We are experiencing COVID-related supply chain delays. Please note, orders are currently taking 10-15 days to be delivered.
We thank you for your understanding and patience.
Penn Press logo
All American Yemeni Girls

How Yemeni girls reconcile their religious culture with their experiences in an American high school.

All American Yemeni Girls
Being Muslim in a Public School

Loukia K. Sarroub

2005 | 168 pages | Cloth $59.95 | Paper $26.50
Anthropology / Education
View main book page

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Being American, Being Yemeni: Uncovering a Predicament
2. American Sojourners between Honor and Shame
3. Classroom as Oasis
4. Islam and Conflicting Visions of Literacy
5. The Tensions Teachers Face: Public Education and Islam
6. From Aspiration to Desperation and Living in Ambiguity
7. Living Ethnography: Reflections on Dearborn before and after September 11

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Being American, Being Yemeni: Uncovering a Predicament

Okay, in their eyes, it means you be quiet, you listen, you obey and you go through, you listen to what we say, regardless, because we know what's best for you. Okay, in my eyes, it's not. It's you take what they say into consideration but you also see your own views. You try to—you have to make the decision on your own. You have to go beyond just what they say, what they're demanding and look at it and look at what you want, how do you see it, how do you feel about it, what is the best outcome for you. Because you know yourself best. . . . For me, see, I consider everything in an Islamic point of view. And being Yemeni, that's basically, you listen to what they say. Being Americanized is the fact that you can stand up and say, 'No,' you know, 'This is what I want. And this is the reason why I want this.'

In 1998, Saba's hands and fingers punctuated each thought as she spoke with the slight staccato that is characteristic of English speech influenced by Arabic. Except for her face and hands, Saba's body was completely covered as she sat across from me, explaining how difficult it is to construct an identity that makes sense in the American and Yemeni Muslim worlds she inhabits. This was not the first of our conversations on this topic, but it was the most emotional. Saba was tired, emotionally stressed to a breaking point, and depressed. Yet she shared her thoughts with me freely as the audio recorder blinked after each pause, recording not only her words, but also the strain of her efforts to make sense of her life. As I listened and responded to her comments, I thought of the other Yemeni American girls with whom I had talked. Their families settled in the U.S. in the early 1970s, and all of them felt the same optimism and desperation Saba expressed; all of them were attempting to reconcile the American lives they experienced at school with the Yemeni lives they knew at home; all of them wanted to succeed at being good students and good daughters and wives; and, all of them felt as if they were failing at being both American and Yemeni. They each feared the risk of becoming less than "good Muslim women."

In my attempt to understand the lives of these girls and their peers, I find that meaning is both uncovered and recovered. At times this is as simple as wearing or removing the hijab (scarf) from one's head. In other instances, the actions, the words, the cast of one's eyes—these index the undercurrents of meaning. Telling this story means being able to navigate among meanings, and therefore, it is no coincidence that I chose to write ethnography. To understand the Yemeni American girls in the context of a "Yemeni village" in the United States, it is important to focus on the quotidian as well as the unusual occurrences in that community. Comprehending as much as possible the lives of the Yemeni within the contexts of school, home, and community, means applying a broad methodological approach which relies on thick description (Geertz 1973) based on rigorous observation, participant and nonparticipant observations, including "shadowing," formal interviews, and informal conversations. This ethnography is based on twenty-six months of fieldwork in a Yemeni community in the Southend of Dearborn, Michigan, from 1997-1999. I returned to Dearborn in the winter of 2002, to conduct interviews with some of the girls following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the New York City World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. These interviews also took place after I had viewed a CBS 60 Minutes segment on Dearborn that featured people with whom I had worked.

By describing both the unusual and the mundane and by synthesizing emerging patterns across contexts and the published literature, especially relevant studies conducted on Islam and immigration in Europe, I attempt to contribute to our knowledge about the intersections of education and religion, home and school worlds, and immigrant students and their teachers. United States scholars in education tend not to focus, for the most part, on issues such as religion and its impact on education, schooling, home, and community life.

Margery Wolf (1992) has said, "an anthropologist listens to as many voices as she can and then chooses among them when she passes their opinions on to members of another culture. The choice is not arbitrary, but then neither is the testimony". In many ways there is really nothing arbitrary about the site or the participants in this study. They are not representative of all schools or teachers or students or communities across the U.S. They were chosen because they are unique. At the same time, however, they belong to larger communities that are not at all unique in that their geopolitical relations are similar to those of others. The children go to public school as other children do. Their teachers deal with cultural and linguistic differences as do teachers in different settings. Their parents worry about their children as do other parents. Without exhausting the list of congruencies and similarities, it is important to note that like many other ethnographies, the value of this study will be in its ability to develop further constructive ideas and theories about larger issues and problems with which educators and researchers grapple. This is accomplished by paying attention to the particulars, and the point is to get to the "heart of the matter," if possible (Geertz 1983; Wolcott 1994).

