We Need More Positive Images of Arab Women

Last week, a photo of a little girl staring at Michelle Obama’s official portrait went viral. The girl’s mother explained that she thought Obama was a queen, and that she was mesmerized because she wants to be a queen, too. Obama herself has written movingly on Instagram about the importance of representation: When we see someone who looks like ourselves portrayed in a positive light, we feel prouder, bolder, more confident.

Not long ago, I group-texted my Arab girlfriends to suggest we share images of ourselves under the hashtag #ArabGirlMagic. I wanted to start a digital celebration of our uniqueness and reclaim our dignity. #ArabGirlMagic is obviously inspired by #BlackGirlMagic, a movement that was popularized by CaShawn Thompson in 2013. Like Thompson, I would like to celebrate the beauty of the women around me, the strength they have, and the inspiration they can be.

Arab women aren’t used to seeing ourselves presented in that light. The term “Arab” is rarely used as a compliment. Among ourselves, we use it to make fun of each other: You’re Arab when you are beyond fashionably late, when you force-feed your friends, when you don’t mind your own business. In the wider world, too, the identity of “Arab girl” is misunderstood and underrepresented. Arab women live under a set of beauty standards imposed by mass media, colonization, and the Americanization of our culture.

Growing up as an immigrant in the mostly white city of Montreal, I was teased and harassed at school for being an Arab: for eating pita bread, for having such big curly black hair. Kids would order me to return to “where I came from,” referring to a place like Aladdin’s Agraba, with genies and flying carpets. I would come home with lots of questions, asking my mother and auntie whether it was true that we lived in the desert and rode camels back home.

My family came to Montreal as refugees from Lebanon when I was a child. We were fleeing a civil war that had divided the country. My aunt Nona, who is also my godmother, moved in with us soon after. She was our only relative there, aside from my immediate family, and she and my mother represented rare positive role models for me and my sister.

Beauty is a core part of our culture, and they had mastered all the secrets of Lebanese beauty and self-care. Nona would proudly tell me, as she braided my big hair, that Lebanon was once known as the cradle of all civilization, Phoenicia. I wondered how Phoenicia was different than Arabia. Why was one worthy of pride and the other of shame?

I knew that identifying as an Arab felt shameful; it was an identity imposed on me by racist slurs. And I knew that for my family, being Arab was bound up with being refugees; it identified us with war and blood, nothing good in the West’s perspective.

More often than not, I find myself rejected for positions and opportunities because I’m “too political” or “too controversial” — too Arab. The worst was when a street-style It Girl considered investing in The Library, my sustainable fashion company. She was over the moon for the idea, but in the end, she backed out, explaining that I was just too “controversial” to support. It would be easier to re-create my idea internally, she said, than to work with me.

I couldn’t help but wonder: Was she squeamish about my vocal support of refugees from the Arab world? And once again, I felt ashamed: ashamed of being a refugee, ashamed of being Arab.

Racism and shame can convince an entire generation that they cannot trust or believe in themselves. By being constantly told to change in order to fit in, and not fitting even then, we’re denied a sense of self. And when we go looking for versions of ourselves to aspire to, we instead find images of Arab women who are disempowered, exoticized, or demonized — or worse, not even there.

Arab women in the media are often depicted defending their rights to wear a hijab, or perhaps belly-dancing — rarely anything else. But the Arab world is wide and diverse. It encompasses every skin color and a wide range of faiths; in Lebanon alone there are 14 different religions. I’m Christian, not Muslim, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to explain why I am not veiled. There’s so little representation of us in our multiplicity that the first question I am often asked is if I am Israeli. When I answer no, I am from Beirut, Lebanon, I witness a face going from surprise to fear.

As my friend Alaa Murabit, a physician and one of the leading international advocates for inclusive peace processes, puts it: “As a minority community, oftentimes when we are feeling attacked or diminished, we say: ‘Where are our our allies? Everybody stand up for us.’ Unfortunately, at times our same minority communities don’t stand up for each other.” Still, she adds, “We are getting better at it, though.” We must find ways to celebrate each other.

The Arab World consists of 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. There are over 300 million Arabs, so around 150 million Arab women and girls — 150 million opportunities to inspire magic.

#ArabGirlMagic’s mission is both a collection of diversity and beauty, and a representation of Arab women changing the world. Join us.

We Need More Positive Images of Arab Women