An argument for moderate selective acculturation of newly immigrated arab-american women

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Janet M. Roberts

A Thesis Submitted

in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for

the Master of Arts in Speech and Communication Degree

Edinboro University of Pennsylvania


The goal of this research is to examine how Arab women newly emigrated to the United States struggle to decide how to blend with or into the fabric of this country while still retaining their culture, language and religion in a manner that is comfortable and acceptable to them. All the interviewees were Arab/Muslim women from the countries of Iraq and Lebanon. The research also examines the conflict among Muslim women over the decision as to whether or not to wear the hijab or veil covering their heads.

This research is important in creating an understanding of the needs and differences, as well as the desires and similarities, of Arab/Muslim women and American women. It is also important for differentiating between assimilation, multiculturalism and selective acculturation. Any research and analysis that works to emphasize common values and acceptance of differences also works toward the building of a peaceful community.
1. Arab Women: New Immigrants in the U.S. Seek Ways to Communicate and Adapt
Despite the rich history of the United States (U.S.) as an immigrant country and “melting pot” culture, there has been and continues to be an ongoing argument as to whether new waves of immigrants should assimilate into the current culture, acculturate, or whether a policy of multiculturalism should prevail. The newest wave of immigrants from countries in the Middle East region bring with them cultures and a religion that is distinct from mainstream American practices. In a post-9/11 world these immigrants struggle to decide how to blend into the fabric of the U.S. while still retaining their culture, language and religion in a manner that is comfortable and acceptable to them. The goal of this thesis is to examine how Arab/Muslim women, newly immigrated to the U.S., struggle to decide how to blend with or into the fabric of this country while still retaining their culture, language and religion in a manner that is comfortable and acceptable to them. Of particular interest in that process is the conflict these women bring with them from their country of origin over their interpretation of whether the Qu’ran mandates the wearing of the hijab or veil, or makes it a personal choice for each woman. This study will question both assimilation and multiculturalism as appropriate methods to be adopted by Arab/Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, advocating instead that the U.S. accept and encourage these new immigrants to follow a path of moderate selective acculturation. Almost nothing has been written post September 11, 2001, (9/11) regarding this subject, making this work an important first step toward establishing a frame of reference for both cultures that will help them to work toward a peaceful coexistence.
1.1 Assimilation vs. Multiculturalism vs. Acculturation
European migrations to the U.S. in the 1800’s and early 1900’s met an American culture that expected the new immigrants to fully assimilate and, to a great extent, they did. Assimilation took place, in part, because these immigrants were ‘white’ Europeans, that is, ‘racially similar’ to the dominant American society (Nagel, 264). Immigrants who chose multiculturalism as the method of settling in the U.S. found themselves pocketed in sections of cities - such as Chinatown in San Francisco or East Dearborn, Michigan - where many Chinese or Arab immigrants settled and retained the full language and customs of their home country but struggled outside those communities to succeed in mainstream America. Those who dispersed throughout the U.S. but maintained a staunch multicultural pattern, like the Mexican-Americans, were consistently slotted into low paying menial jobs and experienced difficulties realizing upward mobility in the U.S.

Assimilation has taken place through an active construction of racial similarity, enacted, in turn, through a re-shuffling of racial categories and political-economic hierarchies. Immigrants did not assimilate because they were white; their assimilation reflected that they had become white. At the same time, it reflected that the nature of ‘whiteness’ as a social/ideological category was fundamentally unstable (Nagel, 264). According to social researcher F.M. Modhaddam, minority-group members may adopt one of two strategies to adjust to the majority society: 1) assimilate into the host society or, 2) become more multiculturally oriented. Assimilation implies abandonment of the heritage, culture and language, whereas multiculturalism involves maintenance of the original culture and language. The results of numerous recent studies indicate the multicultural approach, adopted by immigrants in North America, is the only healthy way for minorities to survive in the host society (Abu-Rabia, 541).

