Today, 8 March and the same day every year, International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world, to commemorate those advances towards a gender-equal world – “free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination and one that is diverse, equitable, inclusive while differences are valued and celebrated.” How the same is celebrated in the MENA region is reviewed by Farah Daibes. It is about how women in the Global South reclaim their understanding of feminism in every corner of the region.
How women in the Global South reclaim feminism
Female empowerment in the Global South was co-opted by the Western neoliberal development. Now, women are reclaiming their understanding of feminism
In an apparent win for feminists from the Global South, the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action set a roadmap for the empowerment of women and girls globally. At the time, ‘empowerment’ was not the buzzword it is today, but a new concept brought forth by Indian feminist Gita Sen and a group of other feminist activists and scholars.
Sen and her colleagues stressed the importance of empowerment through a bottom-up approach that centres the voices of women from the Global South. When they advocated for the adoption of their definition of empowerment by the UN – and later on through the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing –, however, they were unaware that the definition would be remodelled and blurred over time: it was transformed from its original political understanding based on collective action, solidarity, agency, and decolonial development models into an individualised, depoliticised, and westernised concept.
The region (MENA) still suffers an 87.4 per cent gender gap in the political empowerment index and a 60 per cent gender gap in the economic empowerment index.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, this shift in understanding – which was championed by neoliberal aid and development programmes – had serious impacts on the shaping of women’s rights agendas and on the pace of advancement towards gender justice. But in recent years, more and more women across the MENA region are defying the mainstream empowerment narratives and are reclaiming the original understanding of what it means to be empowered.
Feminism from abroad
White-centred feminism has greatly influenced the development agendas of the international donor community, resulting in a context-blind and depoliticised approach to the empowerment of women and girls – one that conveniently ignores the role of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and racism in shaping the lives of black, brown, and Asian women across the Global South. This approach was supported by states in the MENA region that also aimed to build an understanding of empowerment that does not question current power relations, an empowerment that aligns with states’ interest in fostering politically passive populations who are driven by capitalist fantasies.
An ‘empowerment-lite’ was thus imposed in the MENA region under two distinct and docile categories. The first, ‘political empowerment’, was mostly limited to increasing the numbers of female voters and women in parliaments, with a disregard for many of the actual challenges that hinder women parliamentarians or voters’ meaningful engagement in the political process. The second, ‘economic empowerment’, was mostly related to increasing women’s formal participation in the labour market without truly addressing any structural barriers facing women when entering or staying in the market. For instance, this approach supported providing micro-funding for women to start their own businesses – placing risks on the shoulders of women rather than markets or states; and attaining gender parity within the (capitalist) workplace where many men already experience exploitative working conditions.
After decades of programmes and initiatives, even these inadequate empowerment goals are far from being achieved. The region still suffers an 87.4 per cent gender gap in the political empowerment index and a 60 per cent gender gap in the economic empowerment index according to the Global Gender Gap Report of 2021.
No empowerment without redistribution of power
A decade of political and socio-economic instability has pushed women and feminists across the region to re-centre the redistribution of power within the empowerment conversation. Through reclaiming the feminist understanding of empowerment, they are actively and collectively fighting against the systems that have reduced their role in public life to the mere support of capitalist and authoritarian projects. These are the same systems that have allowed for the quality of education, health, social protection, and public services – which are essential components for truly empowering women and girls – to be diminished.
Woman from various backgrounds have been, and still are, on the frontlines of protests demanding gender and social justice in many countries in the region. In the past few months alone, Sudanese women have fiercely stood up against militarisation and sexual violence, holding tightly to the political gains they have so difficultly achieved alongside their fellow Sudanese citizens. In a smaller, but equally empowered, example, young Lebanese students in Tripoli defied the patriarchal system that silenced their attempts to call out a harassing teacher. They held protests and promised to press charges against him.
The white-centred, depoliticised, and capitalist image of an empowered woman is not accepted anymore as the only version of an unoppressed woman.
