This piece was done in cooperation with Pulitzer Center.
Covid-19 is nothing less than a global shock wave that has struck all of humanity at once whilst at the same time exposing sharp inequalities which feminist movements the world over have been exposing, struggling against and disseminating knowledge about for several decades. We know all too well by now that the immediate and expected long-term impact of this pandemic has been uneven and disproportionately distributed, largely due to these stark inequalities which many a government and policy maker failed to take note of or even understand their magnitude and gravity and the critical need to take radical action several decades ago, actions which would have simply saved lives.
The similarities between what happened and is still happening during the pandemic and feminist discourses throughout the past decades are no coincidence. Feminists challenged and deconstructed the artificial divide between the private sphere (essentially the household) and the public sphere (everything beyond the household). In doing so, they argued and proved many times over that the boundaries of the private sphere kept women in subordinate positions, stripped them of their bodily agency, reduced their life chances and left them vulnerable to all forms of violence and oppression vis-à-vis which they have no legal or societal recourse given that both laws and popular mindsets are simply patriarchal. Feminists thus challenged the myth of the harmonious, loving and safe family and demonstrated that intra-household gender relations are in fact unequal power relations determined by patriarchal norms, codified by laws and reproduced by social institutions.
That patriarchal legacy came into full play during the Covid-19 pandemic as women’s vulnerability and burden increased exponentially against a system that was even before the pandemic broken and unable (even unwilling) to protect women and secure their rights and entitlements. The rise in domestic violence worldwide leading to the killing of women and girls has been explored and exposed throughout the MENA region and beyond where neither justice or law enforcement were able to respond to what the UN Secretary General has called “the silent pandemic”.
Feminists have also long exposed what is known as the gender division of labor, a pillar of the patriarchal system which binds women and girls to the obligation of assuming most of the invisible and under-valued care work and social reproduction at the expense of pursuing other aspirations in life. The pandemic has meant that women the world over were stuck at home, often in abusive relationships, and having to bear the brunt of care work and, where applicable, paid work as well.
Feminists have also long exposed the injustice of any system, social, economic and political, which favors the interests and material benefits of the elite and privileged over people and which does not consider that all lives are equal and have equal rights. Indeed, and during the pandemic, migrants, refugees, queer and trans people, sex workers, people with disabilities have been hit the hardest as the crisis has exacerbated their exclusion, stigma and experiences of discrimination as well as their limited access to any kind of service or support system
Meanwhile, failing, discriminatory, authoritarian, inept and corrupt systems and states in the MENA region have responded to the pandemic with militarization, heightened oppression and control over people’s liberties, mobility, and freedom of expression while at the same time refraining from providing any significant form of social protection or support at least to those hit hardest by the pandemic.
In her short documentary produced for Daraj Media, Lebanese film maker says that what she fears most about what might happens after the Covid-19 has subsided is that “things will go back to the way they were before the pandemic… that we would not have learned a thing”. What this means is going back to a vicious social, economic and political system that favors, legitimizes and perpetuates various forms of inequalities where the voices and lives of women, trans, migrants, refugees, sex workers, people with disabilities, the working class and people living in poverty simply would not matter. A system where a handful few will continue to profit from the cheap or free labor of many and certainly from the free labor of women and from women’s bodies.
To say that there are no options is simply a lie or a case of combined carelessness and irresponsibility. The Association for Women’s Rights in Development, unpacks what it calls a “feminist bailout”. Put simply, the feminist bailout is what it takes to fix the world following this pandemic. This does not require finding new resources but simply shifting current mindsets and existing resources to what matters, namely the wellbeing of all human, living things and the planet. This is certainly a major shift which will require putting all people first in politics, policies and resources allocation.
The starting point of a feminist bailout is the recognition and valuing of women’s care work as the foundation of the post Covid economy through redistributing this burden within households and also through state policies. Women have been so far penalized for their social reproduction role, a role which is ironically a condition sine qua none for the production, reproduction and nurturing of labor and human capital. An economy that is based on the recognition of care work is an economy that shares the burden of and invests in social reproduction and all aspects of care work including parenting. It is an economy that recognizes the importance of care work in both the private sphere and the public sphere and treats it as work deserving proper compensation, protection, benefits and rights. What the world has been shamelessly doing so far is dumping the burden of care work in the household to less fortunate, poor and often racialized women who are expected to undertake this work in conditions that remain appalling and inhumane. In the public sphere, the post pandemic economy will recognize the value and critical importance of all forms of jobs related to care and will provide them with due rights, compensation and protection.
The post pandemic economy that is based on the recognition and valuing of women’s care work is also one that operates beyond the exclusive gender binary. Such economy is inclusive of queer, trans, non-binary, and sex workers. Policies will ensure that bodily agency is secured and access to all forms of free, safe, and quality sexual and reproductive health and rights including safe abortions are safeguarded.
The post pandemic economy will be based on the recognition that all lives are of equal value and that all people have equal access to free healthcare and to education. It will recognize all forms of work and the legitimate rights to all workers to access health and social services and protection and to be free to organize.
For the inept regimes in the MENA region, the policies and changes that are needed are way beyond any form of soft reform or repackaging and rehashing of what has been causing so far the impoverishment, despair, migration, exploitation and oppression of most of its people especially women, migrants, and gender non-conforming.
With all the ravages that this pandemic has brought, it has nevertheless created windows of opportunities. On the one hand, it has revealed the cruel way in which the incompetence of regimes actually destroys lives and causes irreparable damages to countries at large. The pandemic revealed the human costs of corruption and of conscious lack of investment in policies that would ensure people’s well-being. The fact that our social policies and social protection schemes are either bankrupt, disinvested or badly run is indeed one of the main reasons which will make the recovery of large segments of the population quasi impossible. The relegation of all matters related to women and what is referred to as “families” to religious institutions and religious laws has proven to be at the detriment of women and children. In fact, family laws have proven to be hazardous to women and to gender non-conforming. By promoting a specific hetero-normative and hierarchical model of a family, they have created households that are conducive to violence and oppression which were simply exacerbated during the lockdowns.
Perhaps the main opportunity that this pandemic has reinforced is the fact that in many a country in the MENA region, it arrived a backdrop of steaming revolutions, revolutions where the voices of women, queer and trans people, migrants and people with disabilities were loud and clear. The demands of the MENA revolutions were simply validated by the pandemic. These are the demands for human rights, universal health care, proper compensation for all forms and kinds of of work, equality in practice and in the law and, at the heart of it all, an end to state impunity, corruption and oppression.
The master’s house is no longer livable and needs to be dismantled with feminist tools and replaced by feminist solutions, feminist policies and feminist societies based on the principles of human rights and equality.