28 April 2017
The Impact of Cultural Differentiation: Identifying Racial Socio-Economic Prejudice, Oppression, and Perceived Gendered Injustice
- Oral History Project Transcriptions
Magda Gareiss, born 0ctober 11, 1957, in Cairo Egypt, grew up in a “well off family”; she was the daughter of a banker and stay at home mother. During 1957 in Egypt, a religious war was beginning to heighten between Christianity and Islamic religion. As a well off Christian women in Egypt, Magda was able to attend an all-girls English school, which made her less likely to be fully affected by the socially and politically targeted Christian families and individuals during this period. However, as time progressed the religious war between the two affiliations increased and very soon reached a peak as it evolved into the six day war of 1967; a war with an objective to claim land and religious limits. Magda, following her high school education, moves to England to attend Cambridge University as a biochemistry major, while her family moves to the inner cities of Illinois as the outcome of the war results in the persecution and downfall of Christianity; as a well off family with a Christian last name it was better to leave during this time. Post Cambridge, Magda moves to America to reunite with her family, where Magda’s initial thoughts and presumptions of familiarity, and transition, are further challenged from her experience in England. Magda’s experiences and responses to these changes reveal the true differences between how class in other countries affects the outcome of the individuals choice to leave his or her country, the developed values and beliefs which follow as a result, and the way this transitions to how non-white women view the American Dream, experience and identify oppression in and out of America, perceive threats, and develop solutions in response to cultural integration. Although Magda was protected academically because of resources she had in Egypt, outside the classroom was a different regard, particularly for lower classes of individuals. This is confirmed by Magda when in response to the question of if she feels she was mistreated as a Christian women in Egypt, and Magda states:
“No, not so much in the education system where I was because it was an English all-girls school, but in the other schools, as I had mentioned, your last name would change the way you are treated in the community, it was always better to keep to yourself” (Gareiss 2).
In addition, when asked to describe her experience inside and outside of the class room, Magda reports that:
“Although the education was very good, you would have to be careful during this time socially, not so much if you are a boy or girl, but if you’re last name was Christian; this could inhibit you from maintaining your safety, for this reason my family left the country”( Gareiss, 1).
It is important at this point to recognize that gender rights and roles for Christian denominations in Egypt differ from those accepted traditions within America. For example, the Christian religion in Egypt is known as Coptic Orthodox. The word Coptic means Egyptian, and so Christian Egyptians identified themselves in this way, with specific religious attributes based geographic reference. In America, during regular Sunday mass, men and women are seated together with their children along with other friends or family members. In America, gender equality is associated with Christian religion, as America’s values and culture are based on Christianity. In America where gender equality is a topic of debate, is a reason why it is integrated in American Christianity. In Egypt, non-Islamic Egyptians and Islamic Egyptians both believe in the differentiation between male and female. This is inferred and verified in Magda’s response to the question of what her religious affiliation is as well as the dominant religion and how women were viewed according to the dominant religion, Magda states that:
“[i]t was Muslim, but we’re Christian…. women were meant to take care of the kids, not work, they have to get married and take care of their husband and kids and the house”(Gareiss, 3).
Similarly when asked about how she, as a Christian women was taught about the role of a women, Magda responds with that, “You’re different than a man, you can’t do everything that a man can do… a man had more privilege or more freedom women, they would say he’s a guy he can do that, men had a lot more perceived freedom than women, and if women would pursue the same freedom, they would be criticized for it”(Gareiss, 3). This is very significant, because unlike in American Christian ceremonies where seating is coed, in Coptic orthodox ceremonies, men and women are separate including children, the male children and the husbands are together and the women with the daughters are on another side of the seating in the room. During the communion, the women and men both take off their shoes, the men’s line moves forward first, the women’s line second. While the men approach the body and blood they are not required to do two of which things that the women must, which is veil their head and carry a small ascot like cloth on the hand accepting the body or bread of Christ. This is very significant in reflecting the way oppression is viewed in accordance to religion and different culture. Because most cultures norms and societal influx is based on a given religion, it is important to make the connection between religion, gender roles, and how this will influence what Magda will identify, if at all, and to what extent American forms of gendered oppression exist and how they affect her. Because Magda in her home country, where two opposing religions, shared similar views of men and women, Magda does not differentiate between gendered oppression in America in the same ways in which an American women would identify oppression. For example, the seating structure of the Coptic Orthodox Church; where an American women would view this as oppressive, non- white women view it as replicating tradition. From this, it is important that one must note that religion, even if the same branch, differs geographically and culturally according to that society and is reflective of how that individual will identify social issues within other countries.
