Gender and cultural activist Nadine Naber spoke to University of California, Santa Barbara students on Tuesday, March 5, on the complex political processes that define an “Arab America.” This diversity leader series aims to showcase national and international speakers and raise awareness to encourage diversity discussions in the Santa Barbara community.
The discussion focused on Naber’s book, “Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism.” The book is about the time period before the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Naber claims that, unfortunately, any discussion today of the Islamic world begins with 9/11. The world has failed to notice the significance of 90s in leading to 9/11, and that what produced the aftermath is what occurred in the years before. While Naber discussed the struggles of being an Arab in the United States, she focused on the challenges that Arab women face. She asserts that there is a historically specific logic that underscores anti-Muslim racism, and her book states the two approaches that Americans have taken in interacting with Arab people.
First, she mentioned the increasingly prominent belief of Orientalism, a belief centered on anti-Arab racism. Orientalism relies on assumptions on the Arab and the Muslim culture. Today, there is a great deal of Anti-Orientalism research as scholars have been trying to respond to claims and misperceptions about the Arab people and the culture.
“We cannot talk about anything in our communities because if we do, it will reinforce the racism,” Naber said, speaking on the behalf of Arab women.
The second trend is an unintentional reinforcement of Americanization that Arabs have faced while living in America. Not only is this Americanization perceived as a struggle by Arabs, but Naber critiques how Americans mistakenly assume that the culture is something fixed in time and unchanging. This unintentional reinforcement of Americanization relies on the same concept of Orientalism, and specifically to anti-Arab racism.
She says that the solution to these problems is a “Diasporic Arab” and describes Arabs as belonging to a Diaspora of Empire. As she continued her discussion, she mentioned how in today’s culture, gender and sexuality are the strongest differences between Arabs and Americans, and how Arabs blame Western society for their influence on the Arab lifestyle. As Americans, we too have an idealized concept of the Arab culture: family, heterosexuality, and marriage. It is best understood as cultural sensibility, drawn upon norms that have been articulated over centuries.
Throughout Islamic history, there has been more variation in sexual attitudes and the ideals of family, heterosexuality, and marriage have been reproduced in light of historical and political conditions. She furthered her reasoning of immigrant cultural beliefs by stating that these communities hold onto cultural beliefs when they feel isolated in order to protect themselves. This is part of the struggle of immigration itself. Since the publishing of the book, there appears to be a sort of “reverse Orientalism” in which Arab discourse makes claims toward Americans.
As a response to the racism, they claim that they treat women right and that the United States is trashy. In one of the chapters in her book, Naber discusses how the Diaspora influx related to the political economy of gender motivates young people to join the Leftist Arab Movement (LAM). This influx contributed to how patriarchy and homosexuality work, and how men have been perceived as more active, and women as inauthentic. LAM developed two campaigns; one is on the U.S. led sanctions on Iraq and how it is a form of genocide and the second on the urgency of the Palestine-Israel situation.
LAM focuses specifically on women and the constant dismissal of feminine critiques, acceptance of the existence of Muslim homosexuals, and the meaning of living a full life as a politic aimed at ultimately keeping people alive. She also added that Arabs need to share a sense of community that is relational to the U.S., not with a yearning to go back to their Arab home country.
“I never thought about such an internal issue between Arab ideals, homosexuality, and sexism even existed,” says first-year environmental studies major Joshua Eusterbrock.
Other students at the discussion wanted to voice their opinions, too.
“After listening to Mrs. Naber’s speech, I’ve realized that my generation is completely different from my parents’ generation, and only I can make them more acceptable to the Iranian-American lifestyle,” said Avideh Sinai, a third-year biology major.
Naber is a professor at the University of Michigan in the departments of Women Studies, Arab American Studies, and American Culture. She also co-edited many books focusing on treatments toward Arabs in the U.S., and she continues to put forth a method on how to write about cultural matters.