In writing this ethnography I hope to broaden our understanding of immigrant families in the United States. As the twenty-first century unfolds, we must not forget that a new generation of Americans is in the making. It is often easy to overlook that American children of immigrants often straddle two or multiple worlds and must negotiate various systems of belief that may not complement one another. That this process is further complicated by a combination of factors such as religion, ethnic identity, gender, language, social economic standing, and school socialization norms emphasizes how much we need to know to make decisions for improving schools and relations among schools, communities, and homes. This book deals with the importance of uncovering the predicament of being an "either/or" and becoming American in the public schools.

Throughout the book, I focus on the notion of success—what it means for Yemeni American girls to successfully negotiate home and school worlds—in order to delineate the various players' (teachers, parents, students) expectations for success in the worlds of home and school. In U.S. public schools, academic performance and social adjustment have been important defining factors of school success. Normative definitions of success such as academic achievement, learning, and GPA have all in one way or another guided students, teachers, and parents in formulating what is expected of students during any given school day in any given year. However, the idea of success becomes more complex when it is woven into a fabric created out of the threads of cultural, religious, linguistic, geographical, national, and even personal forces. For instance, with regard to immigrants, Gibson suggests that "theories of success and attitudes about the value of formal education have their roots in well-defined cultural processes predating migration" (Gibson and Bhachu 1991: 64). In other words, folk and personal theories of success are as important in the construction of individual and communal identities within traditional boundaries as they might be in promoting socioeconomic mobility, a broader and more general goal shared by many people regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, or color. Examining and defining the intersection of home and school expectations for success is one way of categorically establishing the relationships which govern dispositions, language use, social adjustment, and self-actualization among the Yemeni American high school girls.

Culture is intimately tied to conceptions of successfully negotiating home and school worlds. Culture is also a lens for lending significance to human experience because it refers broadly to the ways in which people make sense of their lives. Florio-Ruane (2001) has noted five prevailing notions of culture in the social sciences: (1) cultures are unique and in conflict with one another; (2) culture is passed on intact from generation to generation; (3) immigrants and their offspring have a common static cultural stock usually referred to as ethnicity; (4) the value of cultural knowledge and practices is measured by economic success; (5) culture is labeled as inadequate or deficient when ethnic groups fail to thrive economically. She suggests that these rather static conceptions of culture have been the basis of much educational research on immigrant and minority population and should be re-examined. While these prevailing conceptions of culture are misleading (if not incorrect), they do inadvertently show that there is very little in them that addresses the roles of individuals and the development of identity in different contexts. In the preface to his book, Rosaldo (1993) points out that "questions of culture seem to touch a nerve because they quite quickly become anguished questions of identity" (xxi). Saba's comments above about what it means to be American or Yemeni get at the heart of cultural identity and its politics.

Salient notions of culture have been advanced in various fields and disciplines and have become all the more complex and nuanced. In anthropology, for instance, Ogbu (1988) has defined culture as indexed by artifacts that have symbolic meaning for a population, and the imperatives of culture include people's economic, political, religious, and social institutions, such as schools. In sociology Bourdieu (1977) argues that the process of education and schooling becomes "the production of the habitus, that system of dispositions which acts as a mediation between structures and practice" (487). In other words, culture is both historical action and the present enactment of that history, and the habitus enables the cultural process as Ogbu has defined it. Enactment (and perhaps the intentioned or unintentioned reproduction) of one's past (traditions, customs, etc.) is mediated by both behavior and discourse, which can either be an adaptation to or an artifact of culture. As will be illustrated within the Yemeni context, past and present are not easily differentiated, since this community continued to live much as they did in Yemen, while the girls continually attempted to successfully adapt to American life at school and Yemeni life at home. Also, the Yemeni American girls show us that classroom life may be surprisingly liberating because the habitus within which gender roles, as they are part of the girls' ethnic identity, matter less than does school talk. In other words, it is because school talk often rules out students' nonschool discourses that problems of identity arise. In this book, it is precisely the educational "culturalectomy" phenomenon that seems to open new possible identities for young women.

More dynamic conceptions of culture embody the development of identity, which is instrumental in understanding how the Yemeni American girls understand themselves at home and school. Taylor's (1996) phenomenological view directs attention to the self, how the self ascertains how s/he identifies with the world and thus forms an identity. According to Taylor, identity formation is an ongoing and shifting process, dependent on social, historical and cultural contexts. This view acknowledges that the self is not tightly tied to time or place, and perhaps, it is not tied to status and role, which are negotiated and can shift with every situation. Raissiguier (1994), whose research focuses on Algerian and French working class women in France, has a particularly germane definition of identity: "[it is the] product of an individual or a group of individuals' interpretation and reconstruction of their personal history and particular social location, as mediated through the cultural and discursive context to which they have access" (26). Thus, it can be argued that the process of identity formation is one of socialization as one gains access to social institutions such as family or school, but it also means that rules can be suspended and that the notion of self shifts with time and location. Taken literally, the modern dictionary definition of socialization implies a coercive force whereby individuals must often conform to the common needs of a social group. However, in a different light, it can also be argued, as Bernstein (1977) has done, that socialization creates a safe place for people. He understands the process of socialization to mean a child's acquisition of a specific cultural identity that becomes a standard which he or she uses to respond to events, actions, and other individuals: "Socialization sensitizes the child to various orderings of society as these are made substantive in the various roles he is expected to play" (476). What happens when a child is socialized in multiple cultures? Does identity become fragmented according to context (home, school, and community)? And, do conceptions of the self also reflect this fragmentation as students remain Yemeni while becoming American? As these questions suggest, success may be somewhat dependent on the successful realization of expected selves (or identities) at school, at home, and in the community.

