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Women and “the Middle East”

I had the great fortune of attending a recent Contemporary Women’s Issues Workshop in Los Angeles, California, USA. Our bold leader, Diane Balser,1 led a class on women and “the Middle East.” She asked me to speak briefly on the topic, and this is what I said:

The Arab League has twenty-two nations in it, many of which are in North Africa. “The Middle East” is a colonial term that comes from England. If you think about a map, many Arab countries are to the east of England, and in the “middle” relative to countries farther east. We still use the term because it is commonly understood in the United States and other countries in the West.

We South, Central, and West Asian-heritage people have an International Liberation Reference Person now! Azi Khalili. She’s not a Reference Person for people of the Middle East but for people of South, Central, and West Asia, which is the language that we’re using more and more in RC and that is often used in the wide world. It still doesn’t acknowledge North Africa, but we have to start somewhere. Azi is an Iranian woman who immigrated as a young adult to New York (USA). She has been building Co-Counseling there for decades. She’s also been leading South, Central, and West Asian liberation for years. Giving her a title is important in terms of the visibility of her leadership as well as the visibility of our communities within Co-Counseling.

When we talk about South, Central, and West Asia, we’re talking about many countries, from India and Pakistan up through Turkey and Iran and over to the Arab countries of Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, for example. It makes sense for the countries of this region to be grouped together. Our people are targeted in similar ways: our men are perceived as terrorists and as more sexist than other men, and our women are thought of as silent and oppressed or exotic and belly dancing. At the same time, we have musical instruments, languages, histories, food, and traditions in common. It’s not just the oppression that ties us together but our cultures as well.

The first wave of Arab immigrants to the United States came in the early 1900s. Most were Christian and fleeing the Ottoman Empire, which was massacring Christians at that time. There was a huge fight in the U.S. court system, led by the Syrians, who argued that because they came from Christ’s homeland, they should be considered white. They wanted to distance themselves from blackness so as to avoid being targeted by racism. They ended up being recognized as white and fought hard to blend in and assimilate into U.S. society.

Up until now, most of us U.S. Arabs in Co-Counseling have been the descendants of that first wave of immigrants. The majority of us are mixed heritage, with Arab fathers and white mothers. We have spent the last ten years facing what our ancestors wouldn’t: genocide recordings2 and the terror of identifying as Arab.

Since the 1960s there have been more waves of Arab immigrants, and more of them have been dark skinned and Muslim. I think we Arab RCers have faced our internalized oppression enough that we will begin to build, or continue to build, relationships with people of these waves, and our Co-Counseling Communities will start to become home to them. We’d like everybody to get prepared for that.

Azi leads a monthly conference call with about a dozen Arab RC leaders, the majority of whom are women. She chooses a different topic every month, for example, the Arabic language. Recently she had us look at being mixed heritage. The work we’re doing in these calls is trickling over into the wide world. For example, next month I’m presenting at an Arab writers’ conference a study I did of Arab American women writers who are mixed heritage with one European parent and one Arab parent. (Many of the big names in the Arab American writing community are mixed heritage.) I asked them why, if they could pass as white, they chose instead to “flame” as Arab. (“Flame” means show something that is otherwise hidden and not well accepted by the dominant society.) Most said that although it was a choice to assert their Arab identity, it also wasn’t, because it was so much of who they were.

Stephanie Abraham
Los Angeles, California, USA
Reprinted from the RC e-mail
discussion list for leaders of women

1 Diane Balser is the International Liberation Reference Person for Women.
2 Distress recordings

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00