On November 4, 2014, the US Department of Justice put Palestinian-American Rasmea Odeh on trial for allegedly lying on her naturalization application ten years earlier, when she did not indicate that the Israeli state arrested, convicted, and imprisoned her in 1969. On October 27, foreshadowing the injustices to come, Judge Gershwin Drain ruled that Odeh could not speak of her imprisonment in Israel.
Amid ongoing battles over the shape of political systems in the Arab world, intense sexual violence against women in those countries, and protest movements by women fighting for their rights, advancing the causes of Arab women is of utmost importance. Yet international human rights advocates often confront the struggles of women in Arab countries far too simplistically.
Often ignored in U.S. discussions on Egypt is how protests led by labor unions—many women-based labor unions in the manufacturing cities of Egypt—have catalyzed the Egyptian revolution (Paul Amar, 02-05-11). The women now holding down Tahrir Square as we speak—are of all ages and social groups and their struggle cannot be explained through Orientalist tropes that reduce Arab women to passive victims of culture or religion or Islam.
Up until the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, several Arab American writers used the trope “invisibility” to refer to the place of Arab Americans within dominant U.S. discourses on race and ethnicity. A common theme in this literature was that while most government definitions classify Arab Americans as “white,” popular U.S. discourses tend to represent “Arabs” as different from and inferior to whites. Exemplifying this perspective, Helen Samhan referred to the racialization of Arab Americans within U.S. government racial schemas as “white, but not quite” (1999); Joanna Kadi argued that Arab Americans are the “most invisible of the invisibles” (1994); Therese Saliba published the essay “Resisting Invisibility: Arab Americans in Academia and Activism” (1999); and Nada Elia used the trope “the white sheep of the family” to analyze the ways in which Arab American women have been positioned among U.S. women of color feminist movements (2002).
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.