Equally important in the development of identity and its relationship to notions of success is the idea that identity and/or expressions of the self are rooted both in history and in ideology and are often expressed through one's ethnicity. Di Leonardo (1984) defines ethnicity as "a phenomenon of state societies, involving the labeling, from within or without of particular populations as somehow different from the majority" (23). She argues that the labeling itself, as a cultural process, is crucial to the construction of identity and ethnicity as groups interact economically and politically. Her work on Italian Americans showed that it matters where Italians came from, when and why they left, where they went, and how newcomers were received on the basis of economic and social conditions. Ethnicity, in this view, is both cognitive and economic, and as the economy changes, so do ethnic boundaries and ideologies. In the case of the Yemeni as an ethnic group, there is no question that history and economy impact their world view with regard to life in the U.S. and expectations for success at school and at home. As Gordon (1964) comments:

"Within ethnic groups, persons have two types of identification that operate simultaneously: historical identification—a sense of peoplehood shared with other group members—and participation identification—a sense of primary identification with an ethnic group with whom one shares values and behavioral patterns. Primary relationships are normally confined to persons who share both these identifications, persons of the same ethclass, since values and behavior tend to be related both by class and ethnicity" (89-90).

Again, it is clear that identity formation within culture is the enactment of both the past and the present. Identity, then, is dynamic, not static. As di Leonardo suggests, "Focusing on ethnic boundaries rooted in economic and historical processes allows us instead to see that all of daily life, not just family life, is part of the construction and reconstruction of ethnic identities" (24). For example, she found that gender identity as well as religious belief changed over generations in the Italian American families she studied. In the case of the Yemeni as an ethnic group, there is no question that history and economy impact their world view with regard to life in the U.S. and expectations for success school and at home.

The definitional parameters of success—culture, identity, and ethnicity—illustrate the complicated and complex worlds the Yemeni American girls inhabited between home and school. As this ethnography focuses on girls, gender is also a significant concept and analytic tool for understanding the high school girls and their community. Gender identification remains an important aspect of Yemeni and American cultures and, as such, it must be considered consequential to identity and ethnic formation. Woods and Hammersley (1993) have suggested that ethnographers in education must explore the connections between ethnicity and gender rather than rely solely on social class characteristics. El-Or's (1994) work on ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, for example, focuses on the intersection of religion and education and the paradox of educating women in order to foster ignorance and reproduce a static culture among the women. Finder's (1997) work around the literacy events of young adolescent girls characterizes the girls' literate world as constituting both the official school literacy practices and the "literate underlife." Proweller's (1998) work examines the identity formation processes among a group of upper middle-class adolescent girls in a private, elite academy. In these studies ethnographers delimit the study of identity in unusual ways where gendered practices are strongly influenced by school life, religion, ethnicity, and language. The representation of gender today is problematic, especially if and when gender itself becomes an objectified category of socialization within academic and education discourse (Connel 1987; Thorne 1997). I maintain that gender is a rather fluid category which cannot easily be demarcated or objectified because it is indexed by talk, interaction, ethnicity and, in the case of the Yemeni American girls, by religion. In many ways, the Yemeni American girls are "triangulators" of identity and in so being, culture is enacted in the in-between spaces they occupy in their home and school worlds.

One aim of this book is to argue that these broad concepts described above must be considered together as factors which help shed light on the continuities and discontinuities that may exist between home and school. During fieldwork in Dearborn, Michigan, I asked the following questions:

  • What are the expectations for success at school and home among Muslim Yemeni American students?
  • How do the girls negotiate the various expectations around them?
  • In light of the cultural and/or religious discontinuities that may exist between home and school, how do Yemeni American students make sense of their identities in those contexts?
  • How do the girls develop their identities, between home and school, in a Yemeni and American community?
  • What role does gender play in the enactment of cultural norms at home and school?
  • How do ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic standing influence expectations for success at home and school?
  • How are these expectations (from parents, teachers, peers) communicated to the girls?
  • And, how then do they respond?
  • How does the school perceive and accommodate cultural and religious differences among its students?
  • How do teachers view their pedagogical roles with regard to these students?
  • And, what impact do school and teacher accommodations have on the students?

I draw mainly from three interdisciplinary perspectives—literacy studies and sociolinguistics, cultural anthropology, and sociology—to explain the relationships and connections among the contexts of school, community, and home. A sociolinguistic perspective is useful in unmasking the notion of culture as discourse (Gee 1989; Goffman 1959, 1981), or ways of being that encompass talk, action, and performance. This frame of reference is especially helpful in delineating the contextual uses of texts and language among the Yemeni American students. For example, the use of Arabic in school serves important functional and religious purposes as students attempt to maintain dual identities. It is not clear, however, whether cultural differences in communication style between home and school have a direct cause and effect relationship on school achievement (Erickson 1987). While in the field, I observed that communication style (the discourses used) is important in making social adjustments within the school setting and, in particular, in the classroom but not necessarily in academic performance. For these students, social success in school (behaving appropriately according to cultural and religious traditions) is as important as academic achievement because the enactment of appropriate social mores in and out of school determines status as well as degrees of shame and honor.

