The outbreak of Covid-19 shed light on existing inequalities in various countries around the world. The lockdown measures imposed by governments to contain the pandemic had varying effects on individuals and communities from different class, age, ethnicities, gender and sexuality. Within the context of the MENA region, existing patriarchal structures were already hindering women’s and minorities’ access to rights, opportunities, and services. Despite the major impacts of the pandemic on gender justice, the measures taken to reduce the spread and contain the (economic) impact of the pandemic, remained gender blind and failed to take into consideration existing gender inequalities.
With the development of vaccines, a post-Covid reality is now more foreseeable. However, with the lack of feminist strategies for rethinking existing economic, social and political structures, inequalities will persist. In light of these events, the Regional Gender and Feminism Office at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) launched a virtual platform with the aim of reflecting on feminist alternatives for the “new normal” through a series of webinars on a “post-Covid feminist agenda in the MENA region”. The webinars invited feminists, activists and scholars from the region to shed a feminist lens on topics related to gender-based violence, economic recovery, digital justice, climate change, and feminist activism post-Covid 19.
A total of five webinars were organized by the Gender and Political Feminism Office between the months of June and August, 2022. During these sessions, guest speakers, feminist activists and experts from the region reflected on the above-mentioned topics through an intersectional lens and provided feminist recommendations and alternatives to the post-Covid era.
The first webinar on “Gender-Based Violence in the MENA Region: Post-Covid Feminist Strategies” was organized jointly with the FES Tunisia Office and took place on June 9, 2022. Feminists from the region were invited to build on the knowledge and the lessons learned acquired from the pandemic as well as to present and discuss strategies for addressing the violence that women and marginalized groups experience as part of their daily lives, and the structures that reinforce and institutionalize these different forms of violence. The session was moderated by Nesrine Rebai, Gender Consultant in Tunisia, and included the three following panelists:
In Sudan, the Covid-19 pandemic and state instructed lockdown has led to an acute situation for many Sudanese women suffering domestic abuse, hence reinforcing the urgency to protect them. One of the biggest obstacles to protect women against violence is Sudan’s family law, a law that makes it impossible to prosecute domestic violence, especially marital rape. During the pandemic, the Government of Sudan’s Unit for Combating Violence against Women and Children (CVAW) launched a national GBV hotline service with the aim to provide psychosocial support to survivors.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the challenges facing women in Egypt saw increasingly complexified layers of difficulty, especially as the traditionally enforced care-taking responsibilities increased with more members of the household spending more and more time at home under lockdown measures, including closure of schools, businesses and public spaces. Women had to play a new added “teacher’s role” for their children who were now learning remotely, and a family doctor responsible for monitoring the health conditions of family members and working to find as well as administer available treatments - on top of their usual domestic chores and care labor. One of the main problems faced in Egypt was the lack of reporting and documentation mechanisms, leading to underreporting and under-representative data and statistics, particularly when it comes to women facing violence or other forms of discrimination as a result of Covid-19 and its subsequent home arrest. However, increased percentages of reporting calls from previous years and other data confirm that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to increased violence against girls and women, particularly domestic violence.
The virus had a special impact on vulnerable groups in Tunisia, including the queer community, asylum seekers, immigrants, and women who live in vulnerable situations. Members of the queer community who had to quarantine at their parental homes faced difficulties coping with their new circumstances, like having to spend all their time around their families who do not accept them. This has left them deprived from any margin of previously existing and/or accessible privacy outside of their homes, leading to acute psychosocial stress and isolation, especially with the lack of access to community support and community spaces. During quarantine, queer individuals who could not remain financially independent -and those constitute the majority of the already marginalized community- had to seek refuge among relatives who do not support them, and navigate their way under a financially difficult situation with limited access to health and psychological services.
This is where organizations like ‘Mawjoudin’ rose up to take the responsibility of mitigating the effects of the pandemic-ushered crisis and increasing community needs and vulnerability, despite the added challenges. Mawjoudin is an officially registered not-for-profit NGO that is based in Tunisia, and works towards achieving equality, human rights, bodily rights and sexual rights for the LGBTQI+ community and other marginalized groups and individuals. During the pandemic, Mawjoudin’s aid took many forms, including legal, medical, and psychological support, as well as direct financial support, housing and food aid for dozens of queer community members. It also partnered with other organizations providing aid during the pandemic to help community members receive additional support.
