The Shadows of Colonial Legacy: A Quest for Economic Autonomy Under Authoritarian Regimes

This article examines the persistent struggles that women have endured in pursuit of economic and political empowerment, with attention to the historical and contemporary policies that restrict their opportunities. This struggle is not just about economic rights but fundamentally about the recognition of women as full participants in their societies.

In several countries in the MENA region, authoritarian regimes significantly impact women’s economic agency and bodily autonomy. Yet women in countries like Egypt and Tunisia are challenging both the remnants of colonial oppression and the contemporary authoritarian practices that maintain them. Justice for women is essential for economic productivity as it recognizes the diverse challenges they face due to intersecting factors like gender, class, and ethnicity. Empowering women through equitable access to education, fair wages, and legal rights addresses systemic inequalities and boosts the overall economy. When women's contributions are valued and supported, communities become more resilient, poverty is reduced, and sustainable development is achieved. This intersectional approach ensures that economic policies are inclusive, benefiting the entire society and fostering long-term economic growth.

But aside from limiting economic productivity, restrictions on women also highlight a deeper crisis of identity and autonomy that impacts every aspect of women’s lives. This article examines the persistent struggles that women have endured in pursuit of economic and political empowerment, with attention to the historical and contemporary policies that restrict their opportunities. This struggle is not just about economic rights but fundamentally about the recognition of women as full participants in their societies.

Colonial Roots of Contemporary Struggles

Many of the authoritarian practices that have become common among governments in the MENA region can be traced back to the colonial era. Under French, Italian, and British rule, several countries in the region were directed to adopt governance systems that focused on colonial extraction rather than local development and marginalized dissenting voices. These policies often commodified women, treating them as mere tools for economic gain—either through labor exploitation or as symbols of cultural control. Today, these colonial legacies remain visible in labor laws and societal norms that dictate women's roles and rights in the region.

During the British occupation of Egypt, the British set up and maintained an authoritarian regime by centralizing power, dismantling local governance structures, and instituting policies that suppressed dissent. They established a puppet monarchy and controlled the administration, ensuring compliance with British interests through military presence and coercive tactics. This authoritarian framework facilitated the exploitation of resources and labor for colonial profit. In sectors like agriculture and textile manufacturing, women's labor was especially targeted. Egyptians were forced to grow crops that served the needs of the British occupation in agricultural camps. Thousands of Egyptians, including women, were forced to work on farms, often without pay. One hundred years later, this exploitation of women's labor persists.

Similarly, in Tunisia, the French established an authoritarian regime by installing a protectorate system that subordinated the local government to French authorities. They suppressed political opposition, controlled economic resources, and implemented policies that reinforced social hierarchies. The French also exploited Tunisian labor and agricultural output for their benefit, perpetuating economic and social inequalities that hindered Tunisia's development.

Furthermore, the economic marginalization of women in the region is often justified by patriarchal interpretations of cultural norms, many of which are remnants of colonial ideologies about gender and power. During colonial times, European powers frequently imposed their gender norms and roles upon the societies they dominated. This sometimes exacerbated existing gender disparities or introduced new patriarchal standards that aligned with colonial interests—such as controlling local populations and maintaining a social order that facilitated economic exploitation. In many parts of the MENA region today, these historical influences linger, intertwining with local traditions and patriarchal interpretations to justify the continued economic marginalization of women. This marginalization manifests in various ways, such as limited access to education for women, fewer employment opportunities, and lower wages compared to men.

Modern Manifestations of Authoritarian Control

Today's authoritarian regimes in the MENA region have leveraged these historical frameworks to restrict women's rights and maintain the system that exploits their labor. In Egypt, for example, women face persistent discrimination in employment. While it is not explicitly codified in law, the private sector shows a clear preference for hiring men over women, attributed partly to perceived higher costs associated with women employees, such as maternity leave. Women also face significant wage disparities compared to men and are often subject to sexual harassment in the workplace. Patriarchal norms, coupled with the legal framework enforced by the authoritarian regime, produce a challenging environment within which it is difficult for women to pursue rights, autonomy and equality.

Authoritarianism maintains the status quo by stifling efforts aimed at reform. In Tunisia, activists claim that President Kais Saied uses “women empowerment” as a facade, and his new constitution reverses hard-earned gains, highlighting a decline in the economic and social status of women. The establishment of a new constitution, which ultimately swapped Tunisia’s hybrid parliamentary democracy with a system that gives the president sweeping powers, has raised concerns about the future of women's autonomy. The number of women in government roles is visually impressive, but it often fails to translate into genuine empowerment or advancement of women's rights. Critics argue that the current government's approach to women representation is tokenistic – that is, it is more about appearance than substantive change – as women politicians are usually not in positions of real power or decision-making. This tokenistic use of discourse about women empowerment by the current regime poses a challenge to the progress previously made in women's autonomy in Tunisia, signaling a potential regression rather than advancement.

Lighting the Path Forward

In both Egypt and Tunisia, the fight for women's economic and political agency serves as a strong counterforce against the shadow of authoritarianism. Understanding and addressing the historical roots of both authoritarianism and patriarchy is crucial for making real progress toward economic and social justice for women in countries across the MENA region. The international community and local governments must collaborate to dismantle these authoritarian practices and support the empowerment of women, recognizing their pivotal role in achieving meaningful development and prosperity.

Ritaj Ibrahim is the co-founder & projects manager of Kun organization, she is a writer, and an intersectional activist focused on gender and sexuality in the SWANA region.

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


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