Growing Up Arab: Some of The Pitfalls of Being an Arab-American Woman

The recent massacre at Virginia Tech called to a light a number of pertinent societal issues that mostly get tossed into the news after moments of crisis. Beyond the talk of gun reform, school security and mental health issues on campus, the recent tragedy also called to light the problems faced by Generation 1.5 – the designation assigned to individuals who immigrated to the US during their adolescence. The tribulations attributed to this generation stem from its need to find a balance between two cultures that might at times clash. Feelings of displacement, alienation and perhaps even resentment run amuck amongst this generation. And although it took a recent tragedy to call attention to this generation’s plight, I posit that First Generation Arab-Americans face many of the same issues as their Generation 1.5 counterparts.

 

Growing up as a daughter to Egyptian immigrants who sought the fertile soil of the US thirty years ago for a better life has been no easy charge. Although encouraged to seek an education and challenge myself intellectually, I was also raised with the subliminal misogynistic undertones of a culture that deemed a woman’s ultimate goal in life to be a wife and mother. The decision to enter law school was met with both pride and fear from my parents

 

On the surface, this obstacle might not seem unique to only first generation Arab-American women. Articles flood the Dating and Personals sections on most websites that emphasize the plight of today’s educated woman

 

What makes the situation unique for Arab-American women is that beyond addressing a general societal issue.

 

The question then remains how to deal with this dichotomist way of thinking. Is that even possible? The problem morphs into a much bigger issue that touches even beyond the career vs. family debate for Arab women. With family considered the ultimate goal, there is little room for autonomy of thought or independence. Cultural norms prohibit independence in lifestyle for the Arab woman

 

In the land of opportunity and dreams, growing up Arab poses a whole host of issues for the Arab-American woman – the designation assigned to individuals who immigrated to the US during their adolescence. The tribulations attributed to this generation stem from its need to find a balance between two cultures that might at times clash. Feelings of displacement, alienation and perhaps even resentment run amuck amongst this generation. And although it took a recent tragedy to call attention to this generation’s plight, I posit that First Generation Arab-Americans face many of the same issues as their Generation 1.5 counterparts. – the pride stemming from the status that having a lawyer in the family brings. The fear, however, was overwhelming – a fear based on their understanding that with higher education comes many unexpected pitfalls for Arab women. Their prospects in marriage become even more scarce, making their ultimate goal even that much harder to achieve.– that her prospects in love and marriage are comparatively lower and that the average age of marriage for these accomplished women tends to be much higher than her non-educated counterparts. – i.e. finding a place for the educated, career-oriented working woman – they must also address the cultural stigma associated with overcoming those pitfalls.

 

If being a wife and mother is considered the ultimate goal for an Arab woman, and being educated makes that goal harder to obtain, you’re left with a whole assembly of educated Arab women who are made to feel as failures within their own community for being unable to achieve that goal. For every sense of accomplishment she achieves with her career, the Arab woman is made to feel a sense of inadequacy for being that much further from her ultimate goal. It’s a double-edged sword that slowly stabs at the soul of each Arab woman.– she is restricted to living in her family home, only to leave when entering her husband’s home. She is cast aside from her community if she attempts to live outside of that proverbial box, and even more doomed if she champions heretic concepts like equality of the sexes or, even worse, deems herself a "feminist". Is there room within the Arab culture for an educated, independent, career-oriented Arab woman? Probably; but only if she’s married or well on her way to achieving that feat.– be it First Generation or Generation 1.5.

 

Trying to find a balance between two cultures that simultaneously celebrate her accomplishments and criticize her presumed failures can prove to be an unbelievably daunting task. In an age when women not only bring home the bacon, but fry it in a pan (even if it is turkey bacon), there should be room within our community that accepts the woman if she assumes only one of those roles without chastising her for doing so or dictating which role holds more value. Although she might decide that her ultimate goal is in fact to be wife and mother, the Arab-American woman shouldn’t be deemed a failure if it takes her a few years more than her own mother to achieve that goal, especially by her own community.

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About Eman Ahmed

Born and raised in New York, Eman Ahmed is an Egyptian-American attorney specializing in employment discrimination. She received her B.A. from St. John’s University, Suma Cum Laude, and her J.D. from New York Law School where she also served as an editor at the New York University Law Review. Eman is an active member of the Network of Arab-American Professionals and is a member of the NYSBA Committee on Women in the Law. She appeared in the 2003 edition of Who’s Who Among American Law Students and currently appears in the Madison Who’s Who.

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