Written by Diana Ishaqat
Working women remain a controversy in the region, where experts ranging from psychologists to religious leaders can be heard on television and radio shows, 123456 attempting to justify, defend or condemn the presence of women in the workforce. Not having the lived experience7 of a woman in the Arab World is not uncommon among the invited public figures. Yet, whether with or against, they seem to be trusted with the “analysis” of a woman’s psyche, anatomy and “nature”, and these mechanisms’ “compatibility” with what it takes to get a job and sustain one.
I’m intrigued by what makes up everyday life. Yes, the phenomenon, life-turning events too, but especially the everyday. Therefore I find the journey of a woman to her workplace or her aspirations to get to one, truly remarkable. There are so many complex decisions to make, influenced by class, faith, color, history, urban design, and the list goes on. Not once in life or every now and then, but repeatedly; consciously or subconsciously. Variables may differ but choices made to stay safe, sane, and at times, alive, appear to be constants for far too many.
An ever-evolving part of the everyday is also social media, whether a woman is in the virtual world with her real name, or using a fake account she has to hide from relatives, and whether she controls her income, or is beaten to give it to her family, and believes documenting her story8 online could be her last hope.
From our experiences offline, we know the language used to describe us. For example, we are like (un)wrapped candies9 for some people. We are also unprofessional if we refuse to be the woman notetaker10 every time. A lexicon of gendered slurs stored in our memories expands as we grow. But online, given women’s employment is a debate, what kind of language is used for describing this status and women associated with it?
Scanning contributions by users from various genders on three popular posts on Facebook about working women, over 300 comments, equivalent to more than 13,000 words (on a video11 investigation on whether the public is okay with women’s employment or not, a post12 on a local job-search group about what users think of women’s employment, and a post13 by a widely-followed author about the same topic), were collected and uploaded, and a visual textual network14 was developed from this material using the tool Infranodus.15
The collection of terms that appeared to stand out were considered as leads for text parts where conflict or arguments appeared to escalate. For example, terms like Wife, Husband, and Divorce, in addition to Child, Mother, Thing as well as God, Equality, and Idea were some of the most connected analytically to the topic of working women.
Next, I began grouping statements linked to the highlighted keywords (nodes) based on their content’s theme (thus achieving patterns), and finally, I manually reviewed the collected material all over again for additional coverage. The outcome was:
|Themes and Portrayals||Pattern Statements||Pattern Characteristics|
|(Un)employment: Women as “job thieves”||If fewer women worked, more men would have found jobs.||There appears to be a pattern of beliefs that women are “stealing” jobs from men, frequently citing factors such as physical appearance, lower wages, or vulnerability to exploitation as reasons why women receive job placements.
In Jordan, under a reported unemployment rate16 of 19.2%, an estimate of 27.5% of