The second online discussion that took place on July 6, 2022, revolved around “Feminist Strategies for a Post-Covid Economic Recovery in the MENA Region” and was organized in partnership with the FES Regional Economic Policies for Social Justice Project. Feminists and activists from the region were invited to discuss feminist strategies for economic reforms, and propose alternative economic structures that address gendered inequalities and contribute towards gender and social justice for the “new normal” after the Covid-19 pandemic. The session was moderated by Samah Krichah, Programme Officer at Kvinna till Kvinna, and included the two following panelists:
During the Covid-19 pandemic, and according to Oxfam studies, there was an explosion of inequalities worldwide as wealth accumulation in the two first years of the pandemic alone, exceeded that of the last 14 years. Additionally, the ten richest men in the world have more than doubled their fortune during the pandemic, while billionaires’ wealth in the MENA region increased by 23%. On the other hand, during that same time, there was a drastic drop in the wealth of the bottom 90% of people in the MENA region.
Public debt and austerity are the main systemic drivers leading to poverty and inequality globally and in the MENA region. Countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan have cumulated a total debt of around 90% of their GDP, and Lebanon’s debt is at around twice the size of its economy. In countries that fall under IMF’s structural adjustment plans, “economic recovery” efforts are geared towards reducing the size of the public sector in favor of boosting private sector-led economic growth, along with individualistic approaches to poverty alleviation. Countries like Tunisia, Egypt or Morocco have been under a structural adjustment plan from the IMF that has introduced long-standing austerity measures, which have not only proved ineffective in economic recovery, but are designed to further inequalities. The same narrative dominates countries like Lebanon, that are not yet under an IMF program-albeit seeking to.
International Financial Institutions (IFI) have contributed to a general narrative that is austerity-driven and that speaks of neoliberal model as the one and only solution to economic and social problems. This economic model leads to accumulation of wealth as well as political power for those already historically privileged with capital, as it offers incentives for private business-owners to grow their ventures. Efforts of poverty alleviation fall strictly under implemented cash transfer programs that are neither inclusive nor gender-sensitive, and that only lead to ad-hoc solutions instead of sustainable, long-term, and systematically reformative solutions. Social inequalities under these systems are amplified, and classes of people who are historically marginalized, like women, find themselves in a dead-lock situation.
These austerity policies have encouraged governments to restrict their social spending including on public health services, food and oil subsidies, social security, and education, in addition to pushing indirect measures like increasing added taxation on basic goods. The effects disproportionately fall on women and increase their invisibilization and vulnerability, especially as they decrease public spending on services that fall under the category of care work, which is socially expected as women’s mandate and role, and directly lead to more out-of-pocket expenditures on previously accessible basic necessities, while incomes either shrunk, disappeared, or at best stayed the same.
Moving forward, austerity measures are affecting women’s working conditions directly because of how they structure the approach on labor force participation. For instance, when it comes to public policies, instead of prioritizing tackling issues of decent work conditions for women, including safe work environment, national child-care systems, maternity leaves and equal wages, as well as safe and reliable public transport, the general approach instead advocates for women’s labor participation in the private sector-with often unprotected working conditions subject to each individual employer’s policies in the lack of protective laws that ensure women who work in the private sector are safe from violations.. In addition to that, the private sector still does not match women’s skillsets and often gives them lower-ranked jobs, or lower wages for the same jobs compared to men Thus, women are actively excluded out of the private sector and pushed into the public sector
The status quo of women and LGBTQA+ community was dire for many long before the pandemic, whether from a human-rights or a socio-economic perspective. This was drastically exacerbated during the pandemic, which increased public debt and relied heavily on public workers for mitigation and containment efforts, further deepening gender inequality and the gender gap. It left women working in the public sector -but also those working in the informal sector or undertaking underpaid or unpaid care work- severely impacted, and under cold indifference from governments.
The Covid-19 pandemic was coupled with other consecutive overlapping crises in several countries in the MENA region, as well as shrinking public space for civil society and a decrease in social spending. Additionally, governments have dealt with the pandemic in a one-dimensional approach, treating it as a health crisis only, and dismissing the equally adverse economic aftermath along with the very serious social and gendered repercussions still persisting to date. These cannot be tackled with the prevailing policy patterns and governments’ inaction that comes from the lack of political will to have more progressive laws.
