What kind of Cultural Feminist are you?

The Protector, By Hanna Ali Khliefat, March 15, 2012 in Ain Mousa, Al `Aqabah, Jordan

One evening, over an Algerian meal, I was introduced to the concept of dual cultural identity. It was posited that the skill of dual culturalism is what the Arab American possesses, not a bicultural one. We were discussing ways of describing the Arab American perspective, as possibly using the concepts of Arabphile and Anglophone, or vice versa.

“Did you just say dual cultural? Isn’t it bicultural?” I asked, wondering if I sounded completely one-dimensional or superficial.

He shook his head “no”. “Arab Americans cannot be bicultural, they can only be dually cultural. It’s not possible to combine being Arab and American, but one can adapt and understand each culture very well ” he replied.

But being bicultural is not mutually exclusive of being able to navigate through two cultures, I thought, and the “bi” prefix indicates that there is some form of coexistence that has manifested. The true complexity of being Arab American is that most of us can only architect one identity in a lifetime. It is an identity that evolves, changes and stagnates at times – but most of us are only capable of  expressing our individuality through our identity. Not multiple individualities. Being that we are only human, being bicultural is the only option. One must find a functional way of manifesting both cultural tendencies through one identity.

If being bicultural means that two identities are in some form of a single coexistence, then there must be some compromise of each cultures attributes. In the anecdotal example, what comes with being Arab American are the choices I inherently must make about what values I believe in. The universal social concepts of individualism and collectivism values emerge and pose a dilemma;

  1.  The Arab identity is focused on one’s family – making decisions that only benefit the welfare of the tribe. The collectivist perspective finds that when one detaches to individuate, they are disrespectful, selfish or unusual. The individualist may accuse the collectivist society of diminishing the freedom of each individual when an authority, political or otherwise, emerges to advance the plight of the tribe.
  2. The American identity views individualism as a sign of maturity and believes that self-reliance is mission critical to survive. The individualist perspective accuses collectivist societies of inhibiting the development of personalities and for causing a level of unhealthy codependence, or even immaturity.

There are many paradoxes that Arab American’s balance with, besides individualist and collectivist perspectives, such as;

  • Valuation of wisdom and age, versus youth and beauty
  • Freedom from objectification  through modesty versus sexual expression
  • Direct (mean what you say) versus indirect (meaning through context) communication styles
  • The way relationships are developed, their depth/superficiality, and maintained
  • Adherence to hierarchy and patriarchy versus assumption and pursuit of democracy and equality

So then, what is being Arab American? You cannot be both individualist and collectivist. You could understand how both values work, and you could know how to navigate through each, but it is virtually impossible to be of both schools of thought. They are two completely opposing ways of life. So you must pick one. Bicultural identity formation is the process of sifting and picking through the values and mores of each culture – this discovery is a lifelong exploration.

The dual culturalism that my friend was referring to acknowledges that each of the two cultures are distinct separate entities.  A dual culturalist is capable of adapting, assimilating and navigating through each one – one is a cultural native of both and acts as a cultural native of both when needed. In this context, dual culturalism is actually a by-product of one’s biculturalism. Biculturalism and the combining/coexistence of two cultures in a single identity, is what our internal  journey is called. Dual culturalism, or the skill of assimilating within two distinct cultures, is the externalization of biculturalism, and therefore what our survival skill is called.

I sometimes wish that I didn’t care or consider each my cultures so much. The monoculturalist takes for granted how easy it is to just “be” in one set of values. Once, I met a German American woman who was sharing her journey of identity formation with me. She said that she used to be confused as to what she wanted to adhere to – her German side, or her American side – which confused her relationship with her German husband. Until one day, she realized that she was simply both. And that she should just “be” in both cultures as this is how her identity was formed.

But being Arab American is an excruciating dwelling  of the values, or the actions that manifest the values, because otherwise it would be hypocritical to be both. Maybe there are cultural components that already align or are parallel in value between Europe and America, but for Middle Eastern/Western flavors, each value or school of thought is the direct opposite of the other. Each forms an entirely different way of life, and decision-making process. It would simply be hypocritical to maintain both. We Arab Americans, unlike my German American friend, unfortunately have to choose.