Arab American Heritage Month

During the month of April, the United States celebrates Arab American Heritage Month, recognizing the history, cultures, and achievements of Arabs, Arab Americans, and people who trace their ethnic lineage to Southwest Asia and North Africa. During an era of heightened racism, bigotry, and hate crimes affecting BIPOC communities, it is critically important to share accurate information, celebrate diverse cultures, overcome stereotypes, and empower future generations.

Written by Patricia Fortunato, Content Manager/Program Manager at the NeuroMusculoskeletal Institute — Rowan Medicine and Gabby McAllaster, Ph.D. Student in Education at Rowan University and Graduate Coordinator for DEI

Originally written in April 2021, updated in April 2022. 

Brief History:

On April 30, 2020, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and Representatives Donna Shalala, Debbie Dingell, and Bill Pascrell, Jr., issued a congressional resolution honoring Arab American Heritage Month. 

“As a strong and proud Arab American woman in Congress, it is an honor to introduce this Arab American Heritage Month resolution uplifting our contributions to this nation. For generations, Arab Americans have infused our love for freedom, justice, and equity into every aspect of our American experience. Most recently, we have seen Arab American health care workers be exemplars of patriotism, fighting on the front lines of the COVID–19 pandemic. This resolution serves as a message of appreciation and thanks for these contributions made and future contributions that Arab American communities across our country will no doubt continue to make.” —Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib.

The full text of the resolution can be read here.


Arab: The term “Arab” is both linguistic and cultural. It references people who may speak Arabic as a first language. Arab is not a race; people who are Arab are united by history and culture. Many Arabs identify with the Muslim religion, and there are also Jewish Arabs and Christian Arabs across the U.S. and the world.

Arab Americans: Arab Americans are Americans of Arab descent. There are many Americans with ethnic roots in each Arab country; many originate from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Yemen, and Iraq. The first Arab American immigrants arrived in the late 19th century; the second wave of immigration began post-World War II and continues today. The largest communities live in Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan.

Arab World: The “Arab world” spans 22 countries from North Africa to the Arabian Gulf: Algeria, Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Iran and Turkey are not Arab countries, despite being frequently misidentified. Arab countries are extraordinarily diverse concerning ethnicities, languages, and religious communities.

BIPOC: “BIPOC” is an acronym for Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The term acknowledges how violence against Black and Indigenous people is foundational to the U.S., as the founding and expansion of this country relied on slavery and genocide. The term also blurs the differences between the two groups it is meant to center, as belonging as a “member” of each group is and historically has been different—with the one-drop rule of antebellum and Jim Crow South assigning anyone with as much as “one drop” of Black heritage to automatically be considered Black, but requiring those of Indigenous heritage to prove they have “enough” Indigenous heritage to belong to the group.

BIWOC: “BIWOC” is an acronym for Black, Indigenous, and women of color.

Cultural Appropriation: Taking and benefiting from the expression, ideas, artifacts, etc. of another culture without permission, often done by the dominant culture. This is not a cultural exchange, which requires mutual consent and respect.

Immigrant: An immigrant is a person who moves to another country, usually for permanent residence. They may or may not be citizens. The terms “foreigner,” “illegal immigrant,” and “alien” are offensive and should not be used as synonyms.

Institutional Racism: The ways in which the structures, systems, policies, and procedures of institutions are founded upon and then promote, reproduce, and perpetuate advantages for the dominant group and the oppression of disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.

International: The appropriate term to use for students who obtain a non-immigrant visa such as a student visa or an exchange visitor visa.

IntersectionalityA theoretical concept describing the interconnection of oppressive institutions and identities.

Islamophobia: A form of bigotry, hostility, and discrimination targeted at Muslims, and more generally those perceived as Arabs. 

Middle East: “The Middle East” is a term used loosely, and not necessarily to describe one territory. It typically includes the Arab countries spanning Egypt to the Persian Gulf, and Palestine, Israel, and Iran. Turkey is often regarded as part of the Middle East; in some instances, it is regarded as part of Europe. The countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh are described as part of South Asia.

