The World Bank has called it the “MENA paradox” or the inability to explain why women in the MENA region have been unable to engage in politics and in the economy despite significant advances made in access to education, educational attainment and access to health services. The usual culprits were invoked, namely “tradition”, “culture” and “religion” and these were felt to be sufficient to justify that inexplicable “MENA paradox”. One of the manifestations of this paradox is in that female labor force participation index (FLFP) which places MENA at the rock bottom of global classifications. Indeed, FLFP in MENA fares at a meager 24%, almost half of the global average.
The all too sacrosanct FLFP indicator has been critiqued by feminists the world over because it simply fails to measure the magnitude, diversity, significance and value of women’s work.
Many a time in conferences and seminars, we have been told by renowned male experts that “women in the MENA region do not work”, that this is “not a policy issue”, and that “there is no such thing as care work” and that “social reproduction is simply a non-issue, something that the feminists have made-up”.
As women, due to better immune systems, are touted as having better resistance to the Immunosuppressed people and the elderly, who are at most risk from COVID-19, often become their responsibility. As such, women find themselves having to take on activities that are too dangerous for vulnerable groups to take on such as getting groceries and medicines.
However, feminists have been able to make significant shifts in the MENA region during the past decade at least at the level of recognition of care work and the gender division of labor and their impact on women’s life chances and livelihoods. Rabea Naciri, a feminist scholar and activist from Morocco wrote extensively about gender roles within heteronormative families in the MENA region and how these are shaped and determined by patriarchal family laws and other social institutions thus curbing women’s choices and ability to engage in independent paid employment. Naciri framed the role that care work and social reproduction play in limiting women’s choices and opportunities thus making them critically vulnerable to all kinds of shock and unable to recover fully.
Yet, engaging in a political conversation around women’s care work and social reproduction burden was quite an onerous tasks. Indeed, care is often discussed under various names in scholarly works. In certain academic circles it goes by ‘affective labor’, in others as ‘kin work’. While these terms sometimes denote a particular ideological, disciplinary, or conceptual approach, the subjects they cover see some considerable overlap. ‘Care work’ consists, broadly, of activities involving the care and maintenance of both people and objects, often within the ‘domestic sphere’. The definition can be expanded to include such forms of labor that occur in other spaces, such as elderly care or nursing, as well as paid domestic work.
As feminists, we labored over showing the story as to how care work is a gendered issue as it is often seen as women’s work, according to traditional and patriarchal divisions of labor which relegate women to the private sphere and men to the public one. Such views hold that women are to take care of domestic affairs for no pay; rearing children, caring for the elderly, keeping up the household, and cooking. Men, on the other hand, work outside the home for a wage and provide financially for the household. Some of these perceptions persist even when this work is commodified such as with paid domestic work and nursing, which is still overwhelmingly considered women’s work.
Public policies in Lebanon have reflected these assumptions through an absence of laws and regulations which would relieve women from their care burden by the provision for instance of accessible, affordable and subsidized child care or through the more “radical” intervention seeking to change mindsets over the necessity to redistribute care work.
In Lebanon, where few reliable and affordable social services are available and patriarchal gender norms prevail, the burden of care work that falls on women is ever more important for the functioning of the economy. In the absence of assistance with childcare and adequate retirement plans, these tasks will most likely fall on women, even when financial pressure drives them to take on paid work as well. The devaluation of this labor means that it is often not considered as such, and thus neither granted compensation nor recognized as a time consuming and straining effort, while still being considered an indispensable priority. “Women’s work” is thus seen as a lesser activity which does not equal other forms of paid work and is naturalized as an innate or biological proclivity of women. Such discourses often lead to statements that argue that this type of work should not be “corrupted” by the search recognition and compensation.
Most of the workforce in Lebanon labors in the informal economy, and women make up a large a part of these laborers. Informality means more exploitation, more violence, less transparency and accountability, meaning women can be coerced to work for free or alternatively are more likely to lose their income as a result of the crisis. The informal economy, low-skill industry and services industry have been especially affected by the crisis and these are all sectors in which women figure prominently.
The consequences of the current and very steep economic crisis as such must be gendered given the multiple types of pressure and losses that women specifically can face as a result. Given the exploitations rampant in the informal and services sectors, women who are already paid little for their labor are thus more likely to be robbed of their wages and expected to work for free, if not immediately laid off.
In addition to systemic job insecurity and low pay which are enabled by an exploitative and unjust legal framework, social norms around women, labor and respectability also make laboring in the Lebanese economy a troubling experience. This is especially true for poorer women, who are more vulnerable to wage theft and sexual exploitation and with less means to fight it, hold their employers accountable, or alternatively quit the work and search a more appropriate option. Considering that forms of exploitation often bring shameful judgement upon the victim rather than the perpetrators, this can have grave consequences for women who are taken advantage of in the workplace, losing family and other social ties and thus yet another source of support and help with care activities.
There are increased evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges. As public health measures call for quarantine and self-isolation, the women who have the privilege of working from home are still expected to take on care work on top of homeschooling their children or taking care of the house and making meals for the occupants now permanently at home. As women, due to better immune systems, are touted as having better resistance to the Immunosuppressed people and the elderly, who are at most risk from COVID-19, often become their responsibility. As such women find themselves having to take on activities that are too dangerous for vulnerable groups to take on such as getting groceries and medicines.
This is complicated by some employers seeking minimum disruption to their operations by calling the quarantine and public health crisis an “opportunity”, without taking into account that working spaces and facilities are essential for many to go about their work effectively, as well as how times of crisis put a strain on the flow of everyday life. Domestic workers too, whose plight at the mercy of the exploitative Kafala system and abusive employers has been well documented, must now also deal with the additional problem of the constant presence of their employers. For women who face domestic abuse, quarantine is likely to worsen the situation. In previous pandemics and epidemics, nurses were expected to sacrifice the most in order to handle the spread of the disease while still being stigmatized as carriers of illness.
Yet in the face of such challenges, acts and movements of resistance are multiplying in order to contest the continued devaluation of care work. Trying conditions such as economic crises have seen the emergence of forms of communal solidarity such as the establishment of informal women cooperatives, neighborhood solidarity groups, informal child care support, communal kitchens and other forms of mutual support which women continue to put in place and nurture as they continue to compensate for the state failure in recognizing women’s care work as well as the critical importance of social reproduction in maintaining societies and economies.
What is now clearer than ever is the need for social safety nets that support activities that fall under care work in order to relieve the financial, emotional, and physical strain that accompany having to account for all these responsibilities. The window of opportunity that the combined financial crisis and Covid-19 have provided is in spotlighting care work and social reproduction as political issues which require political attention and a shift in which public policies are conceptualized and constructed.