These Streets are Ours Too: Arab Women Rise (Part 1)
Arab mothers and grandmothers in Bay Ridge speak out and fight back.
Somia Elrowmeim greets me warmly and leads me through a bright-green door on the second floor of the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY) office. Somia is an advocacy trainer, women organizer and founder of the Union of Arab Women, a Bay Ridge women’s collective that convenes under the auspices of AAANY. She offers me a seat at a small desk in the compact room and pulls up a chair. She is recovering from a persistent cough, she says, but nevertheless, exudes enthusiasm and a cheerful disposition.
I look around, momentarily distracted by the lime-green walls, tumble of mismatched furniture, and pile of neatly folded prayer mats on a desk. A long, brown table is propped on its side. Swathes of pink tissue paper spill out of a white cardboard box, evidence of a gift recently unwrapped. A blue and white poster in Arabic and English urges viewers to: “ORGANIZE. REGISTER. VOTE.”
“‘Awal’ in Arabic means first, but it can also mean a beginner, someone taking their first steps. The women said people will think of us as just beginners. We want a name that reflects that we are a union, that we are one, that we support each other!”
I understand instantly, amid the vibrant chaos, that I am seated in the beating heart of Bay Ridge. AAANY has been a lifeline for Arab immigrants and refugees – many of them Muslims from Yemen, Egypt, Morocco and Syria – ever since it was founded in May 2001. The community center initially focused its efforts on delivering social services to immigrants from the Middle East in order to help them adapt to a new life in the United States. But just a few months after opening its doors, the organization’s founders revisited their mission in the aftermath of 9/11, adding an emphasis on advocacy and empowerment, sensing there was a great need for development in these areas.
Formerly known as AWAL (Arab Women Activists and Leaders), the Union of Arab Women grew out of AAANY’s advocacy program that is focused on building women’s leadership in the community. ‘Awal’ means ‘first’ in Arabic—The idea is to put women first in our community, Linda Sarsour, executive director of AAANY, said to me when we met last year.
Minutes into our conversation this morning, however, Somia is quick to tell me that the group has undergone a veritable reincarnation spurred by the change in name. It has grown from its initial cohort of 25 members to 65. The increase in numbers has boosted the confidence of members. “Actually, the women themselves changed the name,” explains Somia. “‘Awal’ in Arabic means first, but it can also mean a beginner, someone taking their first steps. The women said people will think of us as just beginners. We want a name that reflects that we are a union, that we are one, that we support each other!”
The Union of Arab Women is comprised of mothers and grandmothers from the neighborhood who meet every Friday for three hours to discuss issues arising in the community. When mothers announced they’d observed drug use in the community and were frightened for their children, Somia contacted Lutheran Hospital and organized a training workshop on drugs that taught participants how to recognize the signs of drug use in their children, and gave out information about resources for support and intervention. She has also invited a lawyer from Advocates for Children to lead a workshop on students’ rights in schools, highlighting the importance of detecting whether a child needs special education, and how to deal with bullying.
“I feel women have the right to study, to finish their degrees, to be someone, to be who she wants to be.”
“We’ve also done a workshop on ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), on how they’re dragging people from the street, how they come to the houses. You don’t have to open your door for them!” says Somia emphatically.
Last month, there was a spurt of arrests on the streets of Bay Ridge. “They even went to the supermarket! But for the moment, they’ve quieted down.”
In February 2016, during her talk at a Ford Foundation convening on islamophobia attended by members of the nonprofit, philanthropic and government sectors working to find ways to combat the tide of hate, Linda Sarsour announced: “Islamophobia may be the major headline of 2016, but what people don’t understand is that islamophobia has been impacting American Muslims for a very long time. Policies that target our communities, whether it be unwarranted surveillance, interrogations, no-fly lists, discrimination at borders…NYPD and FBI showing up at people’s doors—these have been ongoing and are at an unprecedented high.”
Civic engagement and leadership at the community level have historically proven to be successful in raising awareness of rights and countering the debilitating effect of state and institutional forms of violence, such as anti-immigration policies, deportations and detentions. Even as the scourge of fear and suspicion has divided the nation since the inauguration of the new president, here in Bay Ridge, at the community level, resilience in the face of this new crisis is blossoming. Building leadership has been a key component to community resilience.
“We’re specifically training women, giving them resources and tools on multiple levels. First, a safe space to talk about their concerns among others who share them; second, showing them how to organize events, galvanize around issues they care about, and offering media training so they can tell their own stories,” explained Linda, under whose leadership women’s leadership and advocacy – integral to the DNA of AAANY – have become strikingly visible and catalytic.
Somia, a graduate of Physics and Mathematics from the University of Sana’a in Yemen, came to AAANY as a volunteer five years ago. It was a cherished goal of hers, she says, even while she was in Yemen, to support Arab women—a goal fueled by a personal story. At the end of her senior year of high school, Somia was devastated to learn that her best friend, who had been admitted to “the biggest college in the city”, was forbidden by her parents to pursue further education. “It really impacted me. It’s not fair for one so smart to not go to college. From here I started,” she says. “I feel women have the right to study, to finish their degrees, to be someone, to be who she wants to be.”
For Somia, who exudes a can-do attitude, no challenge, it seems, is insurmountable. Describing the Union of Arab Women and the advocacy program at AAANY, along with the issues confronting immigrant women, Somia’s voice crescendos at critical moments.
“When I came to Brooklyn, I realized that a lot of people from Yemen in the United States don’t like their daughters to go to college—even in America!” she says, eyes wide with shock. “These young women finish high school, just sit at home, and get married!”
