Could unraveling Arab and Muslim masculinity provide insights into why some of these young men find themselves attracted to extremist groups? Anthropology doctoral student Whittaker Harpel-McGraw thinks so and is pursuing the idea in his thesis.
“Many of the diasporic youth who turn toward terrorism are young men – men who are struggling with the transnational experience,” he said. He is trying to understand the challenges faced by first- and second-generation Arab-Americans as they attempt to balance their Arab and American identities.
Gender roles
Harpel-McGraw is focusing in particular on the context of transnational masculinity and how Arab masculinity is changing under the influence of the American experience.
“Gender is fundamentally the first identity we take,” he said, and understanding gender helps to understand a community.
He is looking at how Arab-American men respond and react to the changing women’s roles they find in the United States.
His research so far shows that Arab-American men appeal to an imagined Arab tradition – one that no longer even exists in the Middle East – to legitimize their masculinity. They take a view of gender roles that was common 50 years ago, he said.
For example, he said, Arab-Americans look negatively upon dating, even though it is commonplace among the younger generation in Middle Eastern countries.
At the same time, Arab-American men are incorporating aspects of American masculinity. To use the dating example again, they don’t date because it wasn’t common in older models of “Arabness.” However, in America they do go to dances and hang out with female friends – what many Americans would call “dates.”
But Arab-American men don’t tend to form committed relationships in America; instead, they go back to the Middle East for wives and relationships, Harpel-McGraw said.
“In essence, Arab-American men possess conceptions and ideas of both Arab and American masculinity,” he said.
Harpel-McGraw hopes that his research will help Americans better understand Arabs in this country and around the world.