Panelists also explained that there are two main forms of gender discrimination that women and other vulnerable groups suffer from and that make them very susceptible to any crisis. The first being explicit forms of gender discrimination that are directly expressed through policies and laws. This includes the inheritance law in Egypt, that limits Egyptian women’s accessibility to their inheritance, or the labor law in many MENA countries when it comes to maternity benefits, maternity leave, as well as the unequal pay between genders for work of equal value. The second factor lies in more implicit forms of gender discrimination, where women and the LGBTQI community are initially more marginalized and vulnerable, making them more susceptible to any form of shocks, including economic fluctuations and crises, goods and food price-shocks, and/or implementation of unjust socio-economic public policies, including tax injustice as well as trade injustice.
The third virtual session that took place on July 27, 2022, was organized in partnership with The Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D) at the school of business at The American University in Cairo, Egypt and revolved around a “Post-Covid Feminist Framework for Digital Justice in the MENA Region”.
Feminists and activists from the region were invited to discuss the economic, political and social reforms that can be undertaken in order to move towards digital justice in the MENA region, learning from the lessons of the pandemic. The session was moderated by Dr. Nagla Rizk, Founding Director of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D), and included the following panelists:
According to the panelists, and from a feminist perspective, the shortcomings and challenges of the digital sphere in the MENA region are many. Women have indeed less accessibility to the digital world and there are around 50% of women in the Arab World that have never used a laptop or a digital device before. Women still constitute the most vulnerable group in society in terms of access to technology. The pandemic, with its increased care work and household responsibilities on women, pushed them further away from participation in the digital sphere, especially considering potential increased surveillance by family members who were spending less time away from home during lockdowns and closures of public spaces.
Panelists agreed that the digital sphere in the MENA region is largely dominated by big tech companies and there is little room for competition from other smaller, possibly local companies. In addition, transnational tech companies tend to have capitalist strategies that are unfair to vulnerable groups, including women and people of color. This is despite the efforts of a booming local start-up scene in countries like Egypt, which were hard-hit by the pandemic.
As for social barriers, some countries have issues of social conflict that are limiting access to the digital sphere, such as in Saudi Arabia or Egypt where recently several young women were imprisoned for content they posted on TikTok that doesn’t align with “traditional” family values.
Gender-based violence and harassment in the digital sphere reflect analogue realities of the matter, with even less seriousness in the field around prioritizing women’s protection and safety. As a matter of fact, gender-based violence is strengthened by social media companies’ unresponsiveness to user complaints of sexist hate online such as circulation of images without consent.
Finally, panelists highlighted the economic challenges in the digital sphere as the MENA region has the highest numbers of women unemployment and a large informal sector. These women have no means of social and/or economic protection; and while digital work may have an advantage of offering more opportunities, especially to women, those still tend to be unprotected with close to no benefits. In addition to that, there is a segregation between jobs that men and women take up in the digital sphere as men still dominate high-paying jobs in the technology and data sectors.
Content creators and policy action in digital safety
Feminist collectives and coalition-building
Patriarchal capitalist markets
The fourth virtual discussion on “Post-Covid Feminist Strategies for Climate Justice in the MENA Region” took place on August 18, 2022 and was organized in partnership with the FES Regional Climate and Energy project. The session aimed to inform feminist action on climate change and gender justice in the MENA region, building on the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic. Panelists shed light on the economic and political structures that are contributing to climate change and provided possible reforms and concrete recommendations for the steps that feminists can undertake for moving towards climate justice. The discussion was moderated by Rula Asad, Co-founder and Executive Director of Syrian Female Journalists Network (SFJN), and included the following panelists:
At the core of gender inequality is a global patriarchal system that manifests itself in different ways. It always limits women’s agencies over their own lives denying them economic and social opportunities. Hence, it is much more difficult for women to adapt to crises, and are thus at higher risk of being left behind as a result of climate change. Women often play the key role in unpaid house care management, they are affected by floods and climate crises as they find themselves responsible in household recovery.
If feminist movements were set aside, all other movements in their majorities, are patriarchal movements despite claiming otherwise. Most of the times they are led by men and contain patriarchal structures, values, and practices, including environmental movements. Feminist work in climate justice is not very visible because climate justice movements excluded feminists and most of the movements that claim to be progressive but are not feminist, and more often than not, exclusionary to women and girls and marginalized communities.