Tokenism in both the economic and political spheres is no longer enough to maintain the illusion that there is serious political will to empower women. When the first female prime minister in the region was appointed in September 2021 in Tunisia for instance, feminist activists and groups were hesitant to celebrate. They criticised the Tunisian President for using ‘the women’s card’ to advance his own agenda and to gain positive publicity and support from the West in a politically questionable situation.
The white-centred, depoliticised, and capitalist image of an empowered woman – one who is westernised, high-paid, fashionable, and independent – is not accepted anymore as the only version of an unoppressed woman. Women in the region are celebrating their uniqueness, differences, their cultural roots, and their sense of community and passion.
Feminist activists in particular are defying the white-centred feminism that have dominated the global feminist scene. They are changing the funding ecosystem that has limited their scope of work and are showcasing how feminists from the region are in fact equal partners in the quest for gender justice globally. This might be best illustrated through feminist author and activist Mona Eltahawy’s enraged refusal of the labelling of Egyptian feminist pioneer Nawal El Saadawi upon her death as ‘the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world’ by western media.
Power over our futures, our lives, and our bodies. This is the empowerment that women in the MENA region are striving for. They are demanding the serious support needed to truly empower all women and girls. But they are also finding their own forms of resistance and roads to empowerment with or without that support.
Farah Daibes is a Senior Programme Manager at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Political Feminism programme in the MENA region.
The Media Line elaborated an article on Women’s Rights on International’s Women’s Day, specifically on the particular situation in the MENA countries. According to this, Women face an uphill climb to equality in the MENA region despite the well-proven fact that Women are at the rescue of the MENA Economies.
Remembering Women’s Rights on International’s Women’s Day … and the Rest of the Year
Activists and human rights groups paint a daunting portrait of the equality landscape between the genders in the MENA region, as they prepare to mark International Women’s Day, March 8. The coronavirus epidemic, certainly, did not help the plight of women this past year. Still, going forward, the largest issues facing women in the Middle East were entrenched long before the pandemic hit.
In the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) countries, women’s rights defenders have it tough.
While prominent Saudi women’s activist Loujain al-Hathloul was freed last month after almost three years in prison, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Nouf Abdelaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani remain in jail after their 2018 arrests on charges of advocating for women’s rights.
They are part of a 13-member cohort that advocated for women’s rights issues, including the right to drive, which is now permissible by law. Nine other activists were captured at the same time and released, while they wait for their day in court.
“Those who are behind bars are the champions for the change that took place,” Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, told The Media Line, referring to women driving.
“While this is one example of how we are getting success, we are achieving success with lots of sacrifices,” he said. “It’s not easy to have change in these countries.”
While I’m happy for International Women’s Day, we shouldn’t forget women on the other 364 days
While Ibrahim says that is it is difficult to confer the title of the “worst” human rights offender against women on any one Gulf country, Saudi Arabia is up there when it comes to gender norms and the male guardianship system.
“Social gender rules are clearly distinct. Men are supposed to be tough and have all the opportunities. Women still don’t have a lot of access to lots of services like hospitals, travel, marriage [of their own accord]. There is a lot of repression going on,” he said.
“It is really problematic when you talk about which country is better than the other, but we have a chronic problem across the region where women don’t have access to basic rights,” Ibrahim added.
This includes male guardianship, which is particularly pernicious in the Kingdom of Saud.
“In some cases, the guardian could be the younger brother and a woman, at 32 years of age, has to get permission from her 12-year-old brother,” Ibrahim said.
“We are facing problems all the time. It’s all about this mentality about treating women as second-class citizens or as a kind of individual who can’t decide for themselves, of course it’s not acceptable,” he said.
“This mentality is very much rooted in oppressive governments. When you confiscate public rights, surely you are also going to confiscate the rights of women,” Ibrahim said.
The United Arab Emirates, which tries to bolster its reputation as a more modern Gulf country, still has notions of women that are dated.
