Book Review: Arab & Arab American Feminisms

Arab & Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, & Belonging
Ed. by Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany, and Nadine Naber
Syracuse University Press, 2011
Reviewed by Triana Kazaleh Sirdenis
Nearly ten years in the making, Arab & Arab American Feminisms gathers activists, artists, and academics to give voice to the most rapidly changing and complex issues in the Arab world.   It builds upon the work of Jo Kadi’s Food for Our Grandmothers and Evelyn Shakir’s Bint Arab, two Arab feminist anthologies that have paved the way for this book.  It is based on “theory of the flesh,” or the powerful narrative based lens for critically analyzing our social and political world.  Edited by Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany, and Nadine Naber, this anthology guides you through nuanced understandings of Arab perspectives and identities.  There is a breadth of experience in this book, from poet Dunya Mikhail to academics and organizers like Huda Jadallah, Kadi, and Naber, to the usual, but always spectacular, Suheir Hammad and Noura Erakat.This book is an answer to the questions never heard.  It focuses on several themes: defying given categories and re-defining others, living within empire, collaborative research, the centrality of Palestine, and exploring themes of diaspora, home, and homelands.  It speaks to the political and social climate, especially post 911, in which Arab (and Muslim) communities exist, thrive, and struggle.  What sets this body of work apart from others is its basis in racial and gender justice, as well as it’s class analysis.  Though not all of the pieces focus on gender, the editors are explicit that this book is written by and for Arab and Arab American women, queer, and transgender people.  It also gives voice to other communities seldom brought into this dialogue like Arab Jews and people assumed to be Arab or Muslim.The book assumes the audience has an existing political analysis of Arab culture and history.  The reader must also have some familiarity with intersectionality, Orientalism, and the myth of post-racial America.  After the introduction, elementary breakdowns of complex terms are hard to find.  This is the one drawback of the text; a portion of it is written in highly academic language.  At times, it has trouble explaining complicated issues in a simple way, an ability few feminists writers have mastered.  Despite the complexity of the writing, it speaks to a multiplicity of experiences, breaking from the stagnant lens in which academia often views Arab women.  And again, this lens should not just be about Arab women, so it is significant that Arab & Arab American Feminisms hopes to center gender justice with perspectives by transgender Arabs.Released in the midst of the Arab Spring, the biggest question that remains is what would Arab & Arab American Feminisms look like had it been written in 2012, after this unfolding had begun?  Would the same pieces be included?   What would be said about the power dynamics of the uprisings and the “leaderless”, or rather leader-full, structures of these movements?   What do we take from movements that center self-determination and sovereignty but fail to address sexual assault and harassment?  In what ways has media uplifted and impeded our efforts?  What have we learned from misrepresentations of Arab women and transgender people during this past year?  While everything changes rapidly in the Arab world, this last year alone begs for a new body of text, one as empowering and thoughtfully written as this one.

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