The official number of Arab-Americans in the United States is just over 715,000 (Bureau of the Census, 1998). Because Arab Americans are officially considered Caucasian or White by the U.S. government, they are represented as a distinct group on the census through the optional ancestry question. The number 715,000, therefore, is an underestimation. Other estimates based on community tallies suggest that there are approximately 2 to 2.5 million Arab-Americans in the United States (Zogby, 1990). Lebanon is the number one nation of origin for Arab immigrants, followed by Iraq and Egypt (Ajrouch, 451). Census data shows 82% of Arab-Americans are U.S. citizens with 63% born in the U.S.; 54% of the totals are men. The population is young with many in their child-bearing years (El-Badry, 1). Before 1960, as many as 90% of Arab immigrants to the U.S. were Christians, but recent immigrants are mostly Muslim and settle near established Arab-American communities, like Detroit (El-Badry, 2-3).

Government officials who have classified Arabs and their descendants according to multiple and conflicting categories have, in part, externally structured the social and historical invisibility of Arab-Americans. Most Arabs who immigrate to the U.S. are Muslim, yet the Arabs who immigrated to the U.S. during the first period (1880-1945) were predominantly Christians of the Eastern right sects of Greater Syria (Naber, 38). By mid-century, Arab-Americans were one of the best acculturated ethnic groups in America. The second wave of immigrants brought a larger number of Muslims, primarily women. The importance of retaining the cultural and religious traditions of their homeland further alienated the new immigrants from their American-born co-ethnics (40). The shift from predominantly Christian to predominantly Muslim immigrants is one of the many factors that contribute to the irresolution of the historical problem of whether Arab-Americans should be considered white/Caucasian or a non-white minority. Muslims tend to be perceived as outsiders to the white American mainstream (42). Arab-ness represents a set of values, traditions and attitudes that are common to people in the Arab world and that have been passed down over generations. In articulating Arab-ness and Arab values, for instance, Arabs often present an interesting twist on common public discourses in Britain which has linked immigrants to family pathology and deviance, suggesting that ‘English culture’ has high rates of divorce and single parenthood. While they are eager to pass on ‘Arab values’ to their children and to support Arab organizations, they are equally keen to temper or qualify their assertions of difference and to dissociate Arabness from fanaticism, backwardness or foreignness. Conscious of the negative imagery of Arabs that abounds in various media, these individuals explicitly attempt to accommodate dominant social mores and to show that they can be both ‘Western’ and ‘Arab’ by adhering to middle-class English sensibilities (271-272).

Although there has always been some level of immigration from the Middle East to the U.S. each year, the problems between the Israelis and Palestinians coupled with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased the number of refugees and others trying to come to the U.S. In a post 9/11 world where terrorism is associated with Arab/Muslims from this region of the world, it is more important than ever that both cultures – U.S. and Middle Eastern – understand one another and work toward a compromise that will alleviate conflict and allow the two religions and cultures to live side-by-side in America. Little has been written about selective acculturation and even less about the problems of newly immigrated Arabs to the U.S.

For many Arab Americans, the Arab-Israeli War signified the beginning of their societal, political and cultural marginalization. Not only did the war signify the U.S. confirmed alliance with Israel, but it gave Arab-Americans their first taste of exclusion from a role in the political process. After the Arab-Israeli war, many Americans of Arab descent who previously identified themselves according to their country of origin, their religious affiliation or as ‘American’, united under the label ‘Arab-American’ and established numerous pan-ethnic organizations, such as the Arab-American University Graduates, the National Association of Arab Americans, the American Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the Arab American Institute (41).

Robert Young states “The dilemma of the global age is that, while we have finally discovered that we are one people who must share one precarious world, we are profoundly divided by race, culture and belief and we have yet to find a tongue in which we can speak our humanity to each other.” Young leans toward moderation. He believes we must “make a wager – we will be able to find common ground while preserving genuine difference and diversity. If we do not succeed in this we will fail as a species. We will wager that success in finding a common tongue but preserving difference is possible. It is possible and desirable for all cultures to change, but not to change by blending with one another or being submerged by a single culture. Each culture must change to the extent necessary for it to recognize differences, to acknowledge the prima facie validity of other cultures, to incorporate some degree of tolerance of cultural diversity, and to discover some common ground in the new intercultural space thus created; ground upon which a conversation about intercultural understanding and cooperation can be built” (Young, 2-3).

