10 Myths on Arab Women

At the point of intersection, between the Arab experience and the American experience, you will find me. I have struggled between rejecting the stereotypes of Arab womanhood in the United States popular culture, as well as criticized the status of women in the Middle East, Islam and the Arab world. In many ways, I saw the two struggles as inherently opposing – are these perceptions of Arab and Muslim women in the U.S. popular culture stereotypes, or are the perceptions rooted from the past feminist work of  Arab women in America? The response to the stereotypes from the Western feminist movement has been in good intention, to help improve the status of women in developing countries.  But are they perpetuating stereotypes, or helping dissolve them?

In the truly perplexed form that my biculturalism thrives, I pondered how I could believe two such seemingly opposing views.

But as I continued to research the history of Arab feminism and the representation of Arab womanhood in the United States from relevant writers such as Amira Jarmakani, Sherin Saadallah and Susan Muaddi Darraj, I learned that these two views are not inherently opposing. However, the context that maintains the silencing of Arab and Muslim women in the U.S. has created imagery so pervasive, that even the Arab American feminist has been subjected to defining these stereotypes, as well as deconstructing them to correct the misinformed U.S. perspective. In other words, pervasive imagery of the oppressed veiled woman and other stereotypes (i.e. the terrorist)  has confused and simplified the Arab American feminist movement.

Therefore, the Arab American feminist movement has been reduced and redirected to defining stereotypes, rather than engaging in a larger feminist discourse that examines the reality of Arab womanhood and the possibilities for our future.

Either they [the Arab feminist] are relegated to the silencing image of the veil, or they are kept busy engaging with, and working to correct, popular U.S. misunderstandings of Arab womanhood… The continuous need to identify and deconstruct stereotypical images of Arab womanhood functions as a double silencing of Arab American feminists whose energy could be better spent theorizing new spaces of possibility for Arab American women rather than responding to the misinformation promulgated by the dominant discourse.

– Amira Jarmakani in “Gender, Nation & Belonging: Arab and Arab American Feminist Perspectives”

To honor the need to identify and define myths, I would like to provide a short summary of stereotypes about Arab and Arab American women, so that in the future I may reference this article instead of consistently distract my analysis on pointing out stereotypes . Some of these stereotypes relate to Arab men too, so I also have a parallel goal to dispel myths on the whole community whenever possible.

10 Myths on Arab Women in the U.S.

1. “All Arab’s are Muslim”

Well, not exactly. Arabs are composed of Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jewish, Druze, atheist, Zoroastrian, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Agnostic… and many more. Just google it, if you don’t believe me.

2. “All Muslims are Arab”

An Arab is one who originates, has ancestral roots or identifies as Arab that lives in the Middle East (sorry for my pathetic definition, but you get what I am saying). In light of that definition, and that not all Arab’s are Muslims – it is interesting that the most populous countries with Muslims are not in the Arab world. They are in Indonesia (with 196 million Muslims), India (with 133 million Muslims) and China (with 133 million Muslims).

3. “All Arab women are short and dark-skinned”

I think anecdotal information is relevant here. I am 6’3″ and am fair-skinned, as well as 100% Arab. I have Arab friends and have seen Arabs who have blonde, black, brown and red hair. There are Arabs with very fair, pale skin as well as Arab’s that have dark brown skin, and all the shades in between. I have female family members taller than me, lighter and darker than me, with blue, brown and green eyes.

4. “There are no such thing as homosexual Arabs”

To be honest, I am still learning about the homosexual community in the Arab world. But I understand through my research that there are  reference materials and analysis on homosexuals in the Arab world, such as “Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab American and Arab Canadian Feminists”.

5. “Arab women are less educated than other women in the U.S., and definitely less education than Arab men.”

It is difficult to find information on how many Arabs are Muslims and how many Muslims are Arab. What I can find is that there are approximately 3 million people who identify as Arab Americans, and 6 million people who identify as Muslims. This is an overlapping figure, in that “Most Arabs in America are not Muslim, and most Muslims are not Arabs.” (Brookings Institute)  While I cannot find specific statistics on Arab female education in the United States, I am able to find information on Muslim women. I think the above myth I state is a mixed thought, since they may imagine or mean a Muslim woman when they refer to “Arab women” in the above statement. So I will present the only valid information I can find as it relates to this subject.

According to the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, Muslim women are just as likely as Muslim men to hold college degrees in the United States.

After Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans are the most educated religious community studied. But Muslim women, unlike Jewish women, are statistically as likely as their male counterparts to say they have a college degree or higher education.

Another interesting fact: the Muslim American population has the highest degree of gender parity than any other religious group in America. In other words, Muslim women and men report similar household incomes regardless of the income bracket. In all other religious groups and in the general population, women make less than men.

6. “Arab women are victims to male oppression and patriarchy because their culture ‘monstrously oppresses’ women more than other women around the world.”

This is truly an over exaggeration, as it was originally part of the U.S. campaign to bolster the invasion of Afghanistan to “liberate Afghani women from the burka”. There is extensive research that identify male oppression and patriarchy as a perpetual issue for all women around the globe. It is in no way exclusively a cultural or religious phenomena in the Arab, Muslim or Islamic world.

7. “If women from that society get raped, they will be killed.”

I think that this myth is also intertwined and confused between the Arab population and the Muslim population. To set the record straight, according to the Sunni Hadith, the victim/survivor of rape is not blamed and the perpetrator of the crime should be sentenced to death under Sharia Law.

An honor killing, which is referenced inadvertently in the myth, is the murder of a family or clan member in which the victim is believed to have brought dishonor to the family. This is an issue that requires critical analysis and attention in the Middle East and the rest of the world. However, it is not mentioned in the Quran, and honor killings are a cultural practice that is not exclusive to the Muslim, Arab or Islamic world.

Any questions, please review this article on “Rape Law in Islamic Societies”.

UPDATE: (4 April, 2011) Because of some discussion in the “Comments” section of this article, I would like to clarify to the reader that the myths I am trying to point out are 1) Honor killings as a result of an Arab or Muslim female getting sexually abused is due to the barbarity of Islam. 2) That killing or punishing women after a sexual abuse or rape is exclusive to the Arab, Islamic and Muslim communities.

I am in no way insinuating that this is not an important issue that requires serious attention and I do believe honor killings in the name of religion, culture or family name is fundamentally a fucked up cultural practice that is not only inhumane and heinous, but also un-Islamic.

8. “Arab women are exotic, because they are belly dancers.”

This image of Arab women can be associated with the media and television representation, “in contexts as varied as the popular sitcom I Dream of Jeannie to a 2002 Camel cigarette advertising scheme entitled ‘exotic pleasures'” ( Jarmakani, Politics of Invisibility, page 133).

9.  “There is no such thing as being a feminist, if you are 1 of 4 wives.”

I am exhausted with this list dispelling myths and stereotypes of Arab women, so I am going to keep this explanation short. I find this documentary by Lisa Ling, (yes it’s on the Oprah show, still legit if you look at the sources they use) to be very relevant and expose that this issue does not exclude the borders of the United States. The concept of 4 wives is explained in the Quran, and many restrictions and requirements are placed on the man. This is hardly a common arrangement in the Middle East. However, I do think it is a legitimate issue that also needs more attention and discussion – in terms of women’s legal and human rights in these marriages and the cultural implications that plague their relationships.

10.  I invite you to contribute other stereotypes of Arab and Arab American females that you hear in the media or around you. I consider my list a good start.