The many faces of Arab women
By Dijlah Assayegh | Sunday, 04.25.2010, 05:30 PM

DEARBORN — Henry Ford Community College's (HFCC) Arab Cultural Studies Program on April 8 hosted a conference entitled "The Many Faces of Arab Women." 

The conference was an opportunity to discover new possibilities for growth, dispel some old assumptions, and develop network connections for future use, such as business organizations and community resources.

President Dr. Gail Mee opened the conference by welcoming over three hundred students, faculty, and community members who attended the all day meeting.  Dr. Mary Assel, Director of the HFCC English Language Institute and conference coordinator, created the interactive meeting to highlight and open up discussion for men and women about the many roles and responsibilities of Arab women both locally and in the Middle East.  
Westerners have been fascinated and confused by the historical, cultural, and diverse background of Arab women.  For example, non-Arabs often wonder:

• Why do some Arab women cover themselves while others don't;
• Are Muslim women allowed to marry non-Muslim men?
• Under Muslim law, are women allowed to divorce their husbands?
• What's the difference between Sunni and Shi'a?

The fact that many of these women are veiled has led historians and anthropologists to believe that they are victims of misogynist societies and that they have been dispossessed of their rights due to cultural or religious practices.  Fortunately, on-going research has shed light on many elements of the social diversity of Arab women.  Conference participants listened to specialists in the field as well as to local experts in Arab women's studies.

The conference offered attendees a better understanding of the similarities and differences among Arab women today.  It increased the visibility of Arab women and contributed to a new understanding of race, gender, equality, and community and attested to the importance of these women in their roles as public political figures and as sources of spiritual inspiration to others.

Topics examined varied from historical issues to current ideas including cultural, social, educational, literature, and public sector/work related themes.  Dr. May Seikaly, Wayne State University associate professor, spoke on "Challenges facing Arab women in the 21st century," based on her own research.  

In the afternoon, Susan Chenard, guest speaker, Gateway Community College assistant professor, gave a personal look into many social and political issues of Saudi Arabian women in her presentation, "A Saudi-born woman's pursuit of democracy." 

Rima Fakih, Miss Michigan USA and former HFCC student, explained what it means to her to be the first Arab American Miss Michigan.   After each speaker, smaller break-out sessions were organized and led by Arab American women experts in their own fields who discussed in detail several areas of interest and encouraged further audience involvement.

Sessions included "The impact of Islam on Arab women's lives,  with Rima Charara and Najah Bazzy; "Women's rights and Islamic jurisprudence," with Dr. Moulouk Berry; "Social relationships," with Dr. Hoda Amin; "Arab women writers," with Dr. Wijdan AlSayegh; "Woman's role in the family," with Camille Bazzy Alawan; and "Media myths and stereotypes," with  Zana Macki.   

A strong topic of interest was a session about the situation of Arab Women writers today delivered by Dr. Wijdan AlSayegh, a well-known female Arab author in the Middle East.

The conference brought many key issues of Arab women to the forefront and sparked the curiosity of the attendees to discover more about how differently Arab women are responding to key issues around the world.

By Dijlah Assayegh

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