Reproducing Society: The Exploitation of Women’s Bodies

This article discusses how the reproduction of society takes places over women's bodies to serve and reinforce patriarchal and capitalist power structures, thus, perpetuating gender inequalities and exploitation within economic systems.

When I was a young girl, of just 10 years or so, many of my extended family members and parents’ friends used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grow up.

I candidly and proudly used to reply: “A doctor by day and a belly dancer by night”. The freedom in my answer was met with smiles and laughs, and the people receiving this information seemed to be entertained.

As much as this announcement sounds difficult logistically, given the challenging and demanding lifestyles entailed in both professions, it seemed that the most difficult barrier to living my dream is a social and ‘moral’ one. How can I be respected as a doctor if I were to be dancing in front of strangers in total freedom and in outfits that would not conform with what is ‘normally accepted’?

Building National Identities on women’s bodies

Over the course of the past century, women’s bodies have been the sites upon which both national identity and economic power have been forged in countries across the globe. Deniz Kandiyoti argues that in order to comprehend the subtleties of the position of women in societies in the South West Asia and North Africa (SWANA) region, we must examine the nation-building processes of modern states and their socio-economic transformations. Feminist reformers in the early 20th century embedded their efforts within nationalist responses to imperialism and Western colonialism, thus putting women at the center of nation-building. Women’s bodies represented, to a certain extent, a pathway through which Arab countries could demonstrate ‘modernity’ in order to be perceived as ‘civilized’.

However, the failure of pan-Arabism, the rise of authoritarian regimes supported by Western powers, and the drastic rise in socio-economic inequalities over the past three decades have all contributed to popular disenchantment with the existing nation model. It paved the way for conservative religious narratives to flourish in the socio-political realm. Islamist reactionary movements have partly shaped their identities in opposition to “the West”, and at the core of these movements are outdated and discriminatory views about women and girls, which subordinate all bodies that fall outside of the normative binary view. What these conservative religious movements have in common with post- and de-colonial nationalist movements is that they produce their identities through women's bodies.

For instance, the practice of veiling among Muslim women has been weaponized to serve conservative narratives within Arab societies and to create the idea of ‘the immoral and vicious other’ that is supposedly the West, whose values should be fought. However, the weaponization of the veil objectifies women’s bodies and imposes a ‘moral hierarchy’ onto local societies. Both the progressive Western and the conservative Islamic views become sources of surveillance and control of women, casting their judgment on both non-veiled and veiled alike. In both cases, women’s bodies become sites upon which political visions are inscribed, usually at the expense of women’s bodily autonomy.  

Additionally, in many countries, women cannot endow their nationality to their children. Such patriarchal laws discriminate against women, ostensibly to protect the image and identity of the country. Women may not mingle outside their identity group, and should they choose to do so, they will be cast out in the name of protection of national pride. At the same time, this type of discrimination can be seen as a violent intrusion onto women’s bodily autonomy and a violation of their right to exist and love freely. Indeed, the issue of nationality is multi-layered, and we only expose here one side of it.

Subordinated Symbols and Unpaid Laborers

Having placed women’s bodies at the center of “battle against the West”, Arab societies have pushed themselves to build their contemporary modern identity in opposition to, instead of, in an authentic way that is multidimensional and multi-layered and that respects the diversity that can be found in the region. Because their bodies have become instrumentalized in the construction of national identity, women are denied economic independence and blocked from achieving personal empowerment. A women’s body is no longer a discussion each woman has with her inner self through her own experiences. It rather becomes the arena where others can dump their personal insecurities and their quests for power, be it economic, social or personal.

Delving deeper into the quest for economic power and its relation to women’s bodies leads us to critically examine care work. Existing socio-economic systems would not persist without the substantial contribution of unpaid care givers. The latter are, to a large extent, women and girls. Thus, the reproduction of our economic systems is partly based on the exploitation of women’s bodies and the devaluation of care giving roles.  The burdens of neoliberal economies – including their structures, institutions, processes and lived realities - in the SWANA region deeply shape the lives of the marginalized and discriminated against groups. For instance, Arab women find themselves bearing the brunt of the unpaid work: 80 to 90% of all unpaid care work is performed by women.

Conversely, unpaid work accounts for a substantial portion of GDP, ranging from around 9% to 20%. This indicates its substantial contribution to the economy, often overlooked in conventional economic measures. In a capitalist world that functions on access to money and power, those who care for others are viewed as the ‘lowest rung’. Women are thus partially caged in a caregiving role that deprives them, to a certain extent, from accessing economic independence: they lack the time, the resources and the support.

Educated but Unemployed

Western colonialism has played a major and crucial role in the SWANA’s contemporary political and socio-economic dynamics. Colonialism, in both its essence and in its manifestations, was intrinsically discriminatory, racialized, gendered and exploitative. When writing on the “Social and Intellectual change” in the Middle East, Leila Ahmad emphasizes how the British occupation limited the expansion of education in Egypt, especially excluding girls. They introduced school fees, which reduced lower classes’ access to schooling. Then, they increased the fees in primary school in order to cut enrolment due to the large number of candidates, which negatively impacted girls’ access to primary education. Families preferred to send the boys to school and keep the girls at home to help out with domestic shores and prepare to be married.

Looking to the present, the Gender Gap Index of 2023 ranks the Arab region last globally on the advancement of gender equality, with a score of 62.6%. This follows a decline of 0.9% from the 2022 score of 63.4%. Education attainment is the one component of the score where the region is above the average for low-income developing countries. Otherwise, the Arab region ranks the lowest for the other parameters regarding economic participation, health and survival and political participation of women. The lack of policies targeting women’s labor participation, the prevalence of patriarchal norms and the role of ‘imposed’ cultural differences play a major role in impeding women’s economic empowerment.

This puts women in a seemingly contradictory situation: they outnumber men in tertiary education, yet the level of female labor participation is amongst the lowest in the world. That is, our societies 'produce' women who are educated but kept under control in a tight jar - under a hermetic seal that ensures the reproduction of society without allowing women themselves to flourish. Educated women make educated mothers who will be able to educate their children properly and be intellectual caregivers to a certain extent. The politico-economic system puts women at the center of the societal reproductive process, while controlling their bodily autonomy. Kandiyoti argued that portraying women as guarantors of children’s education and shapers of the ideologies of their families has made them crucial to the life of the nation but has not been emancipatory for women. It gave women a specific role but kept them in a cage in order to maintain and reproduce the desired systems of power.

Today, I can proudly say that I have found the harmony that my childhood self was seeking. I wish for every single body to be able to live and embody what they feel within.

Hind Hamdan values compassion, integrity, kindness, and contribution. A lover of the sea, a believer in the power of communal and cosmic healing, she also is a gender and socio-economic specialist and a feminist writer and trainer.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


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