Arab American Femininities: Beyond Arab Virgin/American(ized) Whore


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Arab American Femininities: Beyond Arab Virgin/American(ized) Whore

By Nadine Naber

It was a typical weeknight at my parents’ home. My father was asleep since he wakes up at 4:00 a.m. to open his convenience store in downtown San Francisco. I joined my mother on the couch and we searched for something interesting to watch on TV. My mother held the remote control, flipping through the stations. Station after station a similar picture of an Anglo American male and female holding one another in romantic or sexual ways appeared on the screen. As she flipped the station, my mother remarked, “Sleep, Slept…Sleep, Slept…THAT is America!” She continued, “Al sex al hum, zay shurb al mai [Sex for them is as easy as drinking water.]”

—Nadine Naber, journal entry
December 2, 1999

As I listened to my mother,1 I recalled several experiences growing up within a bicultural Arab American familial and communal context. Al Amerikan (Americans) were often referred to in derogatory sexualized terms. It was the trash culture—degenerate, morally bankrupt, and not worth investing in. Al Arab (Arabs), on the other hand, were referred to positively and associated with Arab family values and hospitality. Similarly, throughout the period of my ethnographic research among middle-class Arab American family and community networks in San Francisco, California,2 between January 1999 and August 2001, the theme of female sexuality circumscribed the ways my research participants imagined and contested culture, identity, and belonging. The theme of female sexuality tended to be utilized as part of some Arab immigrant families’ selective assimilation strategy in which the preservation of Arab cultural identity and assimilation to American norms of “whiteness” were simultaneously desired. Within this strategy, the ideal of reproducing cultural identity was gendered and sexualized and disproportionately placed on daughters. A daughter’s rejection of an idealized notion of Arab womanhood could signify cultural loss and thereby negate her potential as capital within this family strategy. In policing Arab American femininities, this family strategy deployed a cultural nationalist logic that represented the categories “Arab” and “American” in oppositional terms, such as “good Arab girls” vs. “bad American(ized) girls,” or “Arab virgin,” vs. “American(ized) whore.” I coin the term Arab cultural re-authenticity to contextualize this process within Arab histories of transnational migration, assimilations, and racialization. Arab cultural re-authenticity, I suggest, is a localized, spoken, and unspoken figure of an imagined “true” Arab culture that emerges as a reaction of an alternative to the universalizing tendencies of hegemonic U.S. nationalism, the pressures of assimilation, and the gendered racialization of Arab women and men. I use the term hegemonic (white) U.S. nationalism to refer to the official discourses of the U.S. state and corporate media and the notion of a universalized abstract American citizen “at the same time systematically produces sexualized, gendered, and racialized bodies and particularistic claims for recognition and justice by minorities groups.”3

This article focuses on the narratives of three of the thirty interviewees who are specifically activists who have worked within or supported Arab homeland struggles (i.e., Palestine and Iraq), radical Arab and Arab American feminist, queer Arab, and/or women of color feminist movements. Their location of the margins of both hegemonic U.S. nationalisms and Arab American cultural nationalisms provides a rich site from which to explore dominant discourses on gender and sexuality that circumscribe Arab American femininities. Their narratives represent historically specific contexts in which the gendered and sexualized discourses of assimilation, anti-Arab racism, and U.S. Orientalism emerge, as well as the multiple points at which they break down. Counter to dominant colonialist Western feminist approaches that highlight “religion” (Islam) as the primary determinant of Arab women’s identities, this article demonstrates that religion (Christian or Muslim) alone does not determine the process by which Arab American femininities are imagined and performed. Instead, it situates discussions on religious identity within the context of intersecting coordinates of power (race, class, nation, and so forth) and historical circumstances. Moreover, I do not present their narratives as sites from which to universalize the experiences of all Arab American women, but to provide an opportunity to think beyond misperceptions and stereotypes. I locate myself in the context of multiple, contradictory loyalties, such as Arab daughter, sister, and cousin, anthropologist, researcher, community activist, and feminist. This location rendered me at once “insider” and “outsider,” collaboratively and individually deconstructing, contesting, and often reinforcing the cultural logics that circumscribed my research participants’ identities.

This article focuses on the tense and often conflictual location of Arab American femininities at the intersections of two contradictory discourses: Arab cultural re-authenticity and hegemonic U.S. nationalism. I explore the ways that the theme of sexuality permeated many Arab immigrant families’ engagements with the pressures of assimilation vis-à-vis a series of racial and cultural discourses on Arabness and Americanness. I argue that although my research participants (and their parents) perceived their cultural location within a binary of Arabness and Americanness, when lived and performed, this binary constantly broke down, particularly along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and nation. Yet binary terms for expressing the themes of family, gender, and sexuality persisted throughout my field sites as a discursive mechanism for explaining more complex processes that implicate my research participants and their parents within a desire for a stereotypical “Americanization” that is predicated on “Arabness” as the crucial Other. A binary cultural logic of “us” and “them” that was gendered and sexualized was then a discursive reaction to the complex dichotomies of hegemonic U.S. nationalism that at once pressure radicalized immigrants to assimilate into a whitened middle-class U.S. national identity while positioning them outside the boundaries of “Americanness.” Both generations were mutually invested in expressing the two racial-ethnic-national categories (Arab and American) in dichotomous terms because it provided a discursive mechanism for engaging with the processes of immigration and assimilation in which Arabness and Americanness absolutely depend on each other to exist—as opposites and in unison.

[This is an excerpt. To read the full article, download the PDF.]

  1. This is not a literal translation, but conveys the message of my mother’s words. Throughout the rest of this article, I have edited my research participants’ quotes into a readable form, maintaining the originality of the quote as much as possible. This process included cutting predictive words and statements, rearranging the order of the narratives, and simplifying elaborate explanations. I have also altered names and places in order to protect my research participants’ privacy.
  2. These networks included local chapters of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, the Muslim Students’ Association, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Arab Cultural Center.
  3. Minoo Moallem and Ian Boal, “Multicultural Nationalism and the Poetics of Inauguration,” in Between Woman and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminism, and the State, ed. Caren Kaplan, Norma Alarcon, and Minoo Moallem (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999), 243–64.

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