One of the main causes of climate inequality is a patriarchal system that does not consider the rights of everyone to access resources, but rather relies on extractive policy, that is, the extraction and depletion of the energies of the less fortunate. Here, injustice becomes apparent, as in times of crises and pandemics women on the ground are asked to find solutions and alternatives for the sustainability of societies.
The fifth and final online discussion of the webinar series was planned in partnership with the FES Algeria Office on August 31, 2022 and revolved around “Feminist Movements Post-Covid-19: Between Solidarities and Repressions”. This session looked into the impact of the increased levels of policing and violence exerted by governments in the MENA region in response to the Covid-19 pandemic on feminist activism and on feminist spaces. Feminists and activists from the region were invited to the discussion to reflect upon the challenges and opportunities for feminists organizing in the region, building on the lessons learned from the pandemic, and to discuss approaches and strategies for feminist organizing within the context of repressive governments. The discussion was moderated by Hayat Remmache, feminist, lawyer and project manager, and included the following panelists:
According to the panelists, a clear distinction between “pre-” and “post-” Covid-19 cannot be made when it comes to lived realities and challenges facing feminist organizing and feminist movements, as there is nothing “new” about the marginalization and exclusion women have always faced. That said, the pandemic has highlighted the different forms of repressions and threats to women's movements, as gender issues were deprioritized, leading to a decrease in funding for women’s and feminist organizations.
The pandemic had a tremendous weight on organizations and women's associations in Morocco, with the sudden, overwhelming onset of unprecedented levels of need that the pandemic left women under. While organizations have put in place efforts for maintaining prior-established listening centers for women victims of violence since before the pandemic, they still took a hard hit. This is because during the initial months of the pandemic, they were under-capacitated to provide adequate containment at a pace that matches the increase in violence and responds to the needs of women. However, feminist associations were able to adapt quickly to the situation due to their various previous experiences of adapting quickly and acting in times of crises. Eventually, they were able to set up a toll-free number and exert pressure on the relevant authorities to take into consideration the seriousness of the situation.
In Sudan, the pandemic marked itself bitter-sweet by presenting itself as a historical accumulation moment that made it possible to build the capacities of women activists and produce more relatable feminist discourses and practices. The pandemic allowed feminists, especially youth, to get closer to practice and theory by producing feminist discourses and ideas that aim to improve the situation of women and deconstruct the different forms of repression. Indeed, the increase of gender-based violence presented a last-straw moment that drove a great wave of protests against the absence of laws and mechanisms of protection of women and girls.
Through this series of webinars, together with the panelists, FES hopes to have contributed to ongoing feminist efforts to open a space for more action-oriented discussions that can bring about concrete solutions to the severely unjust status of women in the MENA region. The focus on “the way forward” has been a generative way to imagine more just futures that do not have to come out of thin air, but rather, through traditional, grassroots, decolonial, and transnational means.
This can be seen in how the conversation focused on coalition-building, knowledge-sharing, and alternative co-operative economic models, all traditional and grassroots methods of resistance and sustenance. The recommendations that can be brought forth from such discussions are those iterated above, along with the core recommendation to focus on regularly engaging in such discussions and to build spaces for feminist collective thinking. Furthermore, this process can be taken one step further through translating those discussions into organized action and coalition building, collaborating together for the purpose of feminist advocacy and knowledge-sharing in the region.
Often times, the onset period of crises like the Covid-19 pandemic do present new challenges that push women as well as those organizing around women’s issues away from conversations and active participation in the public sphere and directs their energy towards focusing on the immediate increased needs and care work responsibilities in the absence of collective societal and governmental responsibility. On the other hand, crises also highlight existing inequalities faced by women, and lay bare the intent and extent of violations ingrained in the patriarchal extractive and exploitative systems. Through intentional and organized efforts building on feminist knowledge and networks, events of crises can be transformed into an opportunity to reflect, after a while, on what structures need to be dismantled, and what courses of action can be taken to ensure women have the adequate resources and protection mechanisms that makes women everywhere come in solidarity over both specific and shared struggles, and build on each other’s experiences to become better prepared for the next crisis in ways that can collectively prevent them from bearing the brunt silently, and reclaiming power during and beyond crisis events.
Key Recommendations highlighted from each webinar include: