Michael Suleiman, Suad Joseph, and Louise Cainkar (eds.), Arab American Women: Representation and Refusal (Syracuse University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Suad Joseph (SJ): I took it on as a favor for a dying friend. Michael Suleiman called me just days before his death and asked me to finish the editing for him. I was simply overloaded with multiple projects and commitments but could not say no to a dear friend in his last days. It became a huge undertaking, as Michael had not been able to do his usual careful editing in the last year of his illness. When SUP asked for more additions and revisions, I invited Louise Cainkar to join me as co-editor (with our mutual friend, Michael, as lead editor). She was a godsend, and we worked together brilliantly. I think Michael would be very pleased with what we have done with what is, in some ways, his last book. We worked hard to honor him and his wishes throughout. When I accepted to finish the editing, I immediately informed Syracuse that I would not accept royalties. When Louise joined me as co-editor, she agreed. After some initial confusion about the recipient, Louise and I agreed that the best recipient of the royalties would be the Russell J. Ebeid Library & Resource Center at the Arab American National Museum, to which Michael was very dedicated. The story of all this is written up in the Preface to the book. 

Louise Cainkar (LC): When Suad asked me to join her (and Michael) as co-editor, I was thrilled. As a participant in the 2009 conference on Arab American Women (the first of its kind) at Kansas State University, organized by Michael Suleiman, and as a chapter author in the volume, I knew much of the book’s history and had experienced first-hand the revision processes already undertaken. I deeply wanted to see this amazing book come out. As co-editor, my task was to read all of the original essays and suggest revisions to authors that would bring their contributions up to date. In some cases, that meant extending a historical timeline of events. For example, my analysis of the gendered impacts of anti-Muslim racism was expanded beyond post 9/11 to include the impacts of the Trump era and the historic election of Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. In other cases, it meant suggesting adding new theoretical frameworks, given that women and gender studies had made substantial advances in the intervening period. I also invited a number of high-profile scholars who were not at the original conference to contribute to the book, helping to make it the inclusive, groundbreaking, and up-to-date compilation of work it now is.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LC: Arab American women have been part of US society for over one hundred years, yet their stories remain largely untold. Worse than that, Arab American women have been harmfully represented by others deploying tropes of oppression and submission, obscured from view due to their liminal official positionality as neither white nor non-white, and along with Muslim women weaponized as a prop to justify war. This book gives voice to Arab American women, articulating the widely varied lives they have led, the challenges they have faced and overcome, and the solidarities they have built to do so. Told from the perspectives of ethnographers, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, literary analysts, activists, and those in the field of gender studies and queer studies, Arab American Women: Representation and Refusal is unmatched in its depth, breadth, and scope. The book is a comprehensive, transnational, historical, and contemporaneous exploration of the social, political, literary, and everyday lives of Arab American women in all of their complexity, amidst a range of contexts flavored by both hostility and solidarity.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

SJ: I have written in the past a number of articles on Arab Americans and Arab American women, most recently in Arab Family Studies: Critical Reviews (Syracuse, 2018). My theoretical contributions to notions of personhood, gender, and citizenship are to some degree captured in Intimate Selving in Arab Families (Syracuse, 1999) and Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East (Syracuse, 2000). My central work has been in the Arab region on women, family, citizenship, rights, personhood/self, socialization of children, and the state. My early work was on politicization of religion in Lebanon (Muslim-Christian Conflicts, 1978 Westview). The largest opus of work is in the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures (Brill, 2003-present) which has published over 1,500 articles by over 1,200 authors covering over 450 topics, and is publishing nine volumes between 2020 and 2021. All the projects can be explored in depth here.