Magda, coming from an upper class Egyptian family, made it much easier based on her academia and experiences to transition to other countries, like England and then America. In Americas past, it is known that men were the superior to women, similar to the way that men are viewed according to Magda’s experience in her country. As an upper class women in a country where gender is not as much the issue as religion, it is not likely Magda will identify or find oppression gendered in America as a primary concern. This is validated when Magda is asked if she had felt challenged or discriminated against as a nonnative born student of a science related degree in Cambridge University of England, Magda states:
“No, I did not, I knew I had a privilege and much more freedom and did not see very many disadvantages in comparison to what my life would have been like in Egypt, also my high school education prepared me to, how you say, function in England….If there was discrimination I didn’t notice it, I was eighteen years old, I didn’t care, think about it”(Gareiss 3-4).
Cultural relevance in respect to identifying societal issues of oppression and injustice is highly impactful in the way the individual or group of individuals identifies societal issues or dismisses them as benign. Cultural relevance as a primary influence of how conflict and injustice is perceived and determined is further verified by author Patricia Hill Collins in her article, “Towards a New Vision”, in stating that “[r]ace, class, and gender may all structure a situation but may not be equally visible and or as important in peoples self definitions”(Collins 77).This is highly significant because one is able to see the difference in conflict identity and security differences for both American and non-white American women. For Magda, growing up gender differentiation was never a made concern and she was unaffected by gender differentiation because her primary worry was religious. While women in America during this time were battling with violence against women, Magda’s battles were religious, thus changing the way she is affected, perceives, and responds to forms of oppression.
In reference to conflict identity and security, a large mistake common too many Americans is the assumption that nonnative born individuals should feel safer and more comfortable in America versus their country. This is indubitably untrue, America, as a large melting pot, is very different than Egypt, where everyone is primarily similar looking with similar beliefs and associations. While American women may view a situation as non-threatening, a nonwhite native women may view it as quite terrifying. The influence of mass media in respect to the way American television portrays low income individuals as dangerous criminals had instilled much fear within Magda, most of which were irrational. The concept of the ways in which television misrepresents low income individuals is best explained by Audre Lorde in her article “Age, Race, Class, and Sex” when she states that “[m]uch of Western European history conditions us to see human differences in simplistic opposition to each other: dominant/subordinate, good/bad, up/down, superior/inferior”(Lorde 1). The preceding quote by Lorde demonstrates the irrational fear and negative feelings towards individuals of lower income demographics as epitomized by mass media, as well as how it reinforces negative stereotypes and perpetuates the neglect of socioeconomically oppressed individuals. This was a challenge for Magda because of the location of her home in America, and the way the individuals whom reside within it had been portrayed; Magda found herself in fear of the hyperreal depiction of the residents within her city. For example, when Magda was asked about how she viewed American culture before and after her transition, she explains:
“… I thought I’m going to go see Hollywood, but we ended up in a bad city in Chicago, a mafia city, where you would fear gangsters…. when I came here from Egypt, as a fifteen year old, I felt I had more freedom to walk around safely at night but not here … I was scared and stuck in the house with no friends, I used to be in girl scouts and had so many friends, and when I first came here … people were different and I felt very unsafe here especially in the city when I would have to take the bus home and walk home … I would see so many different colored people and I felt they were following me and I would always run back”(Gareiss. 6).
One must make significant notice of the difference between what is the conflict and threat to security here as well as the way Magda perceives the different between people on the bus as racist or threatening because of their appearance, similar to how she perceived these differences in her country before she had left, thus relating the situation to the way she has always experienced racial differences and conflict; one race against another. The evolved fear of what seems to be internationally accepted stereotypes, as well as the issues in which they pose in the life of Magda, as well as in society are summarized most accurately by author Ana Louise Keating in her article “Beyond Intersectionality”, when Keating suggests that when “[w]e isolate ourselves from those whom we have labeled “different”….This automatic difference-labeling process distorts our perceptions creating arbitrary divisions and an oppositional “us against them” mentality that prevents us from recognizing potential commonalities”(Keating 37). Keating’s assertion is particularly concomitant to Magda’s experience in fear of other citizens of her city of residence in Illinois, even though she was considered a part of that residency herself. This perspicacity as mentioned above by Keating, is best illustrated when Magda states:
“Whites and blacks didn’t like each other then, especially in the seventies, when whites would move in their house they would get terrorized, same with blacks, in Egypt we were all the same, here there is this culture and that culture, you don’t know what to do”(Gareiss, 8).
