Learning to be a woman in the Arab-American community

Itedal Shalabi, 42, felt like the black sheep of her family. As her three sisters followed in their mother’s footsteps and worked in the kitchen to learn to prepare meals, Shalabi had her head in the books. Even with the blatant worries her mother verbalized about Shalabi’s marriage prospects, Shalabi remained persistent in building a life outside of the traditional roles of Arab women.

With support from her husband, Lena Touleimat pursued a career even though there was no financial need. Although Touleimat was accomplishing what she truly desired, it did not stop her mother’s and mother-in-law’s comments about her children from affecting her. She constantly feels a mix of doubt and guilt about her decision to sacrifice time with her two children in order to fulfill the need to be a working woman.

For Rasmieyh Abdelnabi, 26, it was always expected that she would tidy up her brother’s room. In her household there was never a question of who was going to be cleaning or cooking. Abdelnabi strayed from the traditional mindset as she matured, but its presence remained visible. She witnessed female friends unable to leave the home because of their duty to their children and continued to feel the community’s pressure to join her friends in becoming a wife and mother.

These women all confronted expectations as to what their future should hold, and chose to build a life outside of the customary path for Arab women.

Though stereotypical understandings of Arab family dynamics emphasize male dominance, the testimonies of Arab-American women in Bridgeview, one of Chicago’s near southwest suburbs, bring to light the strong influence that women have on each other in defining their roles in life.

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This story is part of a unique collaboration of nine Chicago area ethnic news media exploring the relationships between immigrants and their children. The stories were released in early June 2010 by Extra (Hispanic), the Polish Daily News, 4NewsMedia (Polish), Pinoy Newsmagazine (Philippine), Al Moustaqbal – Future newspaper (Arab), India Tribune, Korea Daily News, Fra Noi (Italian), Draugas – The Lituanian World-wide Daily, and Reklama (Russian). Click here to access the other stories: Health made harder: How Latino families translate the system, Dual citizenship gives new meaning to Italian Americans, For Korean-Americans, culture, too, is lost in translation, Poland’s air tragedy hits Chicago’s Polish youth, Filipinos turn to nursing homes for elder care, Reclaiming roots: Young Russian Americans find – and preserve – their identity, Pursuing creativity, sustaining Indian culture, and Youth engagement in the Lithuanian American community.

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Laila Hussein spent most of her life raising six children, and now at the age of 52, she is going back to school for her GED. Although she encourages her daughters to pursue higher education, she also openly expresses her desire for many grandchildren and her belief that husbands need to be the primary breadwinner.

Many members of Arab-American communities hold “traditional cultural norms that prioritize women’s family obligations over their economic activity,” according to a 2004 study conducted by Jen’nan Ghazal Read, associate professor of sociology at Duke University.

However, not all Arab-Americans possess these beliefs.

“While I respect the traditional roles and that they are very much needed, I think that we also need to realize that for those of us who want that outside world, the world is out there for us to go after,” says Shalabi.

“Those of us who made that choice to work really took a lot of tomatoes and eggs thrown at us, not necessarily from the men, more from the women,” she says.

Scrutiny from fellow women is not uncommon in the Arab community.

“Much of Arab social life is homosocial, thus the greatest pressures on women are going to be applied by other women. Brothers and fathers are often called on to enforce family norms, but it is usually mothers who set them,” says Sally Howell, assistant professor of history and Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Shalabi found this to be particularly true when she started Arab American Family Services in 2001. As she reached out for support from community leaders, it was disappointing for her to see the lack in confidence and encouragement for her success.

“I think that women need to be taught more leadership skills,” she says. “I think women need to be taught to value themselves, and women need to be taught not to pull each other down but to help us stand on each other’s shoulders to get to the next level.”

Following the customs of Arab culture, many immigrant women enforce on the younger generation that the skills needed to be a successful woman are those learned in the household.

“I was always a reader,” explains Abdelnabi. “It would drive my stepmother crazy because she grew up in our village [outside of Jerusalem] so for her it was all about making sure the house was spotless.