“The UAE says that they are a very civilized state, but behind all these palaces people are still in prison,” Ibrahim said.
The harsh treatment extends even to royalty.
Women are still portrayed as property of the man and the man can do whatever he wants
The whereabouts of Sheikha Latifa, 35, daughter of the Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, remain unknown after the BBC published undated videos of the princess saying that she was being held against her will and believed her life was in danger.
The video marked the first time the public had heard from her since December 2018, when she was brought back to the UAE after a failed attempt to escape, due to what she said was an oppressive relationship perpetrated by her father.
Ibrahim says there is no such thing as independent media anymore in the Gulf, only traditional outlets owned by the state. As a result, people go online to publish “real” stories, leading the governments to crack down on this by instituting new cybercrime laws against journalist and activists.
In the UAE, this includes two female activists, Amina Al-Abdouli and Maryam Al-Balushi, who are still in jail despite completing their five-year sentences both set at the same time in 2015, which were supposed to end on Nov. 19, 2020.
Ibrahim says that in many cases, criminals fare better than human rights defenders.
“Criminals are treated better than defenders. On the day of their release they can go anywhere, they often get released after serving two-thirds of their sentences,” he said. “Defenders face a travel ban as soon as they get out, and they don’t get amnesty and serve the full amount,” he said. In addition: “The families of defenders pay a heavy price, they have no access to their money in banks or to jobs.”
However, the most exploited women in the Gulf may not be Arab at all.
“Coronavirus is affecting all sectors of society across the Gulf, but there’s a lot of pressure on migrant women … I’m worried about the situation of housekeeping workers and other female workers who are really not being given their full rights in the Gulf,” Ibrahim said.
While many Gulf states made changes to their kefala, or employer sponsorship system, the program remains problematic. While Qatar ended the employment consent for migrants to switch jobs and raised the minimum wage, many workers, particularly women, fell through the cracks. Domestic workers, who are often female and mostly from Asia, require permission to leave the house in order to search for a job.
According to statistics from January 2016 to August 2020 from the United Kingdom-based Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, 61,000 migrant workers experienced some type of labor abuse, the most common of which was “wage theft.”
Without much legal recourse available to them, migrant workers often cannot do anything if they are underpaid or not paid at all. Labor unions are completely off-limits to them.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, an Amman-based women’s right activist and consultant on gender rights in the region, says that in the Arab world in general, the biggest problem women face is family law.
“The family law that tackles women’s everyday life – divorce, marriage, custody, inheritance – all these laws are mostly governed by Sharia and are very much discriminatory to women, also Christian courts are discriminatory,” she told The Media Line. “I think it will take years and years to challenge this family law because it is very much related to religion and people are objecting to any amendments to this law.”
“We need to have a unified law, this is our dream in the region as activists. We need to have civil laws that govern our lives as women. It shouldn’t be dividing women by religion. Still, we have a very long way to go,” Abu-Dayyeh said.
This also includes nationality laws that prohibit women from passing citizenship to their spouses and children. However, there have been some recent changes in Egypt which now allow women to transfer citizenship to their offspring.
Abu-Dayyeh says that penal codes are problematic for women in the Arab world.
“Marital rape is not a crime in most of the countries in the region,” she said, noting that Tunisia is one of the rare countries that criminalized the practice in a recent violence against women bill. “Women are still portrayed as property of the man and the man can do whatever he wants,” she said.
Another problematic portion of penal codes in the region criminalizes abortions. “Anyone who might support a girl in getting one, even from incest or rape or an extramarital relationship, will also be punished,” she said.
This could lead to the woman being a victim of a so-called “honor crime,” where the offending female is killed by make relatives to preserve the family’s reputation.
Abu-Sayyed says the Arab world is becoming more conservative, indicating a step back for women’s rights.
“You can see society becoming more conservative. You can see more women in veils and hijabs, and fundamentalists are becoming stronger,” she said.
An example of this is seen in the Palestinian territories, where women’s rights activists and groups face threats because they are demanding a family protection bill that would help victims of violence based on gender.
