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Towards a Feminist Political Economy in the MENA Region [EN/AR]

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*This blog is written by Rima Majed, a social justice, feminist activist and Assistant Professor of Sociology at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Maged holds a PhD and an MSc in Sociology from the University of Oxford; she was a visiting fellow at the Mamdouha Bobst Center for Peace and Justice at Princeton University in 2018/2019; and her work is published in various academic journals and media platforms, including Social Forces; Mobilization; Global Change, Peace & Security; Global Dialogue; Idafat: The Arab Journal of Sociology; Open Democracy; Middle East Eye; CNN; Al Jumhuriya and *Al Jazeera English. Dr. Maged’s research focuses on the fields of social inequality, social movements, gender and intersectionality, identity politics, sectarianism, conflict and violence.

Women at the forefront in the MENA region

The year 2019 brought along a second wave of mass uprisings in the MENA region, with women at the forefront of the protests from Sudan to Lebanon, raising questions of unemployment, inequality, corruption, political instability and ethnic/sectarian violence.

This is not a clichéd celebration of Arab women emancipation. The central role played by women in these revolutionary upheavals — as leaders, organisers and mobilisers — can only be understood as a reflection of the deep impact of the economic, social and political crises in the region on their lives and livelihoods. Yet, although the uprisings had raised high hopes for change, the year 2020 brought an abrupt halt to the mobilisations, with the COVID-19 pandemic transforming our lives in all its details.

One aspect that remains constant, albeit much less mediatised, is the fact that it is also women who have been at the forefront of fighting the pandemic in our region. As our lives were transforming, care labor – mainly carried out by women and other minority groups – became visibly central to our survival. Societies suddenly realised that low paid nurses, midwives, social workers, domestic workers, cleaners and teachers are our most ‘essential workers’. Moreover, unpaid reproductive labor carried out by mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, etc. at home has become the main engine keeping societies afloat during lockdowns, remote schooling and working from home.

The need for a ‘Feminist Political Economy Approach’ in the MENA region

In light of the longstanding and most recent regional crises, many feminist movements and organisations in the MENA region have been seeking to provide a gendered understanding of the multi-layered catastrophes we are living. And one important area attracting more attention nowadays is the ‘Feminist Political Economy Approach’.

Many feminists today are calling for a more intersectional approach to our everyday experiences, grounded in political economy and focused on a gendered understanding, in order to center the relationship between the political, economic and social spheres. To that end, WILPF has published a guide to feminist political economy seeking to support feminist initiatives in adopting such an approach in their work and activism. While the guide is not specific to the MENA region, it remains a highly useful resource.

Adopting a ‘Feminist Political Economy Approach’ for the MENA region can have a significant added value. While feminist political economy is relevant for all societies, it is specifically important for our region for two main reasons. Firstly, the MENA region records the highest inequality and youth unemployment rates in the world, with most countries suffering from what is known as the “Dutch disease”. Secondly, most countries in this region are either war-ridden or post-war societies. Both reasons, often interconnected, have had huge gendered implications on people’s lives in this part of the world.

The “Dutch Disease” and its gendered implications

Countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates are rentier economies that suffer from the “Dutch disease,” whereby foreign capital inflow is due to oil exports, large remittances or aid. Accordingly, the economy does not attract investments in productive sectors that create jobs, such as industry or agriculture; and hence, the Arab region scores very high on unemployment rates, specifically amongst women.

The Arab region also records a very high rate of “informality” (71.2%), according to recent statistics published by UN Women, with women constituting 61.8% of informal workers. The UN report further estimates that more than 1.7 million jobs would be lost in 2020 due to the pandemic, of which at least 700,000 jobs are held by women. In that sense, female unemployment is expected to further increase in coming years.

To better understand the effect of the “Dutch disease” countries from a Feminist Political Economy Approach, take the example of Lebanon. The recent financial collapse and the dramatic deterioration in the currency purchasing power is clearly linked to the political and economic policies adopted since the end of the civil war in the 1990s. The neoliberal politics of post-war Lebanon, including the politics of reconstruction and the heavy reliance on remittances, loans, aid and a banking ponzi scheme for the inflow of foreign currency, have created a fragile economy that is fully dollarized and that relies heavily on imports of basic needs since local production is very low. These neoliberal policies are combined with sectarian politics, which means that state provisions and welfare have been curbed at the expense of sectarian clientelism.