For example, in their study of home and classroom life, Shultz, Florio, and Erickson (1982) observed that there was a mismatch between the teacher's expectations for classroom behavior and her students' (who were Italian Americans) knowledge of the required norms for proper behavior. Shultz and his colleagues found that although the students' social etiquette was perfectly acceptable at home, it did not meet the expectations of the classroom. They concluded that teachers and researchers should attempt to "understand more fully children's socialization into communicative traditions at home and at school, traditions that may be mutually congruent or incongruent" (91). It is clear that those who have studied the impact of home cultures and social class on success at home and in school, have concluded that although socioeconomic standing is a useful tool, it does not always explain how individuals learn, produce knowledge, and sustain cultural and/or social identities in multiple worlds. Heath (1983), for instance, showed that the complex language socialization process is "more powerful than single-factor explanations accounting for academic success" (344).

In connection to literacy and sociolinguistic processes, I draw on Ogbu's (1982; 1993) cultural-ecological model, which maintains that child rearing in the family and subsequent adolescent socialization aim at developing instrumental competencies—defined as "the ability to perform a culturally specific task, or a set of functional or instrumental skills"—required for adult economic, political, and social roles. Cultural imperatives vary from one population to another as do the required competencies. Within this model, Ogbu takes issue with views of human development that assume that a child's later school success depends on the acquisition of white-middle class competencies (and sources of cultural capital) through white middle-class child-rearing practices (see Ogbu 1991). He argues that all children experience initial discontinuities between home and school in language use, contextual learning, and style of learning. A central distinction in Ogbu's (1987) account is between voluntary and involuntary minorities. Voluntary minorities are immigrants who "have generally moved to their present societies because they believed that the move would lead to more economic well-being, better overall opportunities or greater political freedom" (317). Involuntary minorities, on the other hand, were brought to the present society through conquest or forced displacement.

Ogbu further differentiates among primary and secondary cultural differences. Primary cultural differences are those that existed before two populations came into contact, while secondary ones are those arising after two populations have been in continuous contact and the minority population has participated in the institutions controlled by the majority. Basically, Ogbu argues that involuntary minorities face cultural differences based on style whereas voluntary minorities face differences in content. This means that voluntary minorities or immigrants "perceive their social identity as primarily different from the social identity of white Americans" (p. 323), and involuntary minorities "develop a new sense of social identity in opposition to the social identity of the dominant group after they have been subordinated." Ogbu argues, "immigrants see the cultural differences as barriers to overcome in order to achieve their long-range goals of future employment and not as markers of identity to be maintained" (327). Gibson (1988) calls this strategy "accommodation and acculturation without assimilation." In her study of Punjabi Sikh immigrants, she found that although they are proud to be Americans, they "openly and actively reject the notion that Americanization means giving up their separate identity (24).

Involuntary minorities, however, and according to Ogbu's model, perceive cultural differences "they encounter in school as markers of identity to be maintained, not as barriers to be overcome" (331). The cultural-ecological model is useful in assessing what competencies are expected among the Yemeni American girls in the contexts of home, school, and community, and how those competencies will influence future success at work and home. Nevertheless, Ogbu's model has come under criticism in recent years on the grounds that it not universally applicable. For example, Ogbu omits explaining that primary cultural differences can become charged with political meanings in present situations and actually cause conflict. In their work, Eldering (1997) and Van Zanten (1997) found that European girls of Arab descent who wore the hijab were stigmatized and told to go home by school officials. Recently and according to the Associated Press, in a move to emphasize France's secularism a presidential commission banned Islamic headscarves in public schools on 11 December 2003. If this ban were to become law, all conspicuous religious symbols, including large Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps would also be banned in France (Ganley 2003). According to Le Monde the French documented at least 1256 young French women who wear the scarf in school (Bernard 2003).

Debates over the headscarf have arisen all over Europe in conjunction with the rise of immigration from predominantly Muslim countries. "The critical factor for the Muslim students seems not to be the origin of the differences—but rather that the differences are viewed as markers of identity" (Gibson 1997). In the case of the Yemeni Americans, they exhibit tendencies that would characterize them as both voluntary and involuntary minorities. Many families are really sojourners who live two lives, one in the U.S. and a second in Yemen. Furthermore, Ogbu's model does not account for how gender shapes student identity at home and school and with regard to social and academic performance. In the Yemeni culture, for instance, gender is decidedly a fundamental aspect of social differentiation and must be addressed, especially if school represents a form of liberation as it does for young Muslim girls in Europe and for the Yemeni American girls in Dearborn. In addition, perhaps the most interesting finding in the literature on minority populations is that these students do better in school "when they feel strongly anchored in the identities of their families, communities, and peers and when they feel supported in pursuing a strategy of selective or additive acculturation" (Gibson 1997: 445). This is important because it may explain why students who come from working class families in which the parents (and usually the mother) are semiliterate or print illiterate still perform well, sometimes outperforming the majority population in the school. Finally, Ogbu's model underconceptualizes the power of curriculum and teachers. Schools and teachers have an immense impact on student engagement and achievement in school, and they are often the catalysts needed to change students' futures and future competencies.