LC: My 2009 book, Homeland Insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim American Experience After 9/11. (New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press), was among the first to examine the specific ways in which state and popular responses to the 9/11 attacks were gendered. More recent work critically examines why women in hijab are more likely than other Muslim women to be subjected to hate acts. My analysis challenges prevailing thought that women in hijab are victimized simply because they are more visibly Muslim than men; it adds the often ignored, intersecting gendered dimension. I argue that the disciplining powers of hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity are at work in these acts, and therein suggest that attacks on women in hijab are about much more than anti-Muslim racism and have lots in common with attacks on LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming persons. Consider this fact: most of the perpetrators of attacks on women in hijab are white women! Another recent article reports on hate crimes research conducted in partnership with the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, which is working to develop a hate crimes hotline. At the same time, in its historical, transnational, and multidisciplinary framework, the book goes well beyond my personal work. Nonetheless, there is a way in which all of the content of the new book has informed and will continue to inform my work on Arab, Muslim, and SWANA women in North America. Where these women stand today emerges from a long history of imperial intervention, racialized otherness, righteous struggle, and shared lifting that is elaborated upon in the book and that any scholar of their lives must take into account.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SJ: I believe that our book will be very useful in college classrooms across the disciplines. I suspect that a number of key chapters will be reproduced and used in readers. For scholars, the documentation of history, the engagement with ethnography, and the development of theory will all be picked up and used comparatively.

LC: In addition to scholars of Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and SWANA-identified persons, I hope scholars in women and gender studies, as well as race and ethnic studies, will read and use this book in their classrooms. The book creates a pathway to putting Arab and Muslim women’s lives, challenges, and voices at the tables of race, ethnic, and gender studies, where they have heretofore been absent.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

SJ: I have just submitted a co-edited book on The Politics of Engaged Gender Research for review with I.B. Tauris. A co-edited Handbook on Women in the Middle East, commissioned by Routledge, should be ready to submit in Spring 2021. A third book, Reporting Islam: Muslim Women in the New York Times is also done, except for the introduction. I have a grant on “Mapping the Production of Knowledge on Women and Gender in the Arab Region,” another grant on “Transforming Refugee Mental Health,” and I have submitted grants for “Gendering STEM Education.” These last three projects are all with five to six universities of the University of California Davis Arab Region Consortium (UCDAR), which I founded in 2001 and continue to direct.

LC: I edited a special issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies focusing on Palestinian communities in North America and wrote a semi-autobiographical article for it which contextualizes the study of these communities (or lack thereof) within the framework of the history of Arab American studies. I am working with a University of Illinois at Chicago team on a study of Arab Americans in the metropolitan Chicago area and with another team on advocating for a MENA category and minority business status in Illinois. Also heading to press is another Syracuse University book: Sajjilu Arab American: A Reader in SWANA: Studies, co-edited with Pauline Homsi Vinson and Amira Jarmakani (Syracuse University Press, 2021). And I have a number of new ideas going forward…

J: Do you think this book will succeed in breaking through the silences that have been imposed for so long on Arab/Muslim/SWANA women’s voices and experiences?

SJ: The silences surrounding Arab/Muslim/SWANA women are cracking in many places. There is a respected university press with a series on Arab American studies and a series on Middle East women (Syracuse for both); there is an organization—Association for Middle East Women’s Studies (AMEWS), which I founded in 1985; there is a respected public university with a center for Arab Americans (University of Illinois, Chicago); there are two Muslim women in the US House of Representatives; there is coalition building between Black Lives Matter, and Asian American, Native American, Latinx, and Arab/Muslim/SWANA activists and scholars. All of this exposes the voices coming through the cracks in the walls. Scholarly books contribute in the arena of knowledge production to the larger arena of social transformation and alongside the outstanding work of public intellectuals and social activists.

LC: Yes, I do. Those who understand that enforced silences are about power and about concealing certain realities, conditions that hold true for all BIPOC communities in the United States and globally, will emerge from reading the book with greater knowledge about the range of political interests that lie behind the box in which Arab/Muslim/SWANA women have been placed and from which they have emerged with their own power.


Excerpts from the book 

(from the Introduction by Suad Joseph)

This volume sweeps through decades, indeed centuries, of Arab and Muslim American existence in the United States. It covers historical, political, economic, social, cultural, and literary contexts of the experience of Arab and Muslim American women. It adds to Michael Suleiman’s enduring contributions to the multiple fields that converge in Arab American women’s studies. It builds on the utterly critical intersectional and transnational analyses inaugurated by a broad genealogy of scholars and activists decades ago. It continues to dissect, analyze, narrate, and represent the diversity, multiplicity, and complexity of these women we have broadly conceived and come to name as Arab American.