Abu-Dayyeh attributes the shift to the geo-political situation in the region.
“I think it’s the implications of all the wars in the region, there is no rest for people to think about treating women in a different way,” she said.
In Israel, Michal Gera Margaliot, former executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, says that the employment sector and representation are the biggest problem facing women in Israel.
“This year was really tough. Women lost their jobs much more than men did. The reason this happened is because their wages are lower and because in most houses they are the main caregivers and when they closed the education system, then women were the ones to stay with the kids” during the coronavirus shutdowns, Margaliot told The Media Line.
“We need to fix the employment here in Israel and in more places in the world. You need to not only work on the participation of women in the labor market, which was very high in Israel before the pandemic – the highest in the OECD, you need to change the fact that men are main providers and secondary caregivers and women are main caregivers and secondary providers. You need to work on the quality of work to reduce wage gaps to have women and men everywhere,” she added.
As a result, Margaliot says that adequate parental leave needs to be established, the state should sponsor day care from a much earlier age, school days should be extended, and the number of working hours reduced.
The second challenge women face is representation, both in government and in senior levels of the employment market.
“It’s not only about the numbers, but the quality. You need to have senior women in decision-making junctures,” she said.
In government, this includes committee heads. While a record number of women – eight – held ministerial posts in the last government, almost all the committees they led were minor.
Ahead of the March 23 national elections, only one woman leads a party, Merav Michaeli of Labor. However, there is cause for some optimism.
“This is the first time ever that there are seven parties that will be in the next parliament, or are close to the threshold, that have women in the No. 2 position,” she said. These include the Blue and White, Meretz and Yamina parties.
Margaliot believes that about 30 women will secure Knesset seats in the upcoming election, which is approximately one quarter of all parliamentary seats.
“It’s not like it is getting worse when you look at the three first rounds of elections where we were furious,” she said, referring to the three elections that took place between 2019 and 2020, It’s “It’s not getting worse, but it could get better,” she said.
The third challenge facing Israeli women is domestic violence and sexual harassment and assault at home and in the workplace. Margaliot says the government has detailed plans to combat both, but they have not been funded.
“They need to take these detailed plans forward and create spheres where women feel safe. Only when you’re safe can you flourish,” she said.
While domestic violence rose during the pandemic, the issue has plagued Israeli women for a long time.
“At the end of 2018, there was the largest protest ever in Israel over women getting murdered and domestic violence. The governmental decision to have a national plan to fight this issue passed in July 2017,” Margaliot said. “It’s not going anywhere in the near future, but if you won’t put the resources, and the thought and the time to decide that it’s part of your priorities, it will just get worse. It can’t get better.”
While activist Abu-Dayyeh says International Women’s Day is important, she says that problems facing women need to be focused on and alleviated all year.
“While I’m happy for International Women’s Day, we shouldn’t forget women on the other 364 days,” she said.
HortiDaily‘s story on Jordanian women trained on modern agricultural technology published on 29 October 2020 is about empowering young women with leadership skillsets in the agricultural sector. This should not come as a surprise whereas elsewhere in the MENA region, Arab women are thriving in science and math education.
Sahara Forest Project and Al Hussein Technical University (HTU) completed the first phase of the Technical Training Program in Agricultural Technology, where 15 female trainees from seven different universities took part in a field tour of the Sahara Forest Project site in Aqaba.
This program comes to support and empower young women to obtain employment opportunities and the skills required to take leadership positions in the agricultural sector and support the applications of modern agricultural technology in Jordan.
Director of Sahara Forest Project in Jordan, Frank Utsola, expressed his pride in participating in bettering the opportunities of a group of young Jordanian women and widen their horizons to change the future of the agricultural sector in Jordan. “The young women were excited. During the tour, they asked about everything, every tiny detail, which gave me confidence in this group and their ability to find new ideas and applications in the agricultural sector and supports their visions for the future of agriculture in Jordan.”