With the deepening of the financial crisis in 2020 and the ‘evaporation’ of depositors’ dollars from local banks, the majority of residents in Lebanon found themselves in deprivation. And in such a situation of total economic and social meltdown, it is again women and minority groups who suffer the most. The most easily disposable or exploitable workers during layoffs were women and migrant workers, most of whom are informal workers who have no social protection or legal safety net. This has been clear in the crisis of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon since early 2020, demonstrated through the inability of many employers to pay the (very low) salaries in USD and the lack of mechanisms to protect women’s rights against the exploitation of the Kafala system. Additionally, the financial collapse, coupled with the effect of the pandemic lockdown, have had a drastic impact on the lives of women in Lebanon in terms of increased domestic violence, decreased access to health care (specifically reproductive health care) and a general de-prioritisation of women’s needs.

A history of colonisation and ‘more recent’ neoliberalism

The dire economic conditions and their gendered impact across the MENA region can be linked back to a history of imperialism and colonisation that has shaped the legal frameworks for many issues impacting women since the beginning of the 20th century. For example, the absence of a unified personal status or family law in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan or Syria is the product of the French and British ‘Divide and Rule’ tactics in the region.

Until this very day, the majority of women in the MENA region are subject to unfair family laws and religious courts that reinforce patriarchal power and patrilineal social organisation. Campaigns in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Jordan for women to be able to pass on their nationality to their children have also gained significant grounds in the past years, highlighting the legal inequality between men and women with regards to citizens’ rights.

The colonial roots of gender inequality in the region are not limited to family laws, but have even shaped women’s access to healthcare. For example, researchers argue that abortion laws were also the product of colonial powers’ pro-natalist policies in order to encourage population growth in the colonised countries. While these policies were later supported by local religious and political powers, they had initially been put in place and activated by colonial powers.

Apart from colonial history, the difficult socio-economic reality in the MENA region today is similarly linked to a more recent history of neoliberalisation and austerity measures, encouraged by international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank and the IMF. These policies have dismantled the welfare state provisions and diminished social protection in many countries, primarily affecting women and minorities. A 2019 study by Ayse Dayi shows how rolling back the welfare state in Turkey and the proliferation of private healthcare providers have heavily affected women’s access to reproductive rights, including abortion.

Moreover, examples from the neoliberalisation processes in Egypt also point to the indirect effects of Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) on women. Research shows that freezing the public sector employees’ salaries in Egypt, when the latter started to implement SAPs, led mostly men to leave their jobs for the private sector since rising inflation rates meant that salaries lost their value and purchasing power. This contributed to increasing the gender pay gap, and deepened gender inequality in the job market.

Similarly, the role of IFIs in pushing for policies and projects that endanger the environment and local communities’ lives, including the lives of women, is obvious through the Bisri Valley Dam project that was supported by the World Bank until the local campaign to “Save the Bisri Valley” succeeded in stopping the project in September 2020.

Feminist political economy of armed conflict and militarisation

In addition to the aforementioned economic and financial policies that call for a feminist political economy analysis, the armed conflicts and war settings in many MENA countries also entail such an approach. A recent report based on the 2018 Global Peace Index revealed that the “Middle East and North Africa remained the world’s least peaceful region.” This probes many questions: Why is this region so ridden by armed conflict? Where are the arms coming from? To whose benefit? And at whose expense?

Several studies have shown that some Western countries play a central role in the arms trade in the Middle East. A recent report by the Center for International Policy states that the top five arms suppliers to the MENA region between 2015 and 2019 were the United States (48% of the MENA arms supply), Russia (17%), France (10%), the United Kingdom (5%) and Germany (5%).

The report further notes that not only do regimes and militia/insurgent groups in the region rely on arms supply from the West, but Western countries also mainly rely on their MENA clients for lucrative arms trade deals. This underlines the imperialist intentions and the driving force behind much of the “instability” in the region. According to this report, “from 2015 to 2019, arms exports to the MENA region accounted for 57.3% of the U.K.’s total arms exports, 54.0% of France’s exports, 53.2% of the U.S.’ arms exports, 33.0% of Russia’s arms exports and 32.7% of Germany’s arms exports.”

Although data remains scarce, other reports have also highlighted the role of emerging or regional imperialist powers such as China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Iran in supplying arms to states or militia/insurgent groups in the MENA region.

That said, war and militarisation in the MENA region need to be unpacked from a political economy approach that analyses the profits made in the arms trade industry by governments and companies around the world.

Moreover, understanding the economic interests behind the political decisions of war and peace invites a gendered reading of the effect of armed conflict on women and minority groups in MENA societies. It is well established that the high militarisation of everyday life and the spread of arms in the hands of individuals in war contexts create a rise in toxic masculine cultures, which increases the levels of abuse and harassment, justifies higher rates of domestic violence and leads to higher rates of rape and sexual violence.

While the notion that men are the main victims of war had already started to change by the end of the First World War, more recent approaches emphasise that civilians, especially women and children, are actually amongst the main victims of wars, given that the increased targeting of civilian populations has become a war strategy since the Second World War.

