Empowering Arab Women in Bay Ridge

(Photo by Humera Afridi via Open City)

Navigating life in a new country, especially at a time when the leader of that nation has shown animus toward your religion and your countries of origin, can be difficult. To help Muslim women who have recently immigrated from Arab countries, a group in Bay Ridge entitled the “Union of Arab Women” meets weekly at the offices of the Arab American Association of New York. The organization works to empower women to become activists, and to speak up on behalf of themselves, their families and their community members.

Writer Humera Afridi spent some time with Somia Elrowmeim, the founder of the women’s collective, to learn about her efforts and those of her colleagues to support mothers and grandmothers from Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Syria and other Arab countries. Her interview with Elrowmeim can be found in an article in Open City magazine; her account of a presentation made to a group of women exploring “How to Raise Healthy Happy Arab-American Kids? A Guideline to a Safe and Sane Family Life” can be found in a second article in Open City.

Somia Elrowmeim, Adult Education instructor at AAANY and founder of the Union of Arab Women. (Photo by Humera Afridi via Open City)

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!’”

Afridi writes 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.

One concern for some of the women is that the very fact they wear hijab ends up subjecting not only them, but also their children, to scrutiny.

The ACS workshop has been triggered by the concerns of AAANY members who’ve been reported to the agency by their children’s school. The mothers feel it’s racism, that the school is reporting them unfairly, just picking on them, Somia tells me.

Go to Open City to read what Elrowmeim and the other instructor advised the parents in attendance, and to read about the panoply of feelings and reactions expressed at the meeting.

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