Ms. Zein Habjoka, Program Manager at HTU was also positive, saying: “Today we launch a new path for the active female workforce in the agricultural sector. Today we offer students the opportunities, skills, and knowledge required to enable them to assume leadership positions and highly skilled jobs in the agricultural sector.”
Yasmine, one of the participants in the program, added: “Participating in this program and interacting with the project managers helped me a lot to understand what I want and how I can achieve it. Here I learned that there are many applications of agricultural technology that may help Jordan make use of its resources better and overcome the food security challenges that it faces.”
The female training program is supported by the Norwegian government and Costa Crociere Foundation. The importance of the program stems from the fact that food and water security is one of the most important objectives on the national agenda in Jordan, as it has become imperative to empower the younger generation to support small and large projects that work on the principle of sustainability in energy, water and food.
The training program was designed to utilize partnerships between the academic and industrial sectors, whereby expert Ruba Al-Zoubi and Zeina Fakhreddin guided the trainees throughout the course of the training, in addition to cooperating with the Mira Association to develop irrigation and agricultural methods.
The project harnesses renewable resources such as seawater and solar energy (panels seen on the roof of the building in the picture above) to produce desalinated water and cool greenhouses, which allows the cultivation of all types of crops throughout the year and makes the use of arid lands possible.
Sahara Forest Project was inaugurated in Jordan in 2017 under the patronage of His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway.
The current demonstration facility is located 12 kilometres outside the city centre of Aqaba. It uses saltwater, sunlight and desert areas to produce vegetables, freshwater, biomass and clean energy. The ambition of the project is to rapidly scale up- It is the understanding of the parties that the new land will have an area of 200,000 SQM allocated to develop the project, and another 300,000 SQM for further roll-out.
If we put together the words “MENA region” and “women-led startups” into the same sentence most of us probably would not expect the following statement: one in three start-ups in the Middle East and North Africa region is founded or led by a woman, which is a much higher percentage than in Silicon Valley. Women in Arab countries make up for 34-57 per cent of STEM graduates, a figure which is also much higher than in universities across Europe and the US. This led us to ask ourselves: how come, given these numbers, the proportion of female workforce in 13 out of 15 Arab countries remains among the lowest in the world?
This is how Wamda‘s Thought Leadershipon 11 May, 2020 introduced the hot subject of gender equality in the MENA region.
How can we encourage more women to pursue entrepreneurship?
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, Sana Afouaiz, founder of Womenpreneur, an organisation established to support women entrepreneurs, toured three countries in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) to gain an insight into the challenges faced by women founders in the region. In this article, Afouaiz outlines the steps needed to overcome these challenges.
The answer to this is neither short nor simple. It is safe to say, however, that the figures above unveil the amazing potential to be unlocked in the region. For this reason Womenpreneur Initiative and SANAD’s Entrepreneurship Academy joined forces to promote female tech entrepreneurship in the Mena region. The goal of this unprecedented empowerment campaign was to give visibility to women in tech, innovation and entrepreneurship as well as to provide platforms to assess the current state of the tech ecosystem in three countries: Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan.
During the Womenpreneur Tour we interviewed female tech entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds. They shared with us what motivated them to launch their businesses, as well as every obstacle they encountered on their journey. Did you know that 71 per cent of Tunisian women started their enterprises with absolutely zero resources and zero support? Or that only 10 per cent of Moroccan women are entrepreneurs despite them representing half of the population of the country? Or that only 6 per cent of women entrepreneurs in Jordan are generating revenues exceeding $100,000?
Mindset as major drawback for women entrepreneurs in the region
Most of them point out mindset as the main barrier preventing women from having equal access to the job market or promotion opportunities. Traditional values in Arab countries are still deeply-rooted and this is reflected in recruitment processes for example, where women are still inquired about their marital status and left as second choice in the presence of a male competitor. High demands in the family setting are another major drawback for women to advance their career. This traditional mindset extends to the investment-seeking process too. Due to lack of precedent in the region, investors are more likely to distrust the profitability of women-led businesses.