“Once, she told me to mop the floor and I didn’t do it up to her standards so I got a half-hour lecture on the right way to mop a floor,” she says. “There were always these things in our society, our culture, that everyone just kind of took part of.”

Marriage remains a top priority for many women who emigrated from the Middle East. Though ideas and perceptions of marriage have changed over time, the importance placed on it has not.

By the time Abdelnabi turned 18 she found herself engaged to a man from her hometown through a family arrangement.

“My aunts who had never gotten married were like ‘you don’t want to end up like us,’” she says. “I was 18, you know, I was a kid, and what do I know about anything really? I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t say no to a good person.’”

Growing up in a more Westernized world, however, has led to distinct variations in what the different generations of women look for in a marriage.

Abdelnabi decided to cancel her engagement two years later because of her unwillingness to conform to her fiancé’s lifestyle and to his idea of what a wife should be.

“He was expecting this woman who was going to be at home taking care of everything and taking care of him and I was kind of like ‘you’re not my kid so I’m not really going to take care of you,’” she says.

Abdelnabi continues to receive encouragement to marry but has found satisfaction in her current lifestyle. She is now the assistant director of programs at Arab American Family Services.

“In this Bridgeview society, a girl’s life starts when she gets married and that is the goal she is working towards,” she says. “For me, my life hasn’t been centered around the day I get married. When he happens to come into my life, I’ll welcome him but it’s not a finish line, it’ll just be a part of my life.”

Many traditional Arab women see the job of being a mother as one of the most important and rewarding in life. Children are expected soon after marriage, and it’s assumed that a woman will dedicate herself to raising them.

“My mom sometimes says ‘you’re doing too much’ and ‘what about the kids,’” says Touleimat. “I think there is still that belief that the mom should be more available to the children, but then there is my pull saying that I want to build my career and go out there and do things that make me happy…There is still that issue there.”

Motherhood continues to strain relationships held by women of different generations. Though ideas may vary, the influence of traditional perspectives leaves its effect on mothers.

“If you went back 50 years … things were so much easier because people knew their roles,” says Touleimat. “There was not much conflict. You kissed your husband, gave him his briefcase in the morning and he left. But I think now, and I can speak personally, there is a lot of that guilt factor that you’re leaving your kids. There is that conflict of ‘am I doing enough for my family?’”

Older generation women of the Arab community may not agree with many of the decisions made by the new generation, however these women are finding ways to compromise and build the lives they want.

True to her behavior as a child, Shalabi found much satisfaction in life through work. While her sisters followed the more traditional route and concentrated on raising their children, Shalabi built a business that remains successful not only through helping the different community members who seek its assistance, but in serving as an example of women who found fulfillment outside of the home. Its staff is comprised of 22 women out of 23.

In raising her two sons, Touleimat continues to strive for a balance between work and family. Though she sometimes worries about her decision to pursue a career, she doesn’t hold any regrets.

“It’s not always the money that matters, it’s the freedom of going out and working,” she says. “Not everyone works for money. We work for content and happiness.”

The new generation of women continues to challenge many traditional views and in turn become models of a different lifestyle a woman can enjoy. Like their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers before them, their influence will also play a part in the decisions of the next generation.

Now there is a group of young women who are integrating traditional roles and new opportunities. Zaineb Abdulla, 18, is a member of the Alliance of Young Women Activists. She has been encouraged from a young age to pursue higher education, but has also come to appreciate the importance of being a mother.

“I would probably follow the route my mom took,” says Abdulla. “She stayed at home with us as long as we needed her and then as soon as we were old enough to go to school she went back to work. I am looking forward to it.”

As a community in transition, there are many changes ahead for Arab-American women. The women themselves seem to drive the shift towards new views of their roles and possibilities.

“Arab women are raised to be self sacrificing and to just endure,” says Abdelnabi. “We’re going through a revolution of defining what self sacrificing means and what enduring means, so we’ll get through it.”

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