“Dear Susan Muaddi Darraj,
My name is Reem Hassan, and I am a first-year undergraduate student at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. I identify as a Muslim Palestinian American woman, and I am currently studying on a pre-law track with hopes of majoring in public policy and minoring in Arab and Muslim American Studies. I was first introduced to your piece “It’s Not an Oxymoron” during my first semester in university, where I took an introductory course to women’s and gender studies (WGS). To say the least, I found myself absolutely astounded by your work. Having registered for the course on a whim and expecting to only mildly relate to the material, I was shocked to be so completely moved by our first reading. I explicitly remember feeling as though you had taken my thoughts on the intersection of my Arab identity on my feminist experience straight out of my head and put it on paper. I felt heard. Your short piece had the ability to influence my work for the rest of that semester and inspired me to take my understanding to new and deeper levels and enroll in our Arab American Feminists course this semester. Upon interacting with your piece yet again this semester, I was reminded of why it had such an impact on me, and how deeply I resonate with your story.”
This is an excerpt taken from one of the first “Feminist Love Letters” I wrote last semester while taking an Arab American Feminists course with Professor Charlotte Karem Albrecht — an absolute icon in the WGS department. We were asked to address a “love letter” to one of the authors we had read in class, both celebrating and critiquing their work. I was immediately drawn to write to Susan Muaddi Darraj, who authored “It’s Not an Oxymoron: The Search for an Arab Feminism.”
Although I have always considered my feminist awakening as something deeply personal, I have come to learn that many other Arab American women empower themselves in a similar experience. It is an experience where we constantly question the grounds upon which we are allowed to call ourselves feminists, where we never feel as though we are allowed to call ourselves such a phrase because of western impositions onto the definition of feminism, and where we live an experience that we never feel like we have the right to articulate. In all truth, “Middle Eastern” (in quotations because the phrase is a colonial invention that I am not exactly fond of) or Arab women are not exactly regarded as the token feminist figures in the western lens. We are forced to carry a stereotyped reputation of arranged marriages, housework, oppression, being forced to cover up and countless other baseless tags and labels. And beyond this, even after I have finally come to understand what feminism really entailed, it was something that was treated with so much animosity by the people around me. In high school, boys amped up their “women belong in the kitchen” jokes and poked fun at the girls who identified as feminists for being “crazy.” Girls who were not interested in saying anything else only laughed with them. I remember watching in disgust and confusion as girls at my school — some of whom were even my friends — would proudly announce that they don’t consider themselves feminists just so that they’d be applauded by the boys. I could not fathom why they chose to view feminism as a surface-level ideology, fixating on buzzwords like “man-hating” and “wage gap” while overlooking the societal benefits from the overarching goals of women’s liberation.
On the other hand, I realized that feminism came so naturally to me because it did not defy the values or the practices that I was raised upon — it actually gave them a name. I grew up in a household where my sisters and I were encouraged to shoot for the stars and be ambitious with our goals, to defy gendered career expectations and to never give in to socially constructed gender roles. Both of my parents worked full time and distributed chores among themselves equally. I grew up watching my dad cook and clean and my brothers being given equal responsibility in maintaining the home. The contradictory attitudes that I encountered while coming to terms with my feminist identity motivated me to take Introduction to Women’s Studies upon starting at the University of Michigan.
While much of the class was introducing and giving names to basic concepts like intersectionality, patriarchy and male-gaze, I noticed a vast difference between the backgrounds of the students who were enrolled in the course and how that influenced the ways in which they absorbed and comprehended the course material. I found myself engaged in productive conversation with students of color more than I did with the white students in the course. During the weekly discussion sections where we would share individual interpretations of the readings based on our own experience, I was shocked by how uninformed many of my white, straight, financially privileged, cisgender classmates were about the struggles that marginalized communities confront without reflecting on their own privileges. And while I would never deny the fact that objectively, being a woman in itself is a marginalized identity that suffers from patriarchal oppression, for me and other women of color, it is our intersecting identities that really amplify the impacts of being a woman. The yearning to have conversations with more people who understood how my intersectionality impacted my feminist experience prompted me to enroll in an upper-level Arab American Feminism course during my second semester.