William B. Gudykunst, in discussing individualist and collectivistic cultures, points out that members of individualistic cultures tend to be universalistic and apply the same value standards to everyone while members of collectivistic cultures, in contrast, tend to be particularistic and apply different value standards for members of their in-groups and members of out-groups (Gudykunst 9-10). In collectivistic cultures, where he states Bedouin Arab and Moroccan cultures fall, there is a coexistence facet in which they separate the public self from the private self (10). In individualistic societies, the ties between individuals are loose; everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family. Conversely, in collectivist societies, people are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which, throughout their lifetime, protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. Individualism has been blamed for alienation, loneliness and materialism. The extreme individualism in the U.S. makes it difficult for its citizens to interact with those from less individualistic cultures (77). A monocultural perspective denies the differences of other cultures (Pearce & Kang 21). The monocultural perspective characterizes the “common sense” of persons who have lived all their lives within a single culture, or who have accepted some creed that claims to be universal. Either way, the “margins” of their own culture function as boundaries rather than as limits (22).

Assimilation is a process by which members of subordinated groups modify their behavior, beliefs, or appearances to fit dominant modes of being and knowing. Assimilation requires increasing degrees of conformity, and conformity is a form of symbolic violence because it arbitrarily values one way of being while it devalues others (Schubert, 1097). The chance to come to America and start a new life has always demanded full assimilation (Portes and Hao, 890). It requires that all other cultures conform to the dominant language and customs in a uniform manner, showing no tolerance for cultural diversity and opening no space for a common ground between diverse cultures. Despite rapidly growing immigration, the U.S. Census reports that close to 90% of the American population speaks exclusively in English and that the rest is formed mainly by recently-arrived immigrants. The much touted advantages of the assimilation process for cultural unity and national solidarity hide its significant underside. Linguists and psychologists have repeatedly noted the association of fluent bilingualism with better cognitive performance in comparison with monolinguals in any language (Portes and Hao, 890).

Abu-Rabia, in quoting Braddock and McPartland, points out their argument that total assimilation might occur because minority members believe that the other way, cultural maintenance, invites minority visibility, which arouses resentment and discrimination in the host society (Abu-Rabia, 541). One need only look at many second, third and even fourth generation Americans whose ancestors assimilated fully, yet who now spend hours tracing their genealogy, learning about the culture of origin of their family tree prior to immigration and trying to incorporate elements of that culture into their very American lives.

The general thrust of assimilation research since the 1960s has been to determine the degree to which immigrants achieve different dimensions of engagement with the host society. While varied in content and empirical themes, this research maintains an understanding of immigrant-host society relations as a self-sustaining dynamic through which an ethnic subgroup, over successive generations, experiences the rupturing of primary social bonds and absorption into dominant or ‘mainstream’ society. Ideological efforts to promote and to enforce assimilation in the context of mass post-colonial migration were largely eclipsed by multiculturalist policies and theories in the 1970s. Multiculturalism, in turn, came under fire by more radical theoretical approaches. Hegemony and ideology analyses became increasingly concerned with the discursive construction of racial categories and the manner in which such categories come to be viewed as ‘natural’ and normal. The main concerns that united these approaches are the construction of marginality and inequality and the political actions and identities with which subordinated groups contest and resist “otherness” (Nagel, 260-261).

Assimilation models have been largely discredited in the study of British minorities, whose experiences instead have been interpreted in terms of exclusion, racialization and difference. In recent years, some scholars have reinterpreted the pluralism debate in the light of new waves of immigrants. They suggest that assimilation trajectories have become segmented: some immigrant groups merge into the white middle class, others attain middle-class status but adhere to traditional cultures, and still others (particularly those with low skill levels and ‘racial’ markers) experience downward assimilation into the ‘black underclass’ (262). Assimilation has its own built-in causality, the logical conclusion of which is the shedding of ethnic distinctions. The assimilation paradigm, as many critics have noted, subsumes questions of power, identity and the social construction of group categories. The construction and preservation of group identity requires a sense of homogeneity or essence enforced through collective memory and notions of kinship and destiny (263).

