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Invisible women: Therese Saliba says Arab and Muslim women are still left out of feminist and racial consciousness. (A New Era).

In 1995, I attended the National Women's Studies Association (NWSA) conference just a few miles from the site of the Oklahoma City bombing. At the keynote address, the white moderator and representatives from the four major ethnic groups--Latinos, Native, Asian and African Americans--condemned the bombing, some called it a racist act, yet no one mentioned Arabs or Muslims against whom a discriminatory campaign was waged in the wake of the bombing. At that time, Arabs and Muslims were still not a part of feminist consciousness when addressing racialized injustice and discrimination.

Since September 11, Arabs and Muslims have catapulted into public consciousness. Our visibility in times of political crisis ebbs and flows with the political tides. June Jordan, African American feminist and longtime activist for the Palestinian cause, has written, "Arab peoples and Arab Americans occupy the lowest, the most reviled spot in the racist mind of America." She was responding to the 1996 Israeli massacre of 100 civilians at the UN camp in Qana, Lebanon, but she might equally be speaking of the post-9/11 hate crimes and U.S. government repression or the current crisis in Israel/Palestine.

As Arab American feminists contend with the intersecting forces of racism, sexism, and neocolonialist policies in the Middle East, we also struggle for visibility within the U.S. feminist movement and in movements for racial equality. The increased racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims and the further erosion of our civil liberties since September 11 have merely exacerbated longstanding racist domestic policies targeted against our communities. Yet within U.S. racial categories, we are rendered racially invisible by our current classification as "white, non-European." Arab and Middle Eastern groups have lobbied unsuccessfully for an alternative category. Still, our racial ambiguity within U.S. society has left us politically disempowered and marginalized.

The image of a veiled woman captioned "The Face of Islam" in a New York Times photo essay (December 31, 2001), epitomizes the Orientalist stereotypes that have resurfaced after 9/11. Despite recent polls reflecting Americans' increasingly positive views of Islam since 9/11, old colonialist stereotypes persist of white military men saving Muslim women from their culture and from their men. Celebratory images of Afghani women removing their burkahs have come to represent the U.S. victory over the Taliban. Yet the media have largely suppressed the mass killing of civilians under the U.S. bombing campaign, which have reportedly exceeded the number of Americans killed in the September 11 attacks. The images and voices of Afghani women activists, such as the Revolutionary Afghani Women's Association (RAWA), have done much to dismantle the notion of passive, silent Muslim women. Yet their stories are often framed to support the U.S. war effort, despite the women's condemnation of war as an answer to their plight, a nd their rejection of the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, which waged a campaign of mass rape and murder when they controlled Kabul in the early 1990s.

The current media focus on Islam has obscured the institutionalized racism faced by Arabs and Muslims in the U.S., as well as the resistances of Arab and Muslim women at home and internationally. Since the 1967 war, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands has been a central focus of Arab American feminist activism. Our position has often isolated us within the U.S. feminist movements and earned us the false charge of anti-Semitism; yet we have found allies among women of color and progressive Jews. Nevertheless, the U.S. feminist support remains weak compared to the international consensus voiced at the UN International Conference on Racism, calling the continuing Israeli occupation a form of apartheid. Today, as the FBI harasses activists such as Women in Black (Jewish women opposed to the occupation) along with Arab American groups as part of its "War on Terrorism," the U.S. wages a war of terrorism on Palestinian civilians with the Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets it supplies to Israel. The wo rk of Arab American feminist activists is inextricably linked to U.S. Mideast policy, and the tragedy of September 11 makes more imperative than ever the renewal of a U.S. movement in solidarity with the Palestinians.

Our international focus on Palestine and Iraq has often deterred us from confronting issues of racism at home, as well as the sexism within our community. In addition, the insularity and racism within our own communities have often prevented us from building viable coalitions with other communities of color. The crisis of 9/11 has brought Arabs and Muslims into stronger coalition with many communities of color, the ACLU and some of the Black Caucus, to fight hate crimes and anti-terrorism legislation and to defend civil liberties.

My experience at NWSA in 1995, however, proved that the visbility we gained during the Gulf War was fleeting. This time around we must all work together to ensure that no group is rendered invisible, silent, expendable, nonexistent.

Therese Saliba is an Arab American activist and professor of Third World Feminist Studies at The Evergreen State College, Washington.

Therese Saliba, "Invisible Women." Therese is an Arab American activist and professor of Third World Feminist Studies at The Evergreen State College, Washington.
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Author:Saliba, Therese
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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