a no-brainer. How could we not internalize colonial trappings when we are interacting with, and our existence is saturated by, colonialism day in and day out both in our homeland, Palestine, and here in the US, a country that has perfected settler colonialism and its audacious claims of exceptionality?
In a sense, this book then is a continuation of my past work with a stronger emphasis on the US. I am now finishing two overdue projects involving the production of revisionist readings of Palestinian women’s and gender studies, on one hand, and the Palestinian resistance movement, on the other. The two projects are overdue because for many years I was unable to dedicate as much time as I’d like to research and writing on Mapping Arab Diasporas, a research project that I started while I was the Director of the Center for Arab American Studies (CAAS) at the University of Michigan-Dearborn (and which I carried along to San Francisco State University). The task of institution-building both in Michigan and at SFSU, while essential to community maintenance and well-being, can be a major obstacle to creativity and writing, as the recent volume, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersection of Race and Class for Women in Academia, shows.
However, combining pedagogy, scholarship, and organizing seems to reap the best results. We have just completed the proposal for a minor in Arab and Muslim ethnicities and Diasporas Studies at SFSU and designed exciting new courses. In addition, rather than do my own projects, I have been collaborating with comrades in our overlapping communities, within and outside the academy, on three specific projects. The first, “Stories of Palestinian Diasporas,” aims to record oral histories from Palestinians in the San Francisco Bay Area, North America, and transnationally, lest our histories die as our elders pass on and our narratives are retold from a colonial perspective, at worst, or a “disinterested” perspective, at best. The second project is “From Pelican Bay and Guantanamo to Palestine: Prisons, Repression and Resistance.” The project’s ultimate goal is the abolition of the prison industrial complex; in the meantime, we are pursuing a two-pronged approach of targeting G4S, the largest multinational “security” company with subsidiaries operating prisons and jails in Israel and California, and supporting prisoners’ demands and struggles, in Pelican Bay, Guantanamo, and Palestine, including hunger strikes. Finally, the third project, “Archiving Feminist Histories: Transnational Women’s Interventions and Struggles North and South,” engages what are commonly understood as US histories of the 1960s and 1970s women’s movements and highlights the international dimensions that were already present, arguing for the ongoing practical and theoretical relevance of these perspectives to contemporary transnational feminist social justice movements. We work from the perspective that the condition of the colonized from a marginalized location is crucial for understanding women’s active participation in multiple movements.
Excerpt from Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, and Belonging
From Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany, and Nadine Naber, “Introduction”
Episode One: 22 November 2002
In Brooklyn, Yusra Awawdeh, a sixteen-year-old Arab American student at Franklin D. Roosevelt High School, wore a “Free Palestine” T-shirt, a Palestinian flag pin, and kufiya (checkered Palestinian scarf) to school. A security guard removed her from class and took her to the dean’s office, where a female school safety officer patted her down and told her to remove her shoes and socks while the dean looked on. The guard told Yusra to empty her pockets and then checked to see if she was hiding anything around her abdomen. “I was really embarrassed,” said Yusra. “They made me feel like I was a terrorist with weapons.” After the search, the dean told Yusra that she could no longer wear her scarf or flag pin. “The only flag I can represent at the school is the American flag,” said Yusra, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. “I am American but I also want to represent my heritage. I felt like they were trying to take something away from me. They never said I broke any rules.”
Episode Two: 16 June 2008
At a Detroit rally for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, volunteers removed two Arab American Muslim women to move from behind the stage where Obama was to hold his speech to prevent their appearance in photographs and television frames with the candidate. In a statement released to the New York Times, the two women, Shimaa Abdelfadeel and Hebba Aref, explained that the campaign volunteers told them that they were not allowed to sit in that area because of the hijab each wore on her head. Koussan, Hebba’s friend who also attended the rally, said that the Obama volunteer told her that it was “not good for her to be seen on TV or associated with Obama” because “of the political climate and what’s going on in the world and with Muslim Americans.” Obama released a public apology following the incident, stating that “the actions of these volunteers were unacceptable and in no way reflect any policy of my campaign. I will continue to fight against discrimination against people of any religious group or background.”
Episode Three: 5 January 2009
“Get the F... out of the USA...NOW!!!” wrote a Mark Redlich, responding to a statement issued by California Scholars for Academic Freedom that denounced the Israeli war on Gaza. In one of several hate e-mails the group received, a Keith Weinman, expressing hatred against Arabs and Muslims in particular, accused the Arab media of lying and referred to what he claimed to be a prototypical Arab woman who appeared repeatedly in different contexts: “One fat arab cow has appeared in 3 different photos bewailing the loss of a home in Gaza, children in Baghdad, and a husband somewhere else and under three different names.”