The definition of multiculturalism implies the existence of a culturally pluralistic society (Gould, 199). A multicultural framework eschews the basic assumption that cultural identity has to be uni-dimensional – that becoming more of something else automatically means becoming less of the original (202). Proponents of multiculturalism in the U.S. and elsewhere have much to gain by conceptualizing their defense of multiculturalism in terms of symbolic violence experienced by those harmed by exclusion, whether that exclusion is a function of abolished affirmative action programs at the state or national level, whether it takes the form of the exclusion of alternative types of representation and alternative storytellers, or whether it is a more subtle form of exclusion effected by the communication of an unwantedness to some (Schubert, 1088-1089). One of the primary ways that multiculturalists have traditionally conceptualized the opposition is in terms of cultural hegemony. What the concept of hegemony does not miss is the role of dominant groups and classes in subordinating or silencing competing understandings of reality. It tends to attribute a monolithic and overwhelming quality to those in power. What the idea of hegemony does miss is the strategizing practices of members not only of dominant groups but of those subordinated groups as well (1090-1091). A focus and shift from hegemony to symbolic violence shows the way in which our daily practices and structures of discourse produce and foster the embodiment of domination within others and ourselves. This shift moves our historical focus from the dominant cultural practices of elites to their effects on those who are dominated (1094-1095). Multiculturalism has shown that the story of history and the rise of reason have been based on exclusion. Multiculturalists want more than merely assimilation. The goal is not to welcome members of different categories of people into the dominant way of being in the world but to multiply and legitimize alternative ways of being and thinking. The multiculturalist movement is not about assimilation, although a number of efforts to ease the assimilation process have occurred (1096).

The Arab community in East Dearborn, Michigan, is an example of multiculturalism at work. The first Arab Muslim immigrants came from Lebanon, arriving at the turn of the 20th century. As is characteristic of immigrants in general, most entered the U.S. with the goal of earning large sums of money and then returning to their homeland. The next wave of immigration from Lebanon to the metropolitan Detroit area commenced with the Immigration Act of 1965. The most recent wave of Lebanese immigration commenced in the mid-1970’s due to the civil war in Lebanon and increased again 1982 with the Israeli invasion. Males in this community are urged to realize the American dream of financial success, the cultural meaning of an Arab ethnic identity is increasingly located in the behavior of the females. Overall males are experiencing a loosening of cultural constraints from their family and community, whereas females experience perhaps even more restrictions on their behavior. This gendered division of expectations leads the community to rely on females for the maintenance of tradition and the perpetuation of an Arab identity. The male, on the other hand, more easily acculturates because he faces less cultural pressure to maintain traditional behavior (Ajrouch, 452-453). Immigrant parents are struggling to retain traditional aspects of their culture. The ethnic community of Arab-Americans produces a network of social relations that attempts to enforce control over its members (Ajrouch, 460).

Strong or mosaic multiculturalism is very often mired in futile attempts to single out one master narrative as more significant than others in the constitution of personal identities. Interactive universalism accepts that all moral beings capable of sentience, speech and action are potential moral conversation partners. Because cultural narratives (which comprise linguistic, ethnic, religious, as well as territorial and regional accounts) are crucial to the narrative constitution of individual self-identities, such processes of interactive universalism are crucial in multicultural societies (Benhabib, 14).

Portes and Rumbaut, in discussing acculturation as an option for immigrants, describe two less-adaptive ways of adjusting than that of selective acculturation. Dissonant acculturation takes place when a child’s learning of the English language and American ways and simultaneous loss of the immigrant culture outstrip their parents’. This situation leads to role reversal. Consonant acculturation is the opposite situation, where the learning process and gradual abandonment of the home language and culture occur at roughly the same pace across generations. This situation is most common when immigrant parents possess enough human capital to accompany the cultural evolution of their children and monitor it (Portes and Rumbaut, 53-54). Losing a language is also losing part of one’s self that is linked to one’s identity and cultural heritage. When children move decisively in this direction while parents remain steeped in their own language and culture, the conditions for dissonant acculturation are set (144).

