This year’s World Social Forum, a transnational gathering of social activists, took place in Tunis, a city bubbling with unrest as it struggles to shake off a legacy of authoritarian rule while navigating tensions over women’s rights, labor and nationalism. At the gates of the gathering last week, these faultlines became starkly apparent when a caravan of trade unionists and rights advocates found themselves unexpectedly blockaded. Border police, under official orders, refused entry to a delegation of 96 Algerian activists that included members of the embattled union SNAPAP, known for its militancy and inclusion of women as leaders and front-line protesters.
That feminist-oriented trade unionists figured prominently in the incident is not surprising: In the wake of the Arab Spring, women in labor movements are situated at the crux of two very different, but interrelated battles. At the same time that they are resisting the traditional patriarchal governance of their communities and workplaces, they also push back against the “modernizing” forces of Western-style, pro-corporate neoliberal economic policy, and gradually opening new spaces for social emancipation. By operating within a traditionally male-dominated space, trade unions enable women to assert their agency as activists, simultaneously challenging their general marginalization from the political sphere and the typical Western media portrayal of women as silent victims of culturally ingrained oppression.
In advance of the World Social Forum, women labor activists came together in Tunis on March 23-24 for a leadership conference coordinated by the Public Services International union federation. The event brought women from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait and Palestine, along with fellow unionists from Belgium, Canada and Sweden, to discuss the possibilities and perils wrought by the Arab Spring.
The situation of women trade unionists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) isn’t altogether different from the historical gender-equality struggles within labor movements in Western industrialized nations, in which women were initially marginalized but have incrementally moved up in the union ranks. But women’s labor struggles in MENA are complicated by growing rifts between Islamist and liberal secular political forces that have engulfed the region since the outbreak of the Arab Spring.
In the political movements convulsing the region, gender-justice struggles have often been sidelined or even undermined. In Egypt and Tunisia, the initial wave of pro-democracy protest has yielded to a wave of Islamist-inspired reaction that troubles many leftists and feminists. Though the Arab Spring has scrambled many of MENA’s traditional political alliances, secular leftists and socialists have been increasingly marginalized amid the rise of hardline Islamist factions.
Yet Tunisia is an especially fitting setting for a women’s trade unionist conference because of both a strong labor movement and recent feminist stirrings. The powerful UGTT union federation has played a major role in the transition from dictatorship to something resembling parliamentary democracy (though the assassination of union supporter and opposition leader Chokri Belaïd has shaken the labor movement). Meanwhile feminist politics have begun to percolate as well: The dissident artist Amina Tyler unleashed an angry public uproar by posting protest photos of her bare body scrawled with declarations of self-ownership, in defiance of patriarchs who claim control over women’s bodies.
In transition countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where violence against women remains epidemic and could possibly intensify, women’s visibility is especially crucial, said Dr. Randa Al-Khaldi, a leader of the women’s committee of the General Trade Union of Workers in Health Services and a participant in the PSI meeting, in a phone interview with In These Times after the conference. “[Women] have the opportunity and they must use this chance. Because if don’t use it, they will lose [it]… and they will be forced not to work,” she says. “And I know that there will be many sacrifices… because it’s too difficult in this transformation period, but they have to stand, and they have to sacrifice in order to gain a happy future for women.”
However, Al-Khaldi notes, that the challenges facing women even in relatively stable countries like Jordan, where she does her organizing work, are severe. Despite Jordan’s reputation as a bastion of prosperity in the region, fewer than one in four women are “economically active” and even fewer have secure jobs. Among young workers, the unemployment rate is nearly 40 percent for women, more than double that of young men.
Al-Khaldi’s union is addressing several intersections between labor and gender rights. The privatization of government services, for example, especially impacts sectors where many women work. Further eroding job security is the rampant use of temporary contracts in clerical jobs typically staffed by women, which helps bosses avoid providing benefits that come with long-term employment. Another issue is the even more precarious status of migrant labor. Domestic migrant workers, many imported from Asia, often suffer exploitation and physical and sexual violence. Labor activists have helped advance migrant women’s rights in general, however, under recent legislative reforms granting more labor rights to foreign workers.
The meeting of women trade unionists in Tunis provided a forum to share stories of such struggles and successes, and to identify crucial next steps. Topics ranged from neoliberal attacks on workers’s rights to the need for women in government to more actively address women’s and labor issues. Their discussions at the gathering led to the creation of a shared agenda that includes:
- help women develop organizational capacity to promote and take on leadership roles within unions
- address gender violence and promote protections for women workers from abuse
- confront the gender impacts of “precarious work,” or unstable, temporary jobs
- build a regional network of women trade unionists
Despite the obstacles, says Al-Khaldi, many of the things women in the labor movement do now in Jordan, such as serving in a few leadership positions on the boards of unions, were out of the question five or ten years ago, when women were openly barred from union activities. Al-Khaldi says men’s attitudes are changing rapidly since the protests erupted two years ago—in large part because women have proven how integral they are to any real revolutionary project.
“Because of this revolution, because of the Arab Spring… People and the communities saw that the men stand [alongside] the women in these revolutions,” she says. “And so now they start to respect women and women workers more.”