Though the situation may not have been threatening to Magda, given her experience in Egypt with racial and religious disputes, and the lack of familiarity given the situation, this creates a high level of fear or an identification of an unsecure situation. Although that perhaps being on a bus with gangsters is threatening to many, but this is not the case of “thugs” on a bus. Growing up in Egypt individuals appear the same and in many media related shows or movies, outsiders are the perceived threat. Particularly as a new citizen in a city which during the time glorifies these “mafia” images further leading to many “non-mafia” citizens to mimic the “gangster-ish” appearance, thus appearing to be more threatening than should be perceived, especially to a young woman unfamiliar with the city or societies norms. Although the individuals on the bus may have been simply different looking from Magda’s experience with the appearance of others, the idea they were thugs is one in which is perceived because of the unfamiliarity clashing with culturally related norms along with mass media for Magda. While nonwhite women would view the bus as a safer situation than walking around in Egypt, thus assuming Magda should feel safer, this is most certainly not the case and is quite opposite, it is natural for this fear to have developed because of the lack of familiarity and how media is culturally influential in other countries in different ways than in America. Although woman during the time Magda was in America battled in equality in the educational system or in the work force, as well as their relationships in their marriages, these issues were not prevalent for Magda. In respect to the way women were treated in Egypt the extra privilege was something surprising and in the areas which were viewed as oppressive for American women, Magda viewed as an opportunity that women were lucky to be a part of in general. For example, with a Master’s degree in biochemistry, Magda was able to receive a job as a professor in Illinois teaching the subject. Some American Women may argue that with a master’s degree in biochemistry, the job Magda was able to receive is considerably within the range of underemployment. For Magda, the fact that as a women, she was able to receive a well-paying job and education in that field, this was privilege enough. This is best illustrated when Magda is asked about her opinion of American culture in reference to gender, and societal normality’s and she states that:
“American culture is good it gives a lot of freedom, but it also gives a lot of discrimination, it’s not as obvious but there is a lot of discrimination, we all know it’s there but people pretend it’s not there, there’s discrimination everywhere, like men still get paid a little more and you know there is just discrimination….Women do have a lot more freedom here, in Egypt if a woman wanted to travel out of the country, she cannot get a passport unless her husband agreed and signed and only recently did this go away”(Gareiss 7).
From the proceeding statement, one may verify how privilege VS. Oppression differs for nonwhite non-American women in their transition to America; For Magda, what was considered oppressive for American women during the time was to Magda opportunity in itself. Furthermore, based on the interview with Magda, one is able to recognize a few major differences and similarities culturally relevant to Magda’s story. To begin, recognizing the way mass media influences the perspective of cultural image is a large part of the way nonwhite individuals, in this case women, from other countries, assimilate and integrate within a culture. For example, Magda was expecting her move to America to be luxurious in comparison to her experiences in Egypt, however, this lack of understanding the issue with certain areas which are low income in America enhanced the culturally shocking experience. For example, in Egypt, although there are different classes of individuals, the overall income level and community areas still share many similarities and although some people may have less, all individuals within the community shared the same appearance, and values to one extent or another based on religious affiliation. In America, where class, income and relationships, on an institutional, political, and social level tend to be more so compartmentalized and divided, is an incredibly left out attribute of America particularly as illustrated by American Television, which tends to leave out minorities, and tragedy when advertising Hollywood. The way that women like Magda identify oppression is also vastly different than in America, and this is because individuals tend to notice issues relevant in his or her own environment and project or notice similar events or scenarios according to their experience. In other words, because the country in which Magda had left was undergoing a racial-religious war, the type of discrimination Magda more frequently noticed had to do with race and what values may come along with the assumed race of the individual; for these reasons, Magda noticed and feared racial-religious conflict more so than the issue of gendered oppression occurring in America at the time. For example, as Americans, particularly an American women during the time of the Women’s Liberation Movement, may go to Egypt and identify the way men are perceived as an issue of gendered oppression; thus projecting this cultural issue on to another culture in a similar manner as Magda’s concern of racial conflict was projected on to what may have appeared as threatening situation although it may not have been dangerous at all. As a result of the cultural projections, conflict- threat identities are interpreted different for women of color versus American women. Thus more, by further analysis; threat and oppressive for situations for non-white American women will typically remain the same, even outside of the country where it is not a primary issue; or rather not made an obvious issue, due to a negative historical past of racial oppression in America; where oppression may exist to American women(i.e. underemployment),non-white women may find as privilege(i.e. being permitted to work), in addition to the concept of the American Dream, as well as the means of achieving this perception of success.
2017. L.M.U. Oral interview with Magda Gareiss
Toward of New Vision. N.p.: Patricia Hill Collins, 1993. Print.
Keating, Ana Louise, and Radical Women of Color. Beyond Intersectionality. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex.” Sister Outsider (n.d.): n. pag. Crossing Press, 1984. Web.