Muslim: A person who identifies as Muslim identifies with the religion of Islam. There are Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and Druze Muslims. Not all Arabs and Arab Americans are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arab. It is critically important to note that Arabs and Arab Americans are a religiously diverse culture.

Muslim World: There are an estimated 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. The ten countries with the largest Muslim populations are Indonesia (219.9 million), India (194.8 million), Pakistan (184 million), Bangladesh (144 million), Nigeria (90 million), Egypt (83.8 million), Iran (77.6 million), Turkey (75.4 million), Algeria (37.2 million), and Iraq (36.2 million).

Person of Color, or People of Color: “Person of Color” and “People of Color” are umbrella terms for anyone who is non-white. The use of the term “colored” is offensive and should not be used as a synonym. The terms “ethnic” and “urban” also have negative undertones and likewise, should not be used as synonyms.

Racism: Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed toward someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. Racism involves one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of society, and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices. 

Refugee: A refugee is a person forced to flee their country due to violence or persecution. The term “migrant” may be offensive in some contexts.

Sexism: A system of beliefs or attitudes which regulates women to limited roles and/or options because of their sex. It centers on the idea that women are inferior to men.

Xenophobia: A fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners.

Historical Figures:

Layla bint Abullah ibn Shaddad ibn Ka’b al-Akhyaliyyah

Layla bint Abdullah ibn Shaddad ibn Ka’b al-Akhyaliyyah (Layla al-Akhyaliyyah, d. c. AH 75/694×90/709 CE) was a poet who lived during the Umayyad dynasty, the first Muslim dynasty to rule the empire of the caliphate. “Feminism” is generally seen as the advocacy of the social, political, and economic equality of all genders—and as noted by a scholar of Arabic studies, while feminism was not necessarily documented during pre-modern eras, there exist women who lived feminism through their work and by violating social norms. Therefore, al-Akhyaliyyah may be considered one of the earliest feminists in the Arab world, as she was positioned in the role of a Bedouin tribal poet, going against the grain of women’s traditional social domain. Comprehensive biographical accounts of al-Akhyaliyyah are documented in Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs) and attributed to the Arabic writer Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani.

There are no verified photographs of al-Akhyaliyyah available.

Dr. Nawal El Saadawi

picture of Nawaal el Saadawi

Dr. Nawal El Saadawi (1931–2021) was an Egyptian feminist, activist, writer, and physician. She was born in a village town, Kafr Tahla, in Qalyubiyya Governorate, where she suffered from forced genital mutilation at age six. (Here is a fact sheet from the World Health Organization.) In her first autobiography, A Daughter of Isis, she writes of her remembrance of the forced genital mutilation procedure, her anger when she realized that women were not considered equal to men in society, and her early adoption of feminism. She went on to study medicine at Cairo University, graduating as a Doctor of Medicine in 1955 and marrying a fellow medical student with whom she had a daughter, Mona Helmy, who went on to become an activist and writer. Dr. El Saadawi went on to divorce her first spouse, and her second spouse as he forced her to choose between marriage and writing. She chose writing, and in 1957, published her first book titled I Learned Love, a collection of short stories. She went on to study at Columbia University, graduating with her master of public health in 1966, and married Dr. Sherif Hetata, a physician and writer who was incarcerated in Egypt for 13 years due to his political views. He went on to become her lifelong companion until they divorced in 2010, and they had a son, Atef Hetata, a film director who focuses on social issues in his work.

