Mobility and Patriarchy in the Mahjar
Arab American Studies Association (AASA), 2022 Annual Meeting
On Saturday, December 3 at 8:30 am
In the first half of the 20th century, Syrians traveled, worked, and settled across the Americas, producing a transnational network of merchants, peddlers, writers, factory workers and more. Their mobility was an important feature of their diaspora, known as the mahjar, and many scholars have pointed to the cross-border business connections and newspapers that allowed for the circulation of goods and ideas across the Americas, Egypt, and Syria. However, these industries were often dominated by men, who expressed anxieties about the mobility of Syrian women, and their use of the networks available. Our panel examines the intersection of mobility and patriarchy in the Syrian mahjar to expose the many ways that race, class, gender, and sexuality were produced and policed transnationally both by state and imperial powers, as well as within the Syrian diaspora itself.
Building on works by scholars like Sarah Gualtieri, Akram Khater, and Nadine Naber who have centered race and gender in their analysis of the mahjar, our panel centers patriarchy as a key power structure affecting the lives of Syrians in the Americas. An ideology shared by both US migration police as well as some Syrian men, patriarchy shaped the lives of Syrian women in overlapping and complex ways. Each paper in our session discusses both the overlapping patriarchal structures within North America, as well as Syrian women’s strategies to resist and subvert them. Using documents from the US National archives, one paper explores the role of Syrian interpreters working for the US border patrol. These ambitious men held power over the communities living along the US-Mexico border, and used it to control women’s mobility and entrepreneurship. Another paper focuses on the Syrian press as a site of patriarchal policing of female peddlers, who were seen as sexually and socially deviant despite their important role in their communities. Finally, another paper explores the way Syrian transnational patriarchy aligned with settler colonialism in Oklahoma, and how Syrian women used their social networks and entrepreneurial skills to resist policing. Taken together, our panel speaks to questions about sexuality, intra-communal hierarchies, and overlapping patriarchy within diasporic communities.
In 1912, Heleney Attal sent for her sister in Tyre to join her in El Paso and work at the general store she co-owned with her business partner Michel Simaan. Her sister, Cecilia, had been recently widowed and needed income to support her children. When she arrived at the border, however, she was refused entry because Heleney’s business partner was a married man. Convinced that Heleney was employed in sex work, the immigrant inspectors at the border would not allow Cecilia to cross, believing she would also become a sex worker. The reasoning behind the belief, however, did not come from the anglo US inspectors: it came from the Syrian interpreter who had a business grudge against Simaan.
Using the experiences of Cecilia and Heleney Attal as well as other women crossing the US-Mexico border, I focus my paper on Syrian interpreters and their role in policing Syrian mobility. Poorly paid and often not fluent in English, the interpreters were both part of the Syrian communities that straddled the US-Mexico border, and also active in policing them. Piecing together border reports, newspapers, and government investigations found in the US National Archives, I discuss the ways that Syrian interpreters aligned with classed and patriarchal power in the United States and the Syrian diaspora to further their own positions. My paper opens up discussions on transnational patriarchy, the intersections of class and race, and the intimate nature of migrant policing.
In the first decades of the 20th century, hundreds of Syrians moved through and within Oklahoma and Indian Territories, United States, an area that in 1907 became the 46th U.S. state of Oklahoma. This paper describes some ways first- and second-generation Syrian American women negotiated patriarchal family and settler dynamics in Oklahoma at the site of entrepreneurialism. Drawing on private documents, published and unpublished auto/biographies, interviews, periodicals, and secondary sources, the paper chronicles Syrian women within a variety of Oklahoma regional cultures and economies--mining, railroad, cotton, wheat, and oil. It describes how different multi-spatial relational logics vied to enable, O/orient, and/or constrain entrepreneurialism among Syrian women in Oklahoma,yet how these women afforded themselves degrees of independence and agency as peddlers, teachers, lacemakers, midwives, farmers, butchers, Indigenous art dealers, and merchants of a variety of goods, including ready-to-wear Western lines and luxury haute couture for regional oil elites. The paper emphasizes Suad Joseph's description of connective patriarchy as a dynamic construct of belonging and ideals not discrete from political economy--in the case of Oklahoma, Indigenous dispossession, extractivism, and emerging petrocultures.
While many Syrian immigrant women provided crucial economic support to their families and communities through their work as peddlers, the pages of the Syrian American press show great consternation about women’s mobility and peddling labor. Imagined as unsupervised and morally corruptible, Syrian women peddlers threatened the idealized Syrian American identity that elite Syrian immigrants were crafting in the context of Syrian and American discourses of race, modernity, citizenship, and gendered and sexual propriety. By reiterating several arguments about the dangers of peddling to women, to the Syrian community, and to the community’s reputation, writers claimed a link between peddling and an aberrant female sexuality. Debates about women peddlers in the Syrian American press index concerns about the parameters of normative Syrian sexuality as refracted through white and middle-class American ideals regarding women.