As Adult Education instructor, Somia has access to the older women in the community. “I started talking to them. I told them what was happening in the world. I noticed they were listening and agreeing, that they trusted me. ‘We are proud of you,’ they said. ‘You are also from Yemen and you help women!’”
Members of the Union of Arab Women share what they’re experiencing in their personal lives. Workshops on domestic violence raise awareness about the issue and guide women who are experiencing abuse at the hands of their husbands or other family members to resources and safety.
“They have to know their rights! How else will they be empowered?” exclaims Somia. “Some women didn’t know anything at all about domestic violence and how to deal with it. Now they have a hotline number.”
Surely, it must be a shock to some of the women to view their lives through this new lens, I remark in response to Somia’s earlier statement about some women’s lack of awareness that they’d been living in abusive situations.
“Come on! You have to learn to move on, to live with peace, especially if you have kids!” Her voice is high with emotion. In the course of our meetings, I will come to recognize this change in timbre as Somia’s signature style: emoting empathy and encouragement simultaneously and in equal parts.
“But now they know their rights and a lot of Arab women join protests. Before they were afraid of discrimination. This is the biggest step we made.”
Next, I ask Somia about the paradox of hijab in America. Hijab is a form of veiling that is meant to connote modesty and protect women from scrutiny by strangers in public. Yet wearing hijab in America actually places women in the limelight and on the frontlines of being visibly Muslim—easy targets for islamophobes. A couple of members of the Union of Arab Women went to the Women’s March in niqab, she tells me. Niqab is a form of veiling where the face is entirely covered, usually in black cloth, except for an opening for the eyes to enable vision. “‘It’s our right in America to dress how we want,’ they said to me. ‘We are not afraid!’”
Only a year ago, this was not the case.
“In our countries, you don’t question the law. So, when we started teaching them about politics, the women were scared. They didn’t know their rights in the United States. We teach them about the Constitution, about freedom of speech and expression. In the beginning, they were hesitant and scared to go to protests. ‘That’s really dangerous!’ they said. But now they know their rights and a lot of Arab women join protests. Before they were afraid of discrimination. This is the biggest step we made. This is the biggest challenge I faced!”
Like most women at AAANY, in fact, like most women that I’ve seen on the streets of Bay Ridge, Somia wears hijab—a scarf covers her hair and is wrapped beneath her chin. Today, she is dressed in black pants, a deep purple blouse with three-quarter-length sleeves and zippered pocket. The women she works with relate to her.
“They know I am one of them. ‘We trust our instructor,’ they say. ‘She’s not going to put us in something bad.’ Before, we never had anyone to speak at protests. But now if I tell them we need people to speak about this and this,” she says, beaming and waving a hand, “they all want to join! In one year, we’re seeing this transformation!”
At a Kids Speak Out protest, a member of the Union of Arab Women brought her grandchildren. “She’s teaching them Arab culture as well as activism! She was so proud that they participated!” says Somia, bristling equally with pride. “When I see my students progress, it’s just so amazing! It’s so great to see people growing strong.”
Indeed, for many Arab women in Bay Ridge, especially the grandmothers, public participation is a leap into a new way of life, one they may never have imagined for themselves. It signals a shift in consciousness that ripples out into new ways of being in the world—not just for the women themselves, but what they, as matriarchs and respected elders in the family, now make permissible and possible for the younger generation who, like Somia’s high school friend, have been traditionally constrained by cultural beliefs that limit their educational and professional development.
In no uncertain terms, Somia’s goal, she tells me, is to help Arab women empower themselves, to show them they can stand on their feet and make their own decisions. “It’s not fair when families decide your life,” she says, harking back to her friend who is always at the forefront of her thoughts. “My friend in Yemen— her family married her to a U.S. citizen, but she’s sitting there waiting for him while he’s here! She didn’t go to college; she has a one-year old. And her husband can’t go back because of the war!” Fierce loyalty flickers in Somia’s eyes, along with the hope that her friend may yet steer the course of her life.
Somia’s own journey to the United States was through marriage. She had a traditional wedding when she was 20 years old to a man from the same family as hers but who grew up in the Unites States. This, she says, turned out for the better — her husband is progressive-minded and gives her the space to pursue her goals.
“Alhamdulillah! My husband understands me! ‘Just do what you want,’ he says. He knows that when I have a goal, I have to reach it!”
Somia’s daughters, aged 11 and 7, activists in the making, regularly attend protests with their mother. Her 11-year old wears hijab — she chose to do so herself, Somia points out — and is very proud. During the elections, she said, “Mommy if Trump wins, will I be safe on the street with hijab?”
Somia’s younger daughter answered, “Don’t worry, I’ll wear hijab with you!”
“I asked her, why do you want to wear hijab? ‘I want to see what Trump will do,’ she said. And that’s what she did when the new President was announced! She wore hijab for two or three days. But then she got tired of it,” Somia laughs.
Somia’s enthusiasm is authentic, nothing saccharine about her. As our meeting ends, she invites me to join her the following day for a workshop at the Beit El-Maqdis Islamic Center of Bay Ridge. “I want you to meet some of my students. You can talk to them yourself.” The workshop is an information session on the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), a New York City government agency dedicated to the welfare of children. It’s the very first ACS workshop for the community, organized in response to alarming complaints from a handful of mothers that their children’s schools were filing reports about them with the agency.
“A mother came to me and said, ‘My son fell in the park. The school called ACS and said there’s something wrong with him, something’s not right at home.’ They put her in trouble. A few mothers have told us similar things. These mothers go to the school wearing hijab. They think it is deliberate, that it’s discrimination.”
I step out of the room with lime-green walls, feeling suddenly uplifted. Somia’s enthusiasm has — by some mysterious osmosis — entered me, filled my hands with a palpable feeling of possibility and excitement, of transformation in the making.