For youths who have advanced further in the language adaptation process to become entirely mono-lingual in English the cultural world of their immigrant families and communities becomes increasingly irrelevant and the social directives emanating from it unworthy of attention. Loss of the parental language entails growing estrangement from the cultural ways of the first generation and often a condescending or disrespectful attitude towards them. Accordingly, lesser family solidarity and greater conflict with parents may be expected. If parents are fluent in English, the positive effect of second-generation bilingualism disappears, indicating that it is a spurious result of the ability to maintain channels of communication open across generations (Portes and Hao, 892). These findings contradict the notion that the key factor in immigrant children’s relationships with their families and their own personality development is the ability to communicate with parents, regardless of the language in which this communication takes place. Instead, it is the ability of second-generation youths to preserve knowledge of their language of origin, together with acquisition of English that leads to more desirable outcomes. Selective acculturation involving a mix of the old and the new, rather than complete acculturation, yields the most desirable results in the areas covered in this analysis (Portes and Hao, 906).

Arab countries, as with many other important and distinguished nations, can be described as having more traditional cultures than those considered as typical within the U.S. Two objective measures of such traditionalism are educational attainment which can be expected to moderate traditional values (at least those in the extreme), and religion, in particular affiliation with the religion of Islam, which is a major force for maintaining traditionalism within Arabic cultures. Differences between Muslims and Christians, even among immigrants from Arabic countries, may represent a major cultural divide, rather than merely a religious difference (185).

Mary Pipher, in The Middle of Everywhere, advocates for Americans to become cultural brokers for immigrants, teaching them to make intentional decisions about what to accept and what to reject in America. Cultural brokers help ease people into each other’s cultures. Foucault wrote that “information is power.” Cultural brokers give newcomers information that directly translates into power (Pipher, 89).

From the moment of arrival [in the U.S.], families face dilemmas: Do they let their children drink Coke and watch cartoons? Do they try to speak English or do they stick with their native language? What kind of clothes do they wear? Do they shake hands with strangers? Do they encourage family members to be individuals or to maintain a family-based identity? Families arrive here intensely unified; they have survived great crises and stayed together. All have focused on the dream of reaching a safe, good place. But once here, people develop individual dreams. These conflicting dreams create tension and sometimes break up families that have risked their lives to be together. Internal culture wars often ravage families (223-224). Longer residence, younger age at immigration, having not recently visited one’s homeland, and being of a Christian religious persuasion are associated with greater acculturation to U.S. society and greater satisfaction with life in the U.S., but with reduced family satisfaction. Although acculturation appears to be associated positively with satisfaction with life in the U.S., it also appears to be associated negatively with family satisfaction (Faragallah, Schrumm and Webb, 197).

Both Americans and new immigrants from the Middle East have been living in cultures where the margins are often boundaries; more so immigrants from totalitarian countries under dictatorial regimes. Although processes of acculturation have been studied for many immigrant groups, very little research has been conducted on factors related to acculturation among immigrants from Arabic speaking countries. Some evidence suggests that many Arabs may find acculturation to be more difficult than have other immigrants, especially those affiliated with Islam which is a minority religion in the U.S. (Faragallah, Schumm and Webb, 182). There has been increased negative media attention toward Arabs, attention that very well might make Arabs feel unwelcome and make their acculturation more difficult or less desired (197).

Ethnic identity is, in part, a way of answering the question, “Where do I come from?” (Portes and Rumbaut, 161). An ethnic identity may be defined as a social identity. The negotiation of ethnic identity arises as individuals take characteristics from various cultural “tool kits” and create evolving definitions through their interactions with others. Among immigrants, the parameters and meaning of an ethnic identity begin with the culture, traditions, and practices that are maintained from the homeland. The children of immigrants – the second generation – become the carriers through which the homeland ways are either transmitted or lost. Issues of identity, language, economic mobility, ethnic community and intermarriage become fundamental areas of adaptation for the second generation. The decisions they make and opportunities available to them will have an impact on whether future generations are successful in the U.S. (Ajrouch, 449-450). These distinct patterns of social relationships hint at the process of acculturation through the formation of an ethnic identity (464).

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