What can be done to eliminate these constraints?
Many argued that a change of mindset is slowly emerging. For example, Jordan recently passed a new labour law providing equal day care obligations to both female and male parents in the workplace. This is a great achievement but real changes are taking too long to materialise. During our tour across these countries we also interviewed multiple experts from various fields who shared their recommendations to make the tech ecosystem more accessible and fairer to women. Most of them agreed on the need for gender quotas in the public administration to ensure the involvement of women in strategic decision-making at the political level as well as in board of directors in the private sector to promote that they reach top management positions. Recruitment processes should be revised from a legal perspective as well in order to prevent gender-based discrimination due to marital and family status. On the other hand, many pushed for the need to break the glass ceiling as well as gender roles and stereotypes which traditionally portray women as more suitable in social and human sciences and men as more capable for physics, mathematics and technology.
Further recommendations related to the financial sphere, where some of our experts suggest a democratisation of processes and requirements for opening a business bank account is needed. This would facilitate that women receive funds quickly to start their activities and demonstrate recorded payments and credit history. As a result, female tech entrepreneurs acquire financial credibility and are in a better position to fundraise further. Additionally, the creation of female-oriented or women-only funds for all stages of start-ups, in forms of government grants or equity investments, would facilitate women access to funding and present the investment-seeking process as one based on merit and business skills rather than a risk journey into gender discrimination.
After the great success of our tour we are embarking ourselves into a second edition that will explore three new countries: Algeria, Egypt and Lebanon. This time, however, in the context of the current Covid-19 crisis our aim is to find out how this pandemic is affecting female entrepreneurs’ lives across the Mena region and how the female talent is tackling this challenging situation and bringing about solutions.
If you want to know more about all the inspiring female tech entrepreneurs we met, then watch our documentary
The following article titled Oliver Wyman: MENA youth’s perception of the private sector by Georgia Wilson – Leadership is worth reading to comprehend the peculiar situation of the MENA youth. In effect, the region despite having the highest youth population shares in the world, as well as the highest rates of youth unemployment, there seems to be still some sort of freedom of choice between private and public service employment.
Business Chief looks at Oliver Wyman, and INJAZ Al-Arab recently conducted research on the youth perception of the private sector.
Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, over 2,400 young people between the age of 16 and 36 were surveyed to gain insight into the youth perception of the private sector.
“It is critical to capture the perspective of the youth and assess what they require to bolster the private sector of the future. We see a healthy inclination towards entrepreneurship, and a clear idea of what factors can facilitate lifelong learning. These are both indicators of their perception of the private sector, which is key to sustainable economic growth of their countries and the region. The youth are a key driver in the realization of economic stability, and we are proud to support INJAZ Al-Arab in helping the youth to fulfill their economic potential,” commented Jeff Youssef, Partner at Oliver Wyman.
Key findings of the youth survey:
79% feel positive about the private sector’s contribution to the economy – a 41% increase from 2018
75% expect the private sector to grow in the next five years – an 11% decrease from 2018
55% are discouraged from working in the private sector due to lack of opportunities and lack of competitive benefits – an 8% increase from 2018
50% perceive the “who you know” favouritism within organisations, to be the primary obstacle when seeking private sector employment
78% see themselves working in the private sector in the near future
84% feel inspired to start their own entrepreneurial venture in the near future
53% see leadership, creativity and communication as the most important skills for the private sector
“For young people today, it is extremely important that they are well equipped with skills, knowledge, and sense of entrepreneurship to enter the workforce. INJAZ’s collaboration with Oliver Wyman will further allow us to tackle the issue of youth unemployment in MENA, as we are certain that the findings are of great benefit to multiple stakeholders and that our initiative reflects on their potential to impact policy reform, program creation, and educational institution transformation,” added Akef Aqrabawi, CEO at INJAZ Al-Arab.
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