One of the most important themes that Susan touches upon in her writing — also reiterated throughout almost every lesson of my WGS classes — is the role that white western feminism plays in aiding the misunderstanding of women who are not white, Western, cisgender, financially privileged or straight. White western feminism is a one-dimensional ideology that fails to regard the ways in which a person’s intersecting identities influence their feminist experience. It applies the same European/U.S.-centric critiques to populations and cultures all over the world, failing to account for different cultural practices and traditions in the fight for gender equality. In the words of Susan, it places an emphasis on the experience of “liberated, assertive Western women with voices” while depicting women from the global south as women who are in need of liberation from their oppressive societies. It promotes a white savior complex — the idea that white people have a moral responsibility to “save” cultural others. However, as Susan states, the same western feminists who uphold such ideologies never take it upon themselves to develop a nuanced understanding of these Arab women.
“Sweetie, you’re safe in America now, you don’t need to wear that here”
That? It took me a few seconds to realize what the older white woman standing in front of me at my local Target was talking about. My hands immediately rose and felt the cotton cloth of the black hijab that I was wearing on my head. “That” was my hijab. Completely reduced down to nothing but a “thing” in her eyes. I immediately felt my face flush as heat rose through my body. Part anger, part embarrassment, part confusion. Thinking back, I would be lying if I said that I did not find the entire situation hilarious — especially as I recount its events in retrospect, since this woman really thought she was doing good in trying to help me — but part of me was, and still is, equally offended. I was more than accustomed to the harsh stares, side-eyes and occasional muttered comments under the breath of those passing me about my hijab, but no experience was ever like this. Who was this woman to think that I was a foreigner in the country that I was born and raised in? To think that I was being forced to wear my hijab and that it is a symbol of oppression? And most of all, to think that I was in any need of her saving? The woman’s comment was a living embodiment of white feminism at play. To her, my culture only consists of terrorist men, feeble women and children in war-torn countries. To her, liberation means showing skin and my hijab is a self-inflicted subjugation. Her condescension is masked by sympathy, her civility a facade of her ignorance. What she personifies is the quintessential feminism preached by white upper-middle-class elites and imbued in mainstream feminist discourse — which has no place for women who look like me. Although I have always sought empowerment from my culture, sometimes the mean remarks and pitying gazes infiltrate me, and an eerie feeling creeps under my skin when I see Arab fathers taking after the names of their firstborn son, or when grooms ask an Arab bride’s hand in marriage from her father in a traditional toulbeh ceremony. Is this the right way? Does my feminism have to come at the expense of my Arab identity?
But as Susan mentions in her piece, ironically enough, Western feminism over-fixates on liberating women from other “backward” countries while turning a blind eye to the oppression perpetuated at home. There is a clear double standard at play here. No one ever claimed that the “Middle East” was free of patriarchy, but Arab feminists do not walk around policing American women for their life choices. Coming from a Palestinian background, certain patriarchal practices as well as others are normalized in my family. And while I recognize their obsolete nature, they do play roles in shaping the culture into what we know it as today. Prior to learning about the twisted accusations that white feminists made about my culture, I never thought of our practices as anything more than traditions that I value. But when approached from a western lens, it seemed to force the question of where the line gets drawn between maintaining one’s culture and their identity as a feminist. I was so enlightened by Susan’s writing because she dove into answering such a complex question in such a simple way — that this line does not have to be drawn. I can practice a version of feminism that suits my life and not one that refuses to acknowledge my intersectionality.
Before reading about intersectional feminism in Susan’s texts, it never came to me that I can live as a feminist without having to sacrifice my other identities. There should be no denial of the fact that feminists all over the world unite under one joint struggle for equality, but there should also be no feminism that requires one to give up their traditions, cultures and values in order to join the club. I am proud to call myself a feminist and will continue to advocate for women of color to defy societal expectations and forge their own identities. I read and learn about Arab women feminists from all over the world, constantly in awe of their power and perseverance to represent their culture. Despite the negative stereotypes that they must constantly battle, they prove to lead with strength and compassion, traits I strive to embody within myself every day.
MiC Columnist Reem Hassan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org