She spent her lifetime tirelessly fighting for women’s rights in Egypt, authoring more than 55 books including Women and Sex which included criticism of female genital mutilation and caused her to lose her job as director-general of public health for the Egyptian ministry of health, The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World which focused on the dehumanizing effects of female genital mutilation, and Woman at Point Zero which focused on the absence of women’s rights in patriarchal societies. In 1981, her political views led to her being charged with crimes against the state and incarcerated for three months. During her time experiencing incarceration, she wrote Memoirs from the Women’s Prison on toilet paper with an eyebrow pencil. She became a target of Islamic militants with her name on death lists along with Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian Nobel literature laureate who was stabbed in an attempted murder in 1994. Despite it all, Dr. El Saadawi stated in 2009, “I regret none of my 47 books. If I started my life again I would write the same books. They are all very relevant even today: the issues of gender, class, colonialism (although of course that was British and is now American), female genital mutilation, male genital mutilation, capitalism, sexual rape, and economic rape.”

She established and led the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and co-founded the Arab Association for Human Rights, and in 2003, moved to the U.S. due to continuing death threats. In 2005, she returned to Egypt where she campaigned for president, abandoning the process after experiencing difficulty holding rallies. In 2007, she published her play, God Resigns in the Summit Meeting, focused on the theme of God questioned by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian prophets, leading to her condemnation by Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Sunni Muslim authority, and resulted in her experiencing allegations of apostasy. Despite these challenges, she shared in 2010 that she was galvanized to continue the work by the letters that she received from people who wrote that their lives were transformed by her writing. During a 2018 interview with BBC presenter Zeinab Badawi, Badawi suggested that she “tone down” her criticism, to which she replied, “No. I should be more outspoken, I should be more aggressive, because the world is becoming more aggressive, and we need people to speak loudly against injustices.”

Dr. El Saadawi was named to Time’100 Women of the Year list in 2020 and died on March 21, 2021.

Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr

picture of Dr. Waffa El-Sadr on a podium givign a speech

Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr was born in 1950 in Egypt. She is the founder and director of ICAP (originally called the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs), and an international physician expert in research on the prevention and management of HIV and other infectious diseases. Her career began as the HIV crisis was underway three decades ago. During that time, she served as chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Harlem Hospital, where she developed successful methods for addressing HIV and AIDS through groundbreaking research and models of care on a community level. She went on to become the global leader she is today, fighting the crisis by building systems of health in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia with effective strategies focused on investment in HIV to strengthen systems of health more broadly.

Dr. El-Sadr has published hundreds of scholarly research articles, with a recent focus on HIV and AIDS during the COVID–19 pandemic. Her recent opinion writing, “What one pandemic can teach us in facing another,” in the peer-reviewed scientific journal AIDS, is excerpted below and serves as a powerful call to action.

“In terms of similarities, both pandemics are caused by zoonotic viruses. For HIV, research confirmed that the virus was transmitted from nonhuman primates to humans while SARS–CoV–2 is thought to have originated in bats. In addition, both viruses are transmitted from person to person. The predominance of HIV transmission through sexual route and via injection drug use has resulted in profound stigma associated with it. At the same time, COVID–19-related stigma has already been noted, including blaming outsiders. Another similarity is that both epidemics have shed light on gaps in health systems. HIV, as a chronic communicable disease, required a transformation from a focus on acute care to be able to deliver on the chronic and ongoing needs of people living with HIV. The COVID–19 pandemic, in contrast, has highlighted the fragility of surveillance and contact tracing systems, the paucity of measures to protect health providers and the limited infrastructure for advanced care.

The good news is that the decades of struggles in confronting the HIV epidemic provide important lessons relevant to the control of the COVID–19 pandemic.”


Dr. Ahdaf Soueif 

picture of Ahdaf Soueif in black and white

Dr. Ahdaf Soueif was born in 1950 in Cairo, where she lives today. She is a novelist and political commentator. Her sister is Laila Soueif, a women’s rights activist and mathematician. Dr. Soueif is known for her second novel, The Map of Love, having been translated into 21 languages and selling more than one million copies. She primarily writes in English, and along with her writing on Egyptian politics, she focuses on Palestinian people in her fiction and non-fiction writing. Her essay, “Under the Gun: A Palestinian Journey,” was originally published as a shortened version in the Guardian and printed in full in her collection of essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground. In 2008, she founded the Palestine Festival of Literature, inspired by the call of the late Palestinian philosopher Edward Said, “to reaffirm the power of culture over the culture of power.” The festival travels to its audiences and facilitates free events in Arabic and English, traditionally performing in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Haifa, and Nablus.

Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Khalid Karman

Tawakkol Abdel-Karman picture in Time Magazine

Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Khalid Karman, known as Tawakkol Karman, was born in 1979 in Shara’b As Salam, Taiz Governorate, Yemen, and raised in Taiz, a southwestern city in Yemen. Her siblings are Tariq Karman, a poet, and Safa Karman, an attorney, and journalist. She studied at the University of Science and Technology in Sanaa, Yemen, where she earned an undergraduate degree in commerce and went on to receive a graduate degree in political science from the University of Sana’a. She has dedicated her life to human rights activism as a journalist, and together with seven other women journalists in 2005, co-founded the human rights group Women Journalists Without Chains. 

She is known for her role as the international public figure of the Yemeni uprising in 2011, part of the Arab Spring uprisings. She further gained prominence in her role as a journalist and bravely leading protests for press freedom in 2007, expanding issues for reform, and redirecting Yemeni protests to support the Arab Spring after the Tunisian people overthrew the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. She is a co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, wherein she became the first Yemeni, the first Arab woman, and the second Muslim woman to win a Nobel Prize. Also in 2011, she was named to Time’100 Women of the Year list.

Karman has been threatened and incarcerated numerous times for her pro-human rights protests, and within the Yemeni opposition movement, is known as the “mother of the revolution” and “iron woman.” Throughout all of her work and non-violent approach to catalyzing organizational change, she was able to go against the grain of stereotypes and stigma that depicted Yemen as a country of terrorism. Today, she continues to support women journalists driving change, and organize Yemenis against governmental injustice. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Ways to be inclusive and support Arabs and Arab Americans

1. Recognize the immense diversity of Arabs and Arab Americans

Arabs and Arab Americans are incredibly diverse concerning their origin of country, race and ethnicity, immigration status, dialects and Indigenous languages, religion, food, and traditions, and are connected by a shared history and cultural heritage. The U.S. Census has historically categorized all people of Arab or Middle Eastern descent as white; however, many Arab Americans see themselves very differently, and the racial or ethnic classifications do not account for the immense diversity such as individuals who identify as Afro-Arab. As such, they have advocated for changes to the Census classification, recognizing that the current designations do not account for their diversity and experiences. Checking the box “white” on the Census also does not consider the forms of discrimination that they are subjected to—including travel bans, stereotyping by law enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration, and hate crimes. Further, be aware that Arabs and Arab Americans practice many different religions including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, the Baháʼí Faith, Druze, and Yazīdī.

2. Engage in self-reflection and build relationships with people whose backgrounds, traditions, and perspectives differ from yours

Authentic relationships are powerful, and our one-to-one connections can be a foundation of change and advocacy. Building relationships with others whose backgrounds, traditions, and perspectives that differ from your own personal identities and experiences can be key in building equitable and inclusive environments. However, it is critically important to avoid tokenizing. To build authentic relationships, begin first by exploring your own identities, culture, and experiences, and reflect on your race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual identity, religion, educational status, age, and geographic area. Then, explore your language, space, gender and family roles, family ties, etc., and further reflect on your experiences, perspectives, and biases.

Further suggestions include reading and learning about Arab cultures, histories, and worldviews, examining your biases about people from other cultures, and intentionally listening to other people tell their stories. Questions for self-reflection include the following examples.

How did your parents/caregivers feel about different racial, ethnic, or religious groups?

What did your parents/caregivers, loved ones, educators, and peers communicate about different racial, ethnic, and religious groups with their words and actions?

What are some assumptions about racial, ethnic, and religious groups that you learned in school? Was there a lack of information about groups? Whose history was the focus in the curriculum?

Are there some groups whom you shied away from and/or actively avoided? Why?

