Arab and Arab American Feminisms, edited by Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany, and Nadine Naber, is a book I wish every feminist/womanist would pick up. Though it is mostly academic in nature, the book is also interspersed with personal anecdotes and poetry that revolve around the book’s focus on Arab and Arab American feminists’ experiences. The book addresses a plethora of issues regarding to Orientalism, sexism, U.S. imperialism, homophobia, and transphobia. Each of the authors illustrate the need for addressing all of these things overlapping, rather than separate, issues. More importantly, though the book embraces the important work done by radical feminists of color, it also turns the feminist “sisterhood is global” motto on its head, positing that “there is no universal woman’s experience.”
The book’s thirty-two essays are split into five sections: Living with/in Empire: Grounded Subjectivities; Defying Categories: Thinking and Living Out of the Box; Activist Communities: Representation, Resistance, and Power; On Our Own Terms: Discourses, Politics, and Feminisms; and Home and Homelands: Memories, Exile, and Belonging. From the outset, the book’s contributors illustrate the dangers of conflating experiences and identities into neat categories. The introduction alone explains just how much the dominant U.S. discourse erases the experiences of those who fall into the categories of “Arab” and “Muslim”:
[This discourse] assumes that all Arabs are Muslim, all Muslims are Arab, and all Muslim Arabs are the same. It obscures the existence of Arabs who are not Muslim (including, but not limited to, Christians and Jews) and Muslims who are not Arab (including Indonesians, Malaysians, Chinese South Asians, Africans, African Americans, and Latinos/as). It also erases the historic and vast ethnic communities who are neither Arab nor Muslim but who live amid and interact with a majority of Arabs or Muslims.
By ignoring this diversity and conflating all of these identities under the umbrella of “Arab” or “Muslim,” it becomes much easier for the mainstream U.S. discourse to espouse detrimental stereotypes. As a result, Arab and Muslim feminists find themselves always starting from scratch. They are frequently met with resistance and end up spending their time and energy on dismantling these stereotypes instead of addressing important issues affecting their communities. Many of the contributors wrote of personal experiences where they were delivering speeches or presenting papers at conferences, only to be met with silence or rude, off-topic comments–often based on stereotypes–during the Q & A session. The frequency of blatantly racist comments in an academic setting was alarming.