Stretching Boundaries: Arab Women Head to Work in the U.S.

Posted on December 4th, 2009 by Rania Zabaneh in Economics, Immigration, Uncategorized

In a women’s clothing store in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Hala Saad, 48, was reaching for head scarves from a shelf to match the suit a customer had just bought. With her flip phone squeezed between her Muslim head covering and her ear, she told another customer waiting on the cashier that she will be with her shortly.

Originally from Egypt, Saad has been living in Brooklyn with her husband and their two children since they arrived in the U. S. in 2003.

With no prior work experience, Saad had to work for the first time in her life three years ago. “I had to help my husband,” she said. “One salary was not enough.”

The notion of women working is still not widely supported in many Arab communities because of religious, cultural and societal customs and beliefs, among other factors. However, more Arab women have been joining or seeking to join the workforce in the United States to respond to the increasing financial needs of their families during the economic downturn. Many are taking jobs they wouldn’t have considered in their countries of origin.

Though some Arab women with higher levels of education view work as a way to adapt to a different culture, others see it as a response to financial necessity, said Jen’nan Read, a professor of sociology at Duke University and the author of “Culture, Class, and Work among Arab-American Women.”

At the Arab American Association in New York, officials have seen an increase in the number of women looking for work in the past two years, said Linda Sarsour, the association director.

Families are barely getting by, Sarsour said. “If you are an immigrant and ineligible for government benefits, it’s even worse.”

Women who do not acquire university degrees often do not work in Egypt, Shireen Morqos, 35, said. “It’s considered disgraceful,” she said. “People look down on women behind cashiers or those working as waitresses.”

Morqos has never worked in Egypt. However, she has been working as a waitress in different Brooklyn restaurants. Her husband used to work as a truck driver until he lost his driver’s license and was has not been able to find another job since.

When they do enter the workplace, many Arab women often seek career paths that do not collide with the values of their communities.

“Women here find jobs that are not necessarily in competition with their cultural beliefs,” said Read, “like [working as] a bartender, for example.”

Such restrictions are not true across the board, Read said. Women in many Arab countries are entering work arenas that were previously closed to them.

As life conditions change, opinions vary in time as well as in place.

“If I was in Egypt, I wouldn’t have done it,” Saad said, referring to her work at the clothing store. “It’s different in the United States. You can work in anything.”

Many Arab women including those with advanced degrees end up working in day care, clothing stores, fast-food restaurants or cleaning homes, Sarsour said. “They do not speak English or at least English well enough, so that limits what they can do.”

Faiqa Abdul Hamid, 45, was an elementary school teacher for 13 years in Egypt. For the past couple of years, Abdul Hamid has been working as a babysitter to help support her family.

Living in New York City requires a monthly income of at least $5,000, Abdul Hamid said.

Abdul Hamid has been living in the United States for the past six years. Her husband works in a grocery store. “My husband gets $350 a week and we have four children,” she added. “That doesn’t pay the bills.”

However, as with many working mothers, opting for work has a price.

“There’s hardly a job that’s worth leaving your kids,” AbdulHamid said.

She said she was recently offered a babysitting job that required her to be away from home from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. “I turned it down for one-fourth the money where I can stay next to my kids,” she said. “We have a mission and that is to raise our kids.”

Finding a balance between their duties as wives and mothers on one hand and working to support their families on the other, many women find the same dilemmas as their Western counterparts in the United States.

“There’s a lot of concern in Arab and Muslim culture about the stability of the family,” said Read. “Anything that comes in conflict with that becomes a problem.”

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