From the literature in sociology, I draw on relevant theories relating to social and cultural capital because school performance has often been linked to them. Cultural capital, according to Bourdieu (1986) exists in three forms: the embodied state (dispositions of the mind and body; the objectified state (cultural goods such as books, pictures, instruments, dictionaries, machines, etc.) and the institutionalized state (academic qualifications which give the holder a conventional, constant, legally guaranteed value with respect to culture). Bourdieu maintains that his theory of cultural reproduction "sought to propose a model of the social mediations and processes which tend, behind the backs of the agents engaged in the school system—teachers, students and their parents—and often against their will, to ensure the transmission of cultural capital across generations and to stamp pre-existing differences in inherited cultural capital with a meritocratic seal of academic consecration by virtue of the special symbolic potency of the [credential]" (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977/1990: ix).

In other words and according to this argument, school knowledge and the values transmitted within the institution are more legitimate in society than preexisting home knowledge and values. In accordance with the notion of stamping out preexisting differences, Bourdieu & Passeron (1977/1990) have suggested that "every power which manages to impose meanings and to impose them as legitimate by concealing the power relations which are the basis of its force, adds its own specifically symbolic force to those power relations" (p. xv). This theory, then, espouses the idea that widely held norms for success, norms that are imposed by schools, are the most meaningful economically and culturally. In contrast to Ogbu's theory of cultural-ecology, which accounts for different types of minorities and different types of cultural discontinuities between home and school that are not solely class-based, Bourdieu's cultural capital theory instantiates social class as the key factor of success in school. Bourdieu (1977) argues that social class provides individuals with high status roles with the resources to maintain positions of power in society. The home and family contribute certain resources, such as language (and forms of discourse) and other types of cultural experiences, which are either in line with or deviate from the middle-class values schools embody. As Labaree (1997) observes, individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds aim at upward social mobility by using school as a necessary credential for status positions in society. Yet, according to cultural capital theory, upward mobility and the acquisition of credentials are controlled by one's ability to adopt and enact middle-class values, discourse, and dispositions. In other words, some social class ideologies are better suited to success in schools than others.

In her work on social class and its relationship to parent involvement in schools, Lareau (1989/1993) maintains that the relationship between working class families and schools is characterized by separation (parents and students think of school and education as a job which stops when the children arrive home). The relationship that middle-to-upper middle class families have with schools is characterized by interconnectedness, such that the business of school and education is an ongoing endeavor in everyday home life. Meanwhile, schools are thought to accept, reproduce, and reflect societal hierarchies. These ideas were corroborated earlier by Bowles and Gintes (1976), who suggested that schools are class based institutions that often reproduce the advantages and deficits of class-based consciousness and knowledge. Deterministic in nature, Bowles and Gintes' argument proposed a one-to-one relationship between schools and societal structures, such as the home. Fortunately, this may not really be representative of the levels of congruence and incongruence between home and school environments. In fact, the main thrust of Lareau's argument is that although cultural capital theory improves upon other existing explanations of why middle-class families seem to be more involved in school than working-class families, it needs to be modified if it is to explain that in fact, "possession of high status cultural resources does not automatically yield a social profit [unless] these cultural resources are activated by the individual" (10). In other words, social class is a potent and at times an accurate predictor of student success in schools, but it may not always account for the enactment of competencies that can cut across social class barriers.

Although cultural reproduction theory provides a strong framework for what schools expect from students in the context of national and/or societal goals, it does not necessarily address the realities of schools and teachers' accommodation of students' differences whether they be cultural, religious, gender specific, etc., (Cummins 1997; Eisikovits 1997; Eldering 1997; Gibson 1997; Gillborn 1997). If cultural reproduction is viewed mainly as a recursive event, it is challenged by students who have virtually little cultural and/or social capital yet seem to be meeting and exceeding expectations for academic success at school (see Zine 2000, for an analysis of resistance theories and the formation of Islamic subcultures within schools). In the chapters which follow, I document the religious and cultural traditions that are in fact reproduced and reconstructed within the Yemeni family, and by the girls, and then explore their impact on social and academic performance in the school setting. The evidence will suggest that cultural tools and traditions may have little bearing on learning and achievement but may serve the purpose of easing cultural or religious tensions as home and school worlds collide.

The Hijabat

During my two years in Dearborn, I met, among many others, six high school girls who became my main research informants, teachers and, in the end, friends. I met these girls at the community center in the Southend, a guetto-like enclave of Dearborn, and followed them in and out of school and home for two years. They all wore the hijab and were therefore called hijabat (the plural feminine noun used by these girls and community members to denote those who wear the scarf) by other Arab Americans in the community and in their school.

