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Arab Americans And Equally Shared Parenting

"We want people who watch the show to see there is equal partnering within the Muslim culture...We want to break the stereotype that the man is not involved..."
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A family other than the Duggars awaits the birth of their baby on reality TV in the next weeks. The TLC series All-American Muslim premieres on Sunday night, and it introduces five families from Dearborn, Michigan, which has perhaps the largest concentration of American Muslim populations in the country.

The purpose of the series is to explore the lives of people whose religion is relatively new to the U.S., and which brings fear and distrust from many in light of recent world events. The couples highlighted in the series were all born here, but understand that in many ways their traditions separate them from other Americans.

"Muslim culture here in America is fairly young," says Nawal Aoude, a 25-year-old mother-to-be. "Any culture that comes here has a history of going through this, like hazing in a sorority. This is our time right now."

But teaching non-Muslims about her blend of Arab and American tradition is not the reason she agreed to be followed around by crews for the eight part series. She had another message she wanted to deliver: that Arab American couples can be equal partners, in marriage and in parenting. Her own marriage, she says, is proof.

She and her husband, Nader, have been married for ten months when the series opens, and the cameras find them scrambling to decorate the nursery for the baby, who is due in about a month.

"I think Nader and I do things differently than other couples in the Arab American community," Nawal says. "And I think a lot of it is the teamwork aspect of this experience. The automatic assumption is that the baby is always going to be with me, because I am the mother. But because of the way Nader is I can honestly consider Nader being a part of babysitting, and taking on responsibility of changing the diaper, of waking up in the middle of the night. Other Arab American couples can't even fathom that consideration because they know how their husbands are. They know they're not going to do that so they don't even try to bring that up to them."

It has been about four months since that scene was filmed, and during a interview yesterday I talked with the new parents -- who brought along their three-month-old son, Naseem.

So, how had their expectations of equally shared parenting stood up in the presence of an actual child?

Beautifully, they say.

Nawal is nursing, so middle of the night responsibility has mostly been hers, she says, but her husband awakens for each feeding, too (or did, before the baby began to sleep through the night at five weeks.)

He is so involved, she says, that he's held up as an example by other new mothers in their circle to their own husbands. Which makes him not entirely popular amongst his friends.

"When we tell about how things work for us, and we are talking to someone who is not like Nader, they get embarrassed," Nawal says. "Their wives look at them and say 'he's Arab, he's Muslim, he's born and raised here, how come you guys don't do that?'"

Because they weren't expected to, the Aoudes say. "A lot of American Arabs want to uphold their culture, and they think that means upholding a male dominated way of life, but you can still uphold culture and not uphold barbaric tradition," Nawal says. "We want people who watch the show to see there is equal partnering within the Muslim culture, that this is possible. We want to break the stereotype that the man is not involved and that the man is barbaric."

Not only do they want to sed a message to viewers, they also want to lay the foundations of a message for their son. They hope to teach him that being an Arab American father can mean being an equal and respectful partner. It is part of the larger message they know they have send -- that his life might well be spent disproving many other social assumptions, too.

As Nader says, "with Muslims, we already have so much going on, we don't need to add to the stigma and the image that is already out there."