[…] (from “An Archive of Difference: Syrian Women, the Peddling Economy and US Social Welfare, 1880—1935” by Charlotte Karem Albrecht)

… I argue that the scrutiny of the Arab-American peddling economy by social welfare workers shows how dominant ideas about gender and sexuality, expressed through work and class position, are at the root of Arab-American racialization. The racialization of Arab immigrant women and their families within social welfare is visible in three areas: child laborers were framed discursively as “street Arabs” and this formation implicated Syrian women in failed motherhood; social welfare workers policed Syrian women through their homes and their domestic labor; and Syrian women peddlers were often associated with sexual dishonor. I examine how, despite the small size of their community, Syrian women’s participation in the peddling economy was a source of social welfare controversy at the turn of the century. This historical moment is not only an example of the tethering of gender, sexuality, and class to race in early Arab America, but it also provides insight into how the choices that Arab immigrant women made regarding their labor had lasting implications for their communities.

[…] (from “From Lebanon to Louisiana: ‘Afifa Karam and Arab Women’s Writing in the Diaspora” by Sarah M. A. Gualtieri)

This essay mines the archive from Lebanon to Louisiana in order to trace Karam’s voice in the Arabic language debates of female emancipation. It argues that her writing and advocacy on the issues of marriage and education drew on familiar tropes, yet also offered specific interventions due to her position within various local and transnational contexts. Her writings provide a window through which to understand the tensions inherent in debates around “child marriage” in the context of rising emigration from Lebanon, and reveal how the mahjar became both a fictive and real space in which to resolve these tensions. And while this essay views Karam as exemplary of a women’s movement that had multiple nodes – Cairo, Beirut, Alexandria, New York, and São Paulo to name a few; it simultaneously critiques the bourgeois normativity inherent in the trope of exemplarity. Finally, it posits that the silences surrounding Karam’s life and writing are connected to nationalist historiographies that could not readily accommodate her trenchant critique of masculinist politics in the post-World War One period.

[…] (from “Second-Wave Arab-American Feminist Activism: The Story of the Feminist Arab-American Network” by Carol Haddad)

In 1982 the Feminist Arab-American Network (FAN) was formed … [referring to the 1982 NWSA Conference] (f)ortuitously al-Hibri facilitated contact with Chela Sandoval, who invited me to present my paper on Arab-Americans: The Forgotten Minority in Feminist Circles as part of the panel she had organized on Race, Sex and Class Intersections: Perspectives by American Women of Color, featuring Carol Lee Sanchez, Rosa-Maria Villafane-Sisolak, Bell Hooks, Nellie Wong, and Gloria Anzaldua. It was an incredible opportunity to discuss Arab-American feminist issues alongside a respected group of writers and scholars of color. From the podium I spoke of my awareness of being a woman of color, my feminist journey and the ways in which it excluded my Arab-American identity since ‘the American feminist movement exists…in the context of a larger American society which has historically and systematically suppressed information, news and research about the Arab world and Arab-American culture from an Arab perspective.’ I characterized the latter as a ‘blanket of silence and misinformation,’ described negative Arab stereotypes prevalent in US culture–particularly of Palestinians as “terrorists” and Muslims as “religious fanatics” and offered facts on the status of Arab women. I argued that certain interest groups perpetuated the myth that Palestine had been a “country without a people, and a cultural wasteland.” I further cited attempts (as reported by the ADC) by the ADL and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to discredit critics of Israeli policies and advocates of Arab-American causes, and discussed why Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s article in Ms. Magazine (1982) equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism had been offensive to Arab-American feminists.

[…] (from “Evoking Sympathy for the Muslim Woman Post 9/11” by Evelyn Alsultany)

U.S. government and military are presented as the necessary solution to terrorism and the righteous response to the oppressed Muslim woman, without noting how U.S. military intervention in the name of democracy and freedom has stoked both terrorism and violence against Muslim women. The co-opted feminist focus on how women in Afghanistan are deprived of education and employment and forced to wear the burqa conceals how conditions of war, militarization, and starvation are harming women. To cite one example of overlooked consequences, the U.S. war on Afghanistan in the years after 9/11 led to widespread starvation because U.S. bombing impeded the delivery of food aid (Hirschkind and Mahmood 2002, 341). The reductive framing of oppressed women creates a palatable narrative, where the blame can easily be placed on a people and a culture seemingly a world apart from Americans. Thus, the U.S. government need not be held accountable for its involvement in creating the modern conflict that contributed to the conditions of women’s oppression.