. . . Throughout the book, these girls' personalities emerge as highly individualized voices, who, as Brown and Gilligan (1992) suggest in their study of adolescent girls, find themselves at a crossroads of girlhood and womanhood. The hijabat's voices merge and blend into one story about a group of people whose history, ethnicity, religion, school and home lives, and gender delineate social and physical boundaries.

Nadya was a ninth and tenth grader who was characterized by her teachers as having "a lot of potential if only she could settle down." She enjoyed socializing in school and her school counselor suspected this was so because there were cultural and social constraints in the Yemeni community and at home. Nadya hated to clean and cook at home and knew that her older sister would do her chores. Nadya's parents were careful not to ask her to do too much because she had once had a seizure that frightened her family. So, unlike most of the hijabat, Nadya was often excused from her chores, until her older sister was married and moved out of the house.

Aisha was called "very sweet" by all of her friends. She was quiet and rarely spoke. An exceedingly bright student, Aisha dreamed of going to college when I knew her as a tenth and eleventh grader. She tutored at the community center near her home until her parents no longer allowed her to work there. She helped her parents manage their finances and paid the bills. Her biggest worry was whether she would be able to stay in school because her parents wanted to send her to Yemen to marry as her sister had done when she was fifteen. Aisha was afraid to marry one of her cousins because her parents were first cousins, and she worried that there would be phenotypic aberrations, such a missing limbs or blindness. She was concerned all the time with school and her grades and often registered for classes in which she could be with other hijabat.

Layla was the most outgoing and talkative of the hijabat. She identified strongly with her mother who grew up among the British when South Yemen was a colony. Layla thought that her mother was more open-minded than most of her friends' mothers. Like many of the hijabat, Layla wanted to cut her long hair short and go to college. She kept her personal life and any mention of potential marriage a secret at school and planned to stay single as long as possible, even though there were rumors that she was married. Layla resented learning to cook Yemeni dishes and to maintain a household for her own future home. She had dreams of becoming a teacher, a nurse, or a politician. She tutored at the community center near her home.

Nouria was always dissatisfied with her home and school life. She complained incessantly about her household chores and having to take care of her siblings. More than once, Nouria threatened to commit suicide because she was unhappy. She kept to herself at school, when I knew her as a tenth and eleventh grader, but she did tutor at the community center. Most of her energy was spent on finding ways to divorce her husband, also a student in the high school, and trying to persuade her father to let her divorce him. Nouria's older siblings were all high achievers in school, which furthered her disgruntlement. When I returned to Dearborn in 2002, she had run away from home and her family no longer recognized or acknowledged her as a member of the family.

Saba was known as a leader among the hijabat. She could recite the Qur'an in both Arabic and English and gave lectures at the mosque and even organized a weekly lecture and reading group called Muhathara (lecture). Saba, as an eleventh and twelfth grader, was a student leader as well and a noted "trouble-maker" by the administration and some teachers. Saba tried desperately to obtain permission from her family to choose her own husband and refused to go to Yemen when her family insisted. She tutored and worked in the community health center clinic. She was committed to furthering her education and becoming a teacher or nurse, marrying someone of her choosing, and being a good Muslim.

Amani was quiet and shy. During the tenth and eleventh grades she enrolled in all the preparatory nursing classes and interned at a clinic with her classmates. Amani wanted to become a nurse and planned to attend college. She sometimes wished she could wear short sleeves and take off her scarf but did not think this would be possible in her neighborhood. She drove her brothers to school but was not allowed to work anywhere other than the community center, where she tutored with the other hijabat. Amani had to learn how to cook Yemeni dishes at home and was often judged as a worthy cook and housekeeper by relatives and neighbors. She married as soon as she graduated from high school and moved to another state.

The hijabat, much like other American women, found themselves hoping to become nurses and teachers-acceptable occupations in their culture. In their community they often said that such occupations preserved their primary roles as mothers and at the same time allowed them to entertain the notion of being educated mothers. For these girls, the prospect of a high school degree, if not a college degree, enhanced the role of the mother in the family. Education is valued by the Yemenis in the U.S. and, and it is especially valued in girls.8 It is useful to draw an historical contrast between these young women and women at the beginning of the twentieth century in the U.S. The shift in women's work roles in the nineteenth century, for example, inspired new definitions of womanhood and eventually led to the feminization of occupations such as teaching. The urbanization and industrialization of the American economy also redefined, to a certain degree, the role women played at home and in society. In tandem with these changes, the advent of universal public education further transformed notions of womanhood, woman's sexuality, and woman's work. I draw attention to this history because Yemeni immigrants also moved to the U.S. from a mainly agricultural village setting in Yemen to a labor market based in industry in the U.S. The lives of Yemeni women as homemakers parallel those of many women at the turn of the twentieth century. Today, these transformations, which led to the recognition of teaching as a "woman's profession," are characterized by historians as the "cult of true womanhood" (Clifford 1989; Degler 1980; Ryan 1981); domestic femininity" (Clifford 1989; Degler 1980; Grumet 1988; Hoffman 1981; Rury 1989); and "domestic/woman's sphere" (Clifford 1989; Ryan 1981). The construction of woman as mother and the paragon of domesticity allowed her to receive an education, but restrained her in work opportunities. This dialectic of opportunity and constraint illuminates the conflicting private and public roles of women in the last century (Rury 1989). Interestingly enough, I observed that same dialectic among the six hijabat and their peers as they attempted to establish their identities both at home and in their community and at school.