Why do we begin with these three episodes, and what do they tell us about the subject of this book: gender, violence, and belonging and the relevance of these concepts to the lives of Arab and Arab American feminists in the United States today? Conventional analysis might suggest that the three episodes are isolated incidents that do not constitute a pattern especially now, in a country such as the United States that purports to be “postracial,” as evidenced by the election of a Black man as president. We insist that the three episodes are anything but isolated and that, in fact, they represent a pattern of rising xenophobia against Arabs and Muslims in the post-11 September 2001 United States. Backlash against persons perceived to be “Arab or Muslim or both” has become an increasingly widespread consequence of the construction of the “Arab and Muslim” as an Other in the dominant “American” imaginary, revealing how long-term trends of racial exclusion intensify during moments of crisis and war. Episode One demonstrates how a dominant US imperialist ideology inscribes meanings of anti-Americanness, foreignness, and treason upon certain symbols, such as the Palestinian flag and kufiya. New York City continually reinforces “diversity” in multiple ways (restaurants, theater productions, art installations, fashion exhibits, and so on), among them countless holidays, parades, and festivals—the Chinese New Year Celebration, St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Arab American Day Parade, Puerto Rican Day Parade, Lesbian and Gay Pride March, Sweden Day, African American Day Parade, West Indian-American Day Parade, and Pagan Pride Day. These events are not seen as threats, or instruments meant to undermine the “Americanness” of the city or its patriotism. They are, rather, cited as proof of the diversity New York City embraces. Yusra’s case reminds us of the clear limits of multiculturalism when tested at this particular moment in history. Indeed, Yusra’s experience illuminates the tenuous sense of belonging for diasporic communities while the US government wages war on their homelands. But if Yusra’s experience exemplifies tensions around nationness and belonging, how gender specific is it?
We part ways with conventional women’s studies approaches that attribute any victimization of women, regardless of the cause, to gender inequality, we argue that what happened to Yusra could have just as easily, if not more violently, happened to someone perceived to be an Arab male, a queer, or a transgender Arab. This episode calls for an analysis of gender oppression in relationship to collective, group engagements with racial oppression.
In Episode Two, the removal of the two Arab American Muslim women from the backdrop of Obama’s rally is a variation on the long-standing vilification of Arabs and Muslims in the United States that has resurfaced with a vengeance in the post-9/11 climate. Just as Zionist sympathizers have sought to equate the Palestinian flag and kufiya with “terrorist” symbols, so has Islamophobia marked the hijab as negative and threatening. Although troubled by this incident, we do not share its interpretation as evidence that Obama’s campaign actively sought to exclude Arabs and Muslims. We suggest that the subtext of the removal of the young women resonates with the persistent construction of Obama not as a qualified Black candidate but as a qualified candidate who happens to be Black. In other words, in removing the young women from the backdrop, Obama volunteers merely translated what they understood to be the message of the campaign, namely, that Arabs and Muslims were welcomed to the ranks of Obama’s diverse and broad-based campaign as long as they did not bring along telltale signs of who they were. This “postracial society” notion is problematic on two levels: First, it inaccurately equates the election of a Black president with the disappearance of the wide gap between whites and people of color in all facets of life. Second, if Arabs and Muslims (or even Obama himself) must normalize themselves into hegemonic whiteness as the price of acceptance into the American imaginary, while the same is not expected of dominant white ethnic groups, we would infer that groups such as Arabs and Muslims would be welcomed as long as they accept remaining in their marginalized place and do not demand more prominence.
Supporters of the Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, sought to discredit Obama by labeling him as an Arab or a Muslim. This action demonstrates how Arabness and Muslimness have been labeled as irreconcilably different from and opposed to anything remotely resembling normalized Americanness. It speaks to an “America” that might be ready for a president who “happens to be Black” but not for a “Black president” or a president who “happens to be Muslim.” McCain’s defense of Obama by announcing that the latter was not an Arab but in fact a “decent family man,” and Obama’s thanks to McCain for defending him against such libel, further indicates the extent of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim consensus in US public discourses today. Obama’s apology for his volunteers’ removing the young women, which demonstrates the candidate’s familiarity with the depth of anti-Muslim bigotry, is welcomed. His avoidance, however, of any mention of the widespread anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry—a topic that was a consistent staple of his stump speech before he started his presidential campaign—underlines the heavy price he must have felt that he had to pay in an environment in which there is a relative ease with which anti-Arab racist statements and actions could be made without fear of retribution or accusations of hate speech.
In Episode Three, four scholars received e-mails that attacked them and challenged the political stance of their group, the California Scholars for Academic Freedom; offensive and foul language, however, was reserved for the one scholar whose last name sounded as if she were an Arab or a Muslim. These hate e-mails worked with and through racist and Orientalist US discourses that dehumanize Arab women and further claim not only that Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights are fabricated but that they are not legitimate concerns for the US population or the US academy.
