Where Do We Fit In?
I am an Arab-American woman. For most of my life, however, I distanced myself from my ethnic identity. Growing up in the United States meant being constantly bombarded by negative images of Arabs. The popular stereotype portrayed Arab men as at best rich oil sheiks, and at worst sadistic terrorists with no regard for human life. U.S. society painted a more uniform picture of Arab women: passive and silent. Portrayals of Arab women outside their harem—I mean home—usually included images of scantily clad belly dancers performing for a roomful of horny men. Even at a young age, I understood that calling myself an Arab woman would entail ridicule and ostracism. I am light-skinned and can pass, so why make waves?
The identity I spent so much energy running away from finally caught up with me on December 8, 1987, the beginning of the Palestinian uprising. The nightly images of continued Palestinian resistance in the face of a brutal Israeli occupation made me reevaluate my life and the decisions I had made. When Palestinian and Arab groups began organizing on my college campus, I decided the time had arrived to "come out of the closet" as an Arab-American woman. The environment in which I publicly acknowledged my ethnic background turned out to be anything but hospitable. Most of my "feminist" female friends—women with whom I walked hand in hand during Take Back the Night marches, attended consciousness raising groups about gay and lesbian rights, and worked closely educating our campus about domestic violence and women's reproductive rights—tried to downplay that part of my identity. They could not understand why I would choose to identify myself with the negative traits they attributed to Arab women. Moreover, their stereotypes of Arab women meant they felt discomfort thinking of