American Sociological Association Discusses Muslim Women

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 2001 | Go to article overview

American Sociological Association Discusses Muslim Women


AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION DISCUSSES MUSLIM WOMEN

In a special session at its annual meeting on Aug. 12, the American Sociological Association held a panel discussion on various aspects of being Muslim women in American society. Organized and presided over by Jen'nan Ghazal Read, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, the panel included presentations by Kristine J. Ajrouch from the University of Michigan, Louise Cainkar of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Kathleen M. Moore of the University of Connecticut, and Fadwa El Guindi of the University of Southern California. Georgetown University's Yvonne Y. Haddad was the discussant.

Read introduced the session saying that though there had been limited scholarly attention given to American Muslims, and even less to American Muslim women, researchers were finding great diversity, a point reflected in the presentations.

Kristine Ajrouch's paper, entitled "Ethnic Identity as a Challenge: Exploring the Boundaries of Gender, Race, and Religion," focused on how the issues of gender, race and religion formed the identity of Arab-American adolescents from Dearborn, MI. She stressed that in her findings Arab-American teens made distinctions between themselves, "boaters"--recent immigrants, not yet acculturated--and whites. Those interviewed, moreover, wished to distance themselves from both "boaters" and "whites," with white and American being interchangeable terms. As Muslims they saw themselves as morally superior to "white" girls, yet discussed a double standard of treatment between Muslim boys and girls. Ajrouch noted that the teenagers' categories hinted at a racially defined identity, despite the legal definition of Arab as "white." She concluded by asking whether increased opportunities for women in the U.S. would make ethnic identification more symbolic and less pragmatic, and if Arab-Americans would eventually accept the legal definition of white or work instead toward a distinct definition of Arab-American.

Louise Cainkar's presentation, "The Challenges of Being Poor, Muslim, and Female in an American City," inquired whether American social support systems were sufficient for Muslim women. Citing racial, cultural, religious, economic, and legal (non-citizen) status as barriers to leaving, Cainkar raised the question of what options a poor Muslim woman might have if she found herself in an abusive situation. Though many of the problems would be the same for any woman attempting to escape an abusive situation, there are serious problems particular to Arab women. Among those Cainkar cited were immigrant status, being tied to marriage (to the abusive spouse), language problems, the lack of Muslim foster homes, frequent job discrimination over the issue of veiling, and the threat of deportation. If an Arab woman experiencing domestic violence calls the police, she risks deportation of her husband (and possibly her only livelihood) or even herself. If she and her husband are refugees, they cannot be deported, so risk a life sentence in an INS prison. The stakes are high, Cainkar concluded, and there is much work to be done to protect Muslim women in American society.

Kathleen Moore spoke on "The Religious Tie: Gender, Identity and the Ambivalence of Assimilation," concentrating on how law and social expectations frequently adversely affect Muslim women. Moore discussed specific cases, such as a judge who asked a Muslim woman in hijab to leave the courtroom until she could dress normally, and two veiled women who were arrested for wearing hijab under the Ku Klux Klan law. Moore also cited, however, two court cases of alleged incest and child abuse wherein the Muslim fathers (one Albanian and one Afghani) had actually been acquitted on the basis of cultural differences. …

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