Today we offer a blog written by Enaya Othman, who received her PhD in American history in 2009. She wrote her dissertation, “The American Friends Mission in Ramallah, Palestine: A Case Study of American-Arab Encounter, 1869-1948” under the direction of Steve Avella. Enaya is currently an adjunct professor of Arabic language and literature at Marquette. She is also Director of the Arab Muslim & Women Research & Resources Institute, which seeks to document lives of American Muslim and Arab women through its oral history project and to disseminate information about their histories and experiences through educational programming and exhibits. One of their projects seeks to understand how dress helps Arab and Muslim Women immigrants in the Greater Milwaukee Area create and maintain their identities. Her blog explains the mission of the AMWRRI and the ways in which the stories of these women have been gathered, often by students at Marquette and elsewhere. Find out more about the AMWRRI at http://amwrri.org/aboutUs.htm.
The oral histories of Arab and Muslim women show that their identity is a complex and a significant process inside and outside their domestic, familial lives. In particular, events in the Middle East and North Africa, such as the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, the Gulf War, 9/11, the prolonged Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the American invasion of Iraq, among others, have played roles in the perception as well as assertion of identity.
These testimonies reveal that women’s identities and perceptions are multifaceted; they also speak of an array of determinants that influence the degree to which integration and acculturation shapes identity. These factors include the level of education, time of immigration, the consistency of keeping ties with the homeland, the geographical region from where they migrated (village, refugee camp, city, and country), their contribution to family economy, and the level of interactions with members outside their ethnic and religious group. Consequently, as each of the stories addresses its multiplicities and uniqueness, simultaneously it shares communality and general pattern that connect them to their group’s history.
The Arab Muslim & Women Research & Resources Institute contends that clothing serves as a multifaceted metaphor in this rich history. For example: To what extent does the retention of traditional dress express cultural and familial identity? How persistent are women in transferring such a cultural marker to their children and grandchildren? How is fashion an expression of aesthetics? The testimonies gathered so far highlight the importance of cultural as well as religious clothing (hijab or head cover) and its meanings to various Arab and Muslim women who immigrated from different Arab and Muslim countries. Women from different generations continue to recreate or adapt different elements of their cultural dress. For example, some women, especially first-generation immigrants, wear their cultural and ethnic clothing daily; others wear them during special celebrations, events, family visits and holidays. Furthermore, many women such as those originally from Palestine, combine wearing cultural and Islamic dress to confirm the linkage between religious and cultural elements in their personal identity.
AMWRRI’s oral history project has trained students to gather information regarding the role of attire in the sustenance of identity and community. Their role will be an expansive one. These students developed first-hand knowledge of how to conduct oral history interviews with Arab and Muslim community members through attending AMWRRI’s training workshops and being in the field collecting these personal records. These students also studied various facets of the immigration experience, especially those connected to culture and religion and its link to identity and belonging.
The information collected so far will be used in different ways and areas. Events are planned between February and April 2013. At these events, college students will present and reflect on their experiences as interviewers and researchers. Some of AMWRRI’s board members and staff will facilitate discussions and answer questions from the events’ attendees in a roundtable format. One such event will recreate a Henna Night wedding, when the bride, the groom, and their family and friends wear cultural clothing. The proper ceremonies, music, folk dance, and songs will take place as part of the celebration of this Henna Night wedding.
Most of the data gathered in this current project will be utilized in an exhibit hosted at the Milwaukee Public Museum in summer 2014 (from May to July). An explanatory web exhibit, complemented by educational ancillaries to aid teachers, is also planned.
The fashion project underscores AMWRRI’s mission to educate the general public about the Arab and Muslim communities’ membership and to help the public appreciate the importance of diversity and differences in appearance among communities living in Greater Milwaukee. Muslim women’s heritage preservation contributes greatly to Milwaukee’s multicultural and plural society. Ultimately, the goal is to aid the community to overcome stereotypes that are linked to Arab and Muslim women’s manner of dress and appearance.
AMWRRI continues its mission of documenting the experiences and histories of Arab and Muslim communities in the Greater Milwaukee Area. Since 2010, it has addressed the dearth of information and marginalization of these immigrant groups, by creating an oral archive where men and women share their stories of immigration, integration, and identity. Their collective testimonies provide valuable contributions to American immigration history. AMWRRI’s current project highlights cultural and Islamic dress and fashion and its linkage to individual and group’s identity. Material culture such as dress, language, and food serves as an important metaphor signaling and asserting identity, culture, and heritage.
Emphasis is placed on women, given their principal, if not determining roles within family and community religious and secular life. Their negotiation between cultures (homeland and host society) is fascinating and inspiring, challenging and breaking stereotypes. As women narrate their stories, they raise a variety of important issues that tackle social, economic, cultural, and political assumptions. Women’s eagerness to tell their stories from the perspective of a protagonist highlight their conviction of their key role in writing and shaping their family and group history.