A Comment on Methods

Conceptually, the research in this book is based on an interdisciplinary approach. Methodologically, it is as well. The research conducted during the first year of fieldwork, in 1997-1998, was the beginning of a conversation between the published literature and actual field experiences. Prior to being out in the field, notions of ethnicity, identity, culture, gender, etc., seemed relatively clear and uncomplicated. However, negotiating researcher space and identity in the contexts of both the published literature and the field created a dynamic and complex problem. Roland Barthes wrote, "interdisciplinary work, so much discussed these days, is not about confronting already constituted disciplines (none of which, in fact, is willing to let itself go). To do something interdisciplinary it's not enough to choose a "subject" (a theme) and gather around it two or three sciences. Interdisciplinarity consists in creating a new object that belongs to no one" (quoted in Clifford 1986:1). In more ways than one, this project was a new object, not only for me, the researcher, but also for my informants in the school, home, and community of Dearborn.

Furthermore, as Kondo (1990) so aptly put it in her research, my own identity was beginning to fragment according to different contexts. One case in point was the uncertainty that the boys in my study would continue to participate during that first year of fieldwork. Only two out of six at the community center agreed to speak with me, and only one allowed me to shadow him once. My very presence as a woman in their school and home lives constituted social embarrassment and peer harassment. The fact is that as a woman, my work made sense to the Yemeni only in the context of women's lives. As a researcher, this was troublesome. One way to deal with this problem was to be less intrusive (not do interviews with the boys) and simply observe, talk, and listen to the boys while shadowing the girls. This may not have been the best way to gather needed information, but in order to preserve the rather fragile balance of being both a woman and a researcher in a male-dominated culture, I did just that. With the teachers at Cobb High, negotiating my role was an endless process. At the very worst I was considered as someone who was evaluating and reporting what I observed to the administrators. At the very best, I was someone who wanted to help. With each individual teacher, the process began anew as I conducted interviews or observed in the classroom.

In the community, in addition to being called, "that Algerian woman," the students also called me "the white woman doing research." This was interesting because they are also White or Caucasian, but they considered themselves "Arab" and everyone else in the school was "White." I think that my presence was accepted and tolerated among these students but I was not one of them, and they joked, perhaps I was a secret agent from the FBI or CIA spying on people. This was both a positive and negative aspect of the fieldwork. It was positive because it allowed me freedom to move about in the community without adhering to all the rules of modesty, although movement in the community was difficult since there was not a man (such as a husband or father) present to sanction my behavior. It was negative because the underlying assumption among my informants was that I would not understand them if I was not really Muslim as they were. As an outsider, I could never capture their reality. Wolf (1992) explains this dilemma and suggests that that it is possible to capture that reality.

Obviously (or so it seems to me), anthropologists can only convey their own understandings of their observations in another culture in their ethnographies. The better the observer, the more likely she is to catch her informants' understanding of the meaning of their experiences; the better the writer, the more likely she is to be able to convey that meaning to an interested reader from another culture. Some kinds of cultural meanings may only be accurately understood and reported by one who has learned them without realizing it, but much of the cultural onion may be easily or even more easily picked apart by a careful analyst who is not of the culture.

I contacted the hijabat through the community center in the Southend and with the help of key contacts: Mrs. Dunbar, who worked at the community center, and two Yemeni American college students, Sabrina and Mariam. At first, contact with student participants was mediated by these key informants. Because the school district would not allow me to contact students through Cobb High School, I found a different venue for doing so. Dearborn is the home of the most successful Arab social services center in the U.S. By contacting the youth and education director there, I was able to meet and invite students who attended Cobb High to participate as focal students. Six hijabat agreed. They were tutors in a reading/writing program at the community center and helped newly arrived Arab immigrants (elementary and high school aged) with English and math. During the fall of 1997, I spent most of my afternoons at the community center getting to know the students. It soon became apparent to me that this was the only place other than school where I could possibly meet and speak with them. Although I was invited to parties and other social occasions in their homes in the ensuing few months, their home worlds remained relatively closed to me although that began to change, as more of the students' mothers invited me to visit them. However, the community center served as a perfect and safe place for the hijabat to talk to me.

Fieldwork at the high school officially began after I obtained approval to conduct the research from my university. The hijabat represented a range of ability and an array of dispositions towards their home and school lives. I interviewed them formally and informally and conducted participant observations in the community and school. Four additional participants included the only two Yemeni American hijabat from the community who were enrolled in college and the two Yemeni American boys. At the beginning I experimented with the idea of having a focal family and actually proceeded to interview one of my key informants and her two siblings. However, the parents refused to participate and the idea of a focal family became less important as other informants and their parents agreed to participate. At the high school I formally interviewed twenty-two teachers and counselors over the two years of fieldwork and informally interviewed 75 of the 90 others. Teacher/counselor participants were chosen in accordance with student participants (their teachers) and teacher participation was voluntary and was mediated by the district and school administration.