3. Advocate against anti-Arabism and Islamophobia

Islamophobia is a form of bigotry targeted at Muslims and more generally, those perceived as Arabs. As aforementioned, Arabs and Arab Americans are immensely diverse yet within the social stratification in U.S. contexts have been racialized. There is an underlying assumption that both Arabs and Muslims are a singular group, contributing to vast over-generalizing, stereotypes, and discrimination. As defined by the Council on American–Islamic relations, “Islamophobia is closed-minded prejudice against or hatred of Islam and Muslims. An Islamophobe is an individual who holds a closed-minded view of Islam and promotes prejudice against or hatred of Muslims.” A stereotype is that all Muslims are Arabs and that Arabs are “terrorists.” For example, on April 19, 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols; however, the early widespread false speculation was that “Arab terrorists” had bombed the building. There are many stereotypes concerning Arabs that are reinforced by public discourse. Some action steps towards advocacy, allyship, and advancing social justice include the following examples.

Educate others about anti-Arabism and Islamophobic bigotry by talking with others, sharing information on social media, and helping to organize awareness, advocacy, and coalition building.

Continue to learn about biases experienced by those who identify as Arab and Muslim, and intentionally reflect on your own biases.

Recognize, engage, and promote intersectionality towards coalition building. Solidarity means centering those most affected by systemic oppression and advocating for the intersection of identities.

Rowan University Organizations:

Arabic Culture Club: The student organization is new on campus, with the goal of embracing and celebrating Arabic culture. It is not required to know the Arabic language to join. Meeting schedules have not been solidified yet. Please email the club advisor, Professor Tarek Mousa, at for more information.

Rowan University Community of Support:

Student clubs to join include the Women of Color AllianceMen of Color AllianceMinority Association of Premedical StudentsInternational Club, and Muslim Student Association.


For all student complaints involving discrimination and harassment, please visit

Wellness CenterAll Rowan University students are encouraged to access mental health resources and support through the Wellness Center, by calling 856.256.4333 or emailing 

Employee Advisory Service: All Rowan University faculty and staff are encouraged to access mental health resources and support by contacting the Employee Advisory Service. Schedule a session by calling 1.866.327.9133

Resources for Continued Learning:


Teach MidEast is an educational outreach initiative developed to provide educators a foundation in teaching critical, complex subject matter. It is part of the Middle East Policy Council.

The Qatar Foundation International offers classroom-ready interactive tools, lesson plans, and activities focused on the history and culture of the Arabic world, and the Arabic language. Resources are available in the language of English, Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, and German.

The Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services is a human services organization dedicated to the Arab American community. Its National Outreach Department includes the Arab American National Museum, offering virtual tours for educators focused on immigration, debunking stereotypes, and identity, and training and presentations on cultural competency.

The American–Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is a civil rights organization dedicated to defending the rights of people of Arab descent. The organization welcomes the participation of all people, from all racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.


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BBC Ideas. (2019, April 30). Orientalism and power: When will we stop stereotyping people? [Video]. YouTube. 

What Design Can Do. (2018, June 27). Ahmed Shihab-Eldin (AJ+) on redesigning journalism [Video]. YouTube.  

What Design Can Do. (2018, December 18). Design activism in a meaningful way: Ahmed Shihab-Eldin [Video]. YouTube. 

TEDx Talks. (2018, October 17). How I’m using LEGO to teach Arabic: Ghada Wali [Video]. YouTube. 

AJ+. (2017, August 10). These Arab Female Artists Are Challenging Stereotypes [Video]. YouTube. 

Al Jazeera English. (2017, March 2). Framed: The Politics of Stereotypes in News [Video]. YouTube. 

TEDx Talks. (2016, December 14). The Muslim on the airplane: Amal Kassir [Video]. YouTube. 

TEDx Talks. (2016, December 5). Islamophobia killed my brother. Let’s end the hate. [Video]. YouTube. 

TED. (2011, February 4). Suheir Hammad: Poems of war, peace, women, power [Video]. YouTube. 


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