Confessions of an Arab-American Woman

ByCourtney Poles

I am a Star Wars nerd and a rock climber. I curse, and have a Korean-American boyfriend. I'm also a mostly agnostic Arab-American woman. Five years ago I would have never admitted to the latter part of my identity. Many days I still fight it and many days I throw myself at its doorstep thankful for its respite. I like to think of myself as very open-minded: I’m an advocate of stem cell research, support gay marriage, and am pretty sure I never want children. How is that for stereotypes?

Growing up I learned from my parents all I thought I needed to know about Arab culture: If you’re woman your self-worth is tied to your virginity, and you are not free to do as you please. Men do – and have the right to – hit women; and never trust your female cousins and aunts with your secrets — they will tell your father. These are just a few of the messages I received, and as a result I did everything I could to distance myself from “Those People.”

It has taken me almost 30 years to see the strength in the Arab aspect of my identity, to engage with other Arab-Americans, especially the women. I now have two close Arab-American friends and some acquaintances. For a while there I fancied myself “enlightened” about my identity … until I went to a lecture given by Egyptian-Swiss writer and academic Tariq Ramadan and realized just how much I had to learn.

Dr. Ramadan – who remains cautiously optimistic as to whether or not we are witnessing a true Arab Spring – proposed a framework for deriving solutions to the political unrest in the Middle East. At the lecture I attended he raised points beyond simple vilification of the West; points that centered on geopolitics, Islam, the collective psychology of a nation, education, and a healthy economy. I left his lecture both enlightened and angry to the core.

So, what exactly was bothering me? At first I thought it might be the mention of how many Arabs are still blaming the “West” for their problems. Yes, I know we Westerners made a mess, but as Tariq so eloquently explains; it’s not the only reason for the dissension in the region. As I am Western and Arab, this notion felt like a personal affront of the oddest kind. Existentially speaking, it was like having one part of my identity cuss the other out. I put my finger on it, sat with it, and found I was still angry. 

A week later I was with a few of my Arab-American Muslim girlfriends and the real reason I was disturbed hit me. I went through hell to break free of the constraints my parents put on me growing up. Constraints none of my American peers had to deal with, limitations (I felt) imposed on me because I was Arab. Subconsciously, I felt that Islam, or rather my stereotypical perception of it – in particular scarfed women – threatened the freedom I worked so hard to earn. I sheepishly voiced my revelation to my friends. Their responses blew up my world. For the sake of brevity (and because I am dangerously teetering towards lyrics to a new Cure song) I present their comments in bite size fashion:

"To this day, I still find myself being judgmental when I see Muslim women fit or reinforcing a stereotype that I feel such a strong responsibility to break. But in this way, I am allowing these stereotypes to dictate my actions and giving into societal expectations that it is not okay to behave a certain way."

"When I am in a public and I see a Muslim woman covered from head to toe, walking behind her husband, I get frustrated. It bothers me that this woman is just further instilling the stereotype that Muslim women are oppressed. That reflects on me because people lump all Muslim women together. Because of this I get angry and have prejudice against others who share my religion."

“I believe God’s greatest gift to people is their mind/intellect and to waste it is a transgression against Him. For this reason it upsets me to know that there are Muslim women who believe themselves inferior to men. I feel that this is a lack of education and understanding of God and his religion. For this reason I choose not to befriend these women.”

It blew my mind that the “Those People,” now humanized, could be prejudiced against their own kind (just like me!). I felt like Luke in the cave on Dagobah … under that mask was my face. The experience left me transformed and wondering just how open-minded I really am.