Rima Majed on six priorities for campaigners fighting for economic justice for women in the Middle East and North Africa
In the Middle East and North Africa, the proportion of women in the labour force is the lowest in the world at 18.4%, compared to a global average of 48%. For women in Arab states, unemployment is three times higher than the world average and for young Arab women, almost 50% higher than for young men.
So it’s no surprise that women have been at the forefront of social movements in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to change this unjust economy, especially as the situation for women has deteriorated further since 2020 with the spread of the COVID pandemic and ensuing financial collapse in many countries of the region. But what should women in the region be fighting for? What does a feminist economic future in the MENA region look like? I want to highlight six broad aspects.
1. An economy that recognises and rewards care labour
A feminist economy means recognising care labour as work that is still unpaid or underpaid. As well the huge pay gap between genders, addressing gender inequalities in terms of unpaid care and domestic work is crucial.
Changes in the modern workplace may further add to the burden on women as the boundaries between work outside and inside the household are blurred by digitalisation (which in the pandemic included remote schooling that puts an added burden on mothers in the working day). It is urgent for feminists to develop and advocate for an approach that protects women from the added burdens changes in the workplace may have on their lives and livelihoods.
It is good to see labour discussions are back on the table in the MENA region, with a focus on a gendered perspective that centers unpaid care labour and underpaid or precarious labour in the job market. A particular concern has been abuses in the Kafala system for migrant domestic workers, where foreign workers need a local sponsor with control over the worker. This highlights intersecting class, gender and racial dimensions in the exploitation of women workers in the care industry and will remain a priority for activists in the region.
Recent reports have urged the feminist movement to focus on the right to form labour organisations and trade unions that can fight for rights such as care-friendly workplaces. Such campaigning should not overlook the high concentration of women in informal work, which calls for new ways to organise and struggle for labour rights.
2. More power for women within families and the end of discriminatory laws
Much of the economic injustice against women in the MENA region lies in the gender power imbalance in families, reinforced by discriminatory legal structures. A patriarchal social order and legislation means men or senior figures in families can limit women’s economic independence and ability to make independent decisions when it comes to marriage, reproduction, education and careers, movement and travel, and care labour.
Moreover, all countries in the Arab region have statutory maternity leave that is shorter than the minimum of 14 weeks recommended by the International Labour Organization. This is added to no serious regulations in the workplace that provide women with nursing breaks, childcare centres, or extended leave when needed. Changes in labour laws to give women more rights in this area will be crucial. This needs to be coupled with a transformation of social norms and family structures to dismantle the patriarchal grip over the lives of women and queer people, and to move beyond the heteronormative family structure that governs our societies.
3. Defunded military operations and an end to the arms trade
MENA is the least peaceful region of the world, with high rates of wars and conflicts, multiple authoritarian regimes, and immense profits extracted from the arms trade. Its wars have enormous impact on the lives of its inhabitants, particularly women, sexual minorities, racialised groups, disabled people, children, and the elderly. So it will be essential to challenge the arms trade and militarisation and its effects on women’s lives.
One of the clearest impacts of war in the region is the high rates of forced migration and displacement creating the biggest refugee crisis in the world. This has transformed gender relations and women’s labour roles within the family as many refugee women work (often in agricultural labour), while men are unemployed. Yet patriarchal norms mean unpaid care labour still falls heavily on the shoulders of women and girls. Moreover, the high levels of militarisation, the spread of toxic masculinity, the increased rates of violence against women and the rise in forced marriages and child marriage are all the result of war. Such contexts have transformed the economies of many countries or communities to economies based on aid funding, and externally imposed development frameworks.
4. Feminist housing and infrastructure
- The gendered division of space means women spend more of their lives at home.
- Although the house is supposed to be a safe space for women, most gender-based violence happens there – and many women have no control over their housing, or access to safe housing.
- The huge numbers of refugee women in the region. Refugees are fleeing wars to neighbouring countries where they face racism, discrimination and poor shelter conditions, with no access to safe and decent housing.
A feminist approach to housing will advocate for shelter as a right rather than a commodity, and centre access to clean water, electricity and internet as basic rights. Lack of access to basic needs such as clean water, electricity or internet are putting disadvantaged groups in danger (for example, electricity in housing units is crucial for many people with a disability or for the elderly). Alongside a right to safe, decent and affordable housing, we will need feminist urban planning including the right to green spaces; community centres; communal/neighbourhood kitchens; and childcare and elderly support facilities.
Similarly, safe, efficient and affordable transportation, free from harassment, is a central feminist demand. Finally, as previously mentioned, access to high-speed and stable internet connection has become a necessity for many and will be an essential part of decent housing schemes. Having said that, a feminist future would also include eliminating gender-based violence so prevalent in internet spaces today.
5. Free and easy access to healthcare, especially sexual and reproductive health services
Giving women full control over their bodies and providing accessible health services is at the core of economically empowering women. Gender-based violence, rape and forced marriages, female genital mutilation, reduced mobility, discrimination/violence based on gender and sexual orientation, dress codes, family planning and contraception, and male domination over women’s reproductive choices all hugely impact women’s economic and social well-being.
That’s why universal health coverage, and easy access to sexual and reproductive health services must be core feminist economic demands. The discrimination against women in the healthcare sector is even more acute in countries where the sector is highly privatised and tied to private insurance schemes that often overlook or do not cover medical procedures related to women’s health such as mammograms or smear tests.
The healthcare situation is even worse for migrant domestic workers or refugees in the region. A recent study highlights how the humanitarian sector can make gendered economic decisions that hurt women and refugee families. For example, when funding for Syrian refugees in Lebanon was cut, one of the first products to be removed from aid baskets was menstrual pads. With lack of menstrual hygiene products, many women had to stop going to work and lost their income. Since most refugee women are the sole breadwinners to their families through their seasonal work in agriculture, this has put whole families in even more precarious financial situations.
6. More feminist women making political decisions
More feminist women in positions of power and decision-making will not only benefit women and ensure attention to their needs but also benefit society as a whole with policies more geared towards justice and well-being, rather than privatisation and profit accumulation. This is particularly important in the MENA region, which has one of the lowest female representations in decision-making in the world, and where the roles of women in politics are still very limited.
After all, the key to a feminist economy of the MENA region is not solving technical, economic questions, but in changing political priorities. A political will to address inequalities and advance more just and green societies, to transform labour relations and ownership laws, to expand welfare and social protection schemes, and to respect all lives as equally worthy is at the core of delivering feminist economic alternatives. “Humans over profit”, “green over greed” and “rights not privileges” will be our guiding mottos.
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