[…] (from “Desert” is Just Another Word for Freedom” by Amira Jarmakani)

In conjunction with the romantic fantasy in these novels, then, is a fantasy of feminist liberation, which plays out on multiple levels. The primary mode of the fantasy of feminist liberation comes at the level of the heroine’s own freedom, and is common to romance novels more generally. The heroine finds her own true self and, accordingly, her own sense of freedom, through intimate partnership with the hero. What is interesting about desert romances is the way they extend the conception of freedom crafted in the typical romance narrative by applying it also to the logic of rescue. In desert romances, the fantasy of feminist liberation goes global. As a plot device meant to explain how a U.S./Anglo woman could conceive of living in Arabiastan, the rescue trope simultaneously exemplifies how freedom can operate as a technology of imperialism. Cast as a gift, the heroine’s promise to deliver Arabiastani women to a new reality of liberation and freedom therefore obscures both the ongoing state of indebtedness such a gift inscribes and the violence it deploys in its own deliverance (Nguyen 2012).

[…] (from “Gendering the Security State: Family and Community Impacts of Arab Detentions” by Therese Saliba)

In order to understand the gendered impacts of post-9/11 national security, I examine some Seattle area cases and one national case involving women, and sometimes children, and the implications for community organizing and the current struggle for immigrant and human rights. In these cases, the presence of women and children as part of the collective punishment and responsibility of family, and their narratives, challenge the masculinist and racist logic of state security and expose the broader effects of post-9/11 security policies on family and community. They also highlight the important role of grassroots community activism in bringing these political cases to public attention in ways that subvert the dominant discourse on the relationship between immigration and terrorist threat.

[…] (from “Dangerous Women/Women in Danger: Gendered Impacts of Hate and Repression 9/11 and Beyond” by Louise Cainkar)

No matter where they were born or their citizenship status, Arab Muslims living in Chicago’s southwest suburbs reported being treated as foreigners in their own neighborhoods. Flags were thrust at them or denied to them, in both cases expressing the notion that one could not be American and Arab or Muslim at the same time. They were “de-Americanized” but in specifically gendered ways. Arab women in hijab were seen as the ultimate symbols of this foreignness, as hijab was understood to represent un-American values of force and authoritarianism, the opposite of American personal freedom. Arguments by women that they choose to wear hijab carried little currency with persons who held these views because by the very action of choosing hijab, Muslim women were seen as making a blatant statement rejecting the promises of American freedom and its hegemonic notions of femininity; women in hijab posed a danger requiring gender policing. In the southwest suburbs where these interpretations born of white supremacy flourished among the majority white community, women wearing hijab lived in danger.

[…] (from “An Anti-Imperialist Transnational Approach to Middle East Women’s Studies” by Nadine Naber)

Researching and teaching beyond one-directional feminist analyses that focus on either the extreme devastation resulting from US imperialism and war in the MENA region or racial-classist-heteropatriarchal violence in the United States means taking seriously how US “domestic” politics and US “foreign” politics exist within a similar historical and political frame. The points whereby the U.S. “domestic” and “foreign” conjoin—and are made and re-made through one another—are also crucial axes for alliance building and accountability across disciplines and borders. Yet while framing the domestic and foreign structures of U.S. imperialism as relational and mutually constitutive, I also want to avoid assuming shared experiences, or that people hailed into US imperialism (and its racial and heteropatriarchal foundations) from varying locations share equal struggles. Rather, we might ask how the histories of people from different political locations within the US and the MENA region (and beyond) rub up against each other when they are hailed into similar imperialist structures—in different ways and to different degrees. For instance, how do we approach alliance building and the asymmetry in the balance of powers when it comes to U.S. military recruitment of working class US women of color (who will face high risks of sexual assault) through false promises about employment and education and US-led bombing, killing, and sexual assault of women living in Muslim majority countries and their communities?