Stories of cultural identity go beyond the veil

Historic newspaper headline reads "Milwaukee Syrians Hold Folk Festival" from March 1954

“It’s about more than the hijab, that’s why the exhibition is called ‘Beyond the Veil,'” explained Dr. Enaya Othman.

Five years ago, Enaya and her students began collecting stories from Arab and Muslim women in the Milwaukee area. The project grew, and to date includes over 80 interviews. The women interviewed are from different cultural, regional, and social backgrounds. Most are either immigrants or among the first generation in their family to be born in the U.S.

Sarah is one of the women interviewed. A portion of her story is on the Arab and Muslim Women’s Research and Resource Institute (AMWRII) website, which maps stories by region. Sarah was born in America and grew up in a Syrian-Christian household. She explained that, while her religion and her culture play a big role in her identity, they are not all she uses to define herself. She truly appreciates her Arab heritage and, when asked about her cultural clothing, she talked about the Syrian tradition of giving a bride gold jewelry on her wedding day. She buys her own daughters gold bracelets with Arabic lettering to continue her Syrian custom. When asked how it feels to wear her jewelry, Sarah said, “I feel like it is a part of my heritage!”

Some of the first immigrants to the U.S. from the Arab world came from Syria and, in particular, from Mount Lebanon.  They came to participate in the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 where they demonstrated horsemanship and folk dances. After the Fair, many went home with stories from the New World, but others decided to stay. Brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, and other relatives followed.

Until the beginning of the 1900s, most of the Arab residents of Milwaukee were from Ayn Bairdeh and surrounding villages in Mount Lebanon. Families included the Adas, Arrieh, Azar, Barrock (Mubarak), Bethia (Bteeha), Charles, Frenn, Herro, Kashou, Matar, Metry, Meyer (Nmeyr), Nabkey, Nicholas, Saffoury, and Trad. The population increased gradually. Records show there were 100 Syrians living in Milwaukee in the 1890s.

Enaya, the founder and Director of AMWRRI’s Oral History project, said that women were eager to tell their stories and talk about their immigration and settlement process. The idea for a public exhibition grew out of the research. It fits the larger mission of AMWRRI, to document and research Arab and Muslim women’s experiences while, at the same time, promoting an understanding of issues that impact Arab and Muslim women in the U.S. and abroad.

The issue of cultural clothing proved to be one of the most important issues to come up in conversations, in part because it is often misinterpreted. The stereotypes around choice of dress are interwoven with major issues in Arab and Muslim women’s lives, including issues of identity, religion, women’s role in their family and community,  their access to education and work, and discrimination that women face based on their religious and cultural backgrounds.

This exhibit is timely and groundbreaking, not only because it displays cultural attire worn by Arab and Muslim women, but, more importantly, because it explains the meaning of cultural dress from the perspectives of the women wearing it.

On the website and in the exhibition, many women describe their choice of dress in terms of both religious and cultural identity.  Enaya explains, “We are hoping that this exhibit will increase the public understanding of the many meanings Muslim women have for how they dress and reduce the widespread negative representation and stereotyping connected to women’s appearance.”

Beyond the Veil:  Dress, Identity, and Tradition through the Eyes of the Muslim and Arab Women of Greater Milwaukee opens at the Milwaukee Public Museum on May 16th and runs through September, 1, 2014. The exhibition is free with regular Museum admission.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council is a proud funder of both the oral history project and the “Beyond the Veil” exhibition. Enaya notes that funding for undergraduate research from a Mellon Grant from Marquette University Klingler College of Arts and Sciences was also crucial in the success of the project. Enaya is Director of AMWRRI’s Oral History project and an Assistant Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Marquette University in Milwaukee.


One Response

  1. Cultural shocks are very common these days when you go across the continents. Respecting others cultures is respecting our own culture. Probably a big party of culture is language and religion. Even in my country India, people do follow culture very seriously and some time culture stands dominant over the voice of reason. Culture Vulture is another theory of the modern world as nations of the world are getting closer and probably at the end of this century the world’s culture will be fused in each other.

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