Each of the three episodes points to the intensification of ethnic profiling and rising xenophobia toward Arabs and Muslims in the post-9/11/2001 United States. Does this focus then mean that racial profiling against other communities of color has disappeared, that Arabs and Muslims are the most persecuted communities, or that we have a monopoly on oppression? We do not think so: we are not claiming an Arab or a Muslim exceptionality, but we do argue that historical and contextual factors related to the imperialist relationship between the United States and the Arab world have produced distinct forms of racism against and criminalization of individuals and communities perceived to be Arab or Muslim, especially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Our analysis is based on a historically specific approach toward gendered racialization that assumes that racial logics are flexible and mutable to accommodate imperialist power in different temporal and spatial contexts.
The three episodes above, then, reflect the historically specific logic underpinning anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism. We locate this logic within the histories of US-led military, political, and economic expansion in the Arab world and other Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. These histories are constituted by a racialized, Orientalist mind-set that constructs Arabs and Muslims as enemies of the “West.” Such mind-set is but a continuation of centuries of Orientalism, or what Edward Said defines as the assumption of a “basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny, and so on” that facilitate settling, ruling, and having authority over it. Combined with the Orientalist imaginary, normative Judeo-Christian concepts of culture or civilization exclude Islam (and other religious beliefs) and enable the construction of Arabs and Muslims as backward, barbaric, misogynist, sexually savage, and sexually repressive.
In the United States, an Orientalist mind-set, coupled with a Judeo-Christian normative outlook, intersects with xenophobia and an imperialist foreign policy. These imperatives constitute the positioning of an imagined Arab or Muslim enemy as inherently foreign and outside the boundaries of US nationness. This dominant US discourse conflates the categories “Arab” and “Muslim” and assumes that all Arabs are Muslim, all Muslims are Arab, and all Muslim Arabs are the same. It obscures the existence of Arabs who are not Muslim (including, but not limited to, Christians and Jews), and Muslims who are not Arab (including Indonesians, Malaysians, Chinese, South Asians, Africans, African Americans, and Latinos/as). It also erases the historic and vast ethnic communities who are neither Arab nor Muslim but who live amid and interact with a majority of Arabs or Muslims (such as Greeks in Egypt; Armenians in Palestine; Roma in Jordan; Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran; and Imazhigen in North Africa, to name a few).
The rising xenophobia against immigrants of color and the fact that many Arabs and Muslims come from countries at which the United States is at war further contribute to the normalization of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence. Recent geopolitical developments have specifically enabled the vilification of Arabs and Muslims. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp in 1989 eliminated the threat of what then US president Ronald Reagan called “the evil empire.” Out of this historical moment, the US power elite constructed an alternative “viable” threat that has worked to justify weapons production amid increasing popular demand for a peaceful economy. Twenty years later, former US president George W. Bush and his speechwriters constructed another threat that they named “the axis of evil.”
The centrality of Israel to US foreign policy, reflected in the US-Israeli strategic government alliance coupled with the powerful role of the Israeli lobby in Washington, exacerbates the location of the Arab or Muslim in dominant US discourses. This alliance places Arabs and Muslims at the core of US policy and denies them the benign neglect with which the US government responds to the needs of the majority of the people of the world in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Unlike Arab and Muslim communities for whom Palestine lies at the center of political concerns, Palestinians in dominant US and western European discourses are portrayed as villains who seek to destroy the “only safe haven” for the Jewish people.
 Tamer El-Ghobashy, “Palestinian Flag Flap,” New York Daily News, 22 November 2002.
 Sarah Wheaton, “Obama Camp Apologizes to Muslim Women” and “Obama Calls Muslim Women Barred from Stage,” Caucus, 18 June 2008.
 Wheaton, “Obama Calls Muslim Women.”
 For more on the effort to make Muslims compatible with US multiculturalism, see Evelyn Alsultany, “Selling American Diversity and Muslim American Identity Through Non-profit Advertising Post-9/11/2001,” American Quarterly 59, no. 3 (2007): 593–622.
 Rabab Abdulhadi, “‘White’ or Not? Displacement and the Construction of (Racialized and Gendered) Palestinianness in the US,” paper presented at the MESA annual meeting, Washington, DC, November 2002.
 For a copy of the statement, click here. For an analysis of the multiple logics of racism, see Andrea Smith, “The Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” in The Color of Violence (Boston: South End Press, 2006), 66–73.
 A. Smith, “Three Pillars of White Supremacy.”
 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 2–3. See also Minoo Moallem, Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and Patriarchy in Iran (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 2005), 10.
 The top six countries with the largest Muslim populations are Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Turkey, and Iran. None of these countries is Arab.
 C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956).
[Excerpted from Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, and Belonging, edited by Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany, and Nadine Naber, by permission of the editors. Copyright © 2011 by Syracuse University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]