On top of the violations women suffer during the war as direct victims, they also carry the burden of recovery. Not only are women expected to provide the care labor needed for their families, but they are also stigmatised and marginalised when they lose their male breadwinner or “protector”. Given that female unemployment rates are very high in the MENA region, it becomes difficult for these women to be financially independent and to provide for their families on their own. Such situations have pushed many women into poverty, and have led some of them to work in abusive industries such as prostitution, while others fall victims of human trafficking or are forced to (re)marry for economic reasons.

Additionally, in such contexts, women activists or relatives of male activists are being targeted by oppressive regimes and/or armed groups. In Syria, for example, women have been targeted by both the Assad’s dictatorial regime and extremist armed groups, such as the Islamic State.

On another note, the question of women and militarisation calls for a reflection on the involvement of females in armed conflict, such as the case of the Kurdish female fighters in Rojava. While the media has generally celebrated the images of these female fighters against ISIS, it remains important from a feminist standpoint to shed light on the consequences of war and armed conflict on Kurdish women, away from the fetishisation or commodification of the female fighter figure.

A gendered approach to the humanitarian impact of armed conflicts

Wars and armed conflicts in the region have led to major humanitarian crises that cannot only be approached through a gendered political economy lens.

The Syrian conflict has resulted in the biggest refugee crisis in the world, with neighboring countries such as Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon becoming major hosts to refugee populations. Moreover, the continuing Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the war in Yemen and the political violence in Somalia and Sudan have all created contexts in which the lives of women, queer people and ethnic and racialised minorities are in danger. For instance, various studies have established that child marriage amongst Yemeni girls or Syrian and Iraqi displaced and refugee populations is directly linked to the effects of war and violence on economic survival. Similarly, in the context of occupation, studies have shown how Israeli checkpoints act as a major obstacle for Palestinian pregnant women to reach healthcare centers for child delivery.

These conflict situations have created a huge humanitarian aid economy that is equally gendered in its strategies and implications. For example, the aid industry that boomed in the MENA region in the past decades has attracted numerous international organisations and staff, mainly from the West, creating a divide in salaries and job security between local employees and foreign one. This often comes at the expense of local humanitarian organisations and workers who remain at the forefront in the field, and whose lives are the most exposed to violence and danger.

The political economy of the aid industry and the politics of labor and funding behind it constitute a crucial venue for anyone interested in understanding the role of humanitarian aid in the MENA region. It is important here to highlight that the same Western countries that are the main arms exporters to the MENA region, are also the primary global aid donors in the humanitarian field.

Studies have also shown that in war and refugee contexts, the politics of aid and humanitarian relief tend to de-prioritise women’s needs. A recent research that I conducted amongst Syrian refugee women in the Beqaa in Lebanon revealed that as soon as the aid funding for refugees started to diminish, menstrual hygiene products were the first to be removed from international organisations’ aid boxes. The study also shows that while some organisations moved to distributing reusable pads, the lack of access to soap and clean water made these solutions unsustainable and undesirable by refugee women.

Another study, based on field surveys amongst refugees and displaced persons in Iraq and Lebanon in 2014-2015, concluded that reproductive health should be high on the humanitarian agenda given that a large number of women in their reproductive years (around 20% of the sample) was either pregnant or had given birth in the previous year, in addition to the lack of contraceptives or antenatal care and the overuse of cesarean section revealed by the surveys.

In that light, only a holistic approach to humanitarian aid, including a proper gendered lens that takes into account the local realities, can properly address the major issues facing displaced and refugee women.

Social transformations in gender roles: Towards a Feminist Political Economy

As noted above, in times of war and displacement, it is usually women who bear the burden of family life, both in terms of financial support and care labor. However, recent studies point to shifting gender norms within refugee populations, despite women still being heavily disadvantaged.

Studies have recently revealed that in many refugee contexts, men face hostilities from the host communities and find themselves unable to provide alone for their families. This has pushed many women to work outside the household seeking additional income, or to become the sole breadwinners of the family.

Despite such transformations in gender roles, the heavy weight of caring for the family and the injured or disabled members due to the war still falls on women. Accordingly, the recent transformations in gender relations due to war and displacement constitute a double edged sword. On the one hand, women are sometimes feeling more empowered than men in these circumstances. Yet on the other hand, patriarchal social expectations still shape much of their everyday lives and experiences.

To conclude, it is only through a serious Feminist Political Economy Approach that the drastic transformations in gender and family relations in the MENA region can be monitored and explained. It is also through such a lens that the feminist struggles for peace and justice, against dictatorships and austerity, can prevail.