I conducted semistructured interviews with open exploratory questions. Funneling (Smith 1995; Harré & Van Langenhove 1995) was the main organizing technique for interview questions. This means that I began with broad questions and followed up with prompts that narrowed the scope of each question. Participant and non-participant observation was conducted at school, in the community, and in the home. Focal students were "shadowed" at school, meaning that I followed them from the time they left their homes to the time that they returned home after tutoring at the community center. Artifacts such as schoolwork samples, personal work samples, community demographic information, daily bulletins, memoranda from district superintendent to and from principals, memoranda from principals to faculty, memoranda from the community liaison, media information, were collected. Administrators at Cobb High were generous with their time and artifacts and let me photocopy whatever pertained to the Arab population in the school while I was there.

I was invited to homes on social occasions such as birthday parties and talked to mothers informally. Of course, all social occasions that took place in the home were with women, since men and women do not socialize together. In the school, I followed the six hijabat from class to class (an one time I shadowed one of the boys), all the while observing them and their interactions with the teachers, their peers, and the content taught. I conducted interviews with the teachers, attended staff meetings, Open House, school plays, school pep rallies, and a couple of football games.

At the community center, I conducted the interviews with the students and observed their interactions and language practices. I also participated in activities such as delivering food to poor and newly arrived Iraqi families during holidays, community center dinners, and reading/writing sessions with the tutors. In addition, the girls had a special group called Octe (sister). From time to time, this group met to talk about issues ranging from sexuality to school problems. It was important for me to continue these kinds of activities and to be seen as an integral part of the community. The informants all understood my research goals, but at the same time, they seemed to appreciate my participation in the work they did.

Several times I accompanied some of the hijabat to the nearby mall and to Arabic school at the mosque on weekends. Oftentimes, I would go to the mall by myself and walk there for a few hours, observing the various groups of people, especially when I knew that some of the Yemeni families had planned outings there. At Arabic school, I accompanied Nouria either on a Sunday or Saturday morning and observed first through seventh grades. The teachers there were suspicious of me at first but welcomed me back and were pleased to learn that I could read and write in Arabic, but they did suggest that I needed more Arabic language classes and said that I could enroll there.

I adopted the tools of ethnographic method—fieldnotes and ethnographic interviews—described by Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (1995), Spradley (1979), and Hammersley and Atkinson (1995). A critical ethnographic analysis of the interviews included audio taping, transcription, and coding based on domain, taxonomic, componential, and theme analyses (Carspecken, 1996; Spradley, 1979). By critical, I mean that I was especially aware of dialectical relationships such as power and gender, language and culture, and the politics of space, ethnicity, and class in my observations and the coding of fieldnotes. Observation fieldnotes were also analyzed through a process of open and focused coding in which I paid particular attention to the informants' use of culturally relevant terms and meaning making (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995). I wrote analytical memos and these served two functions: a) They related the data to the formulation of theory, and b) they helped me gain analytical distance from the field itself (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). In addition, a case study design (see Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; Erickson & Shultz, 1992) was used to document the discourse practices of each of the Yemeni students and to obtain a deeper and richer understanding of their day-to-day lives at home and school. Attention to the particulars of each case illuminated their construction of their identities across contexts. Triangulation of codes and themes was applied among interviews, fieldnotes, and various artifacts. A constant application of member checks (with teachers, students, parents, and community members) across time was conducted. I did this by sharing ethnographic reports with administrators, teachers, and the girls. For example, I sent reports to Mrs. Dunbar to read, and I often called the hijabat on the weekends to read sections to them or to ask questions about my understanding of the Qur'an or other Arabic texts. Also, and importantly, during fieldwork, I met with two research mentors and colleagues once a month to discuss with them methodological issues as well as substantive ones dealing with my field experiences and readings of the published literature. These meetings guided me in not losing sight of my goals as I became more and more immersed in the Yemeni community.

The case of these Yemeni American girls and their community adds a unique lens to the history of immigration and education in the United States. As Suarez-Orozco (2001) reports, by 2020, one in five students (20%) will be an immigrant or a child of immigrants. This certainly characterizes the Yemeni American girls of Dearborn and their progeny. Importantly, as relations between the U.S. and the Arab world continue to be highly politicized, and as ethnic and national identity becomes even more meaningful during moments of high tension in the world arena, the lives of these young women and their families at the end of the twentieth century and at the dawn of the twenty-first becomes all the more significant in our understanding of what it means to be a member of society, an American, an Arab, a Muslim, a young woman. The world of public education is far more complicated than many of us know, especially for groups of people who are not active participants and consumers of the dominant and often hegemonic culture of schooling. This is the story of a group of high school girls who attempted to make sense of competing identities as their ethnic group was slowly becoming a majority group within their high school. As such, they present a compelling set of voices that show the determination and resilience of the contemporary American teenager in school, the Muslim daughters of the home and community, and the mothers of some of the United States' newest Arab and Muslim Americans.

[Pseudonyms are used throughout the book for people and some places to protect anonymity and confidentiality.]

Penn Press | Site Use and Privacy Policy
Report Accessibility Issues and Get Help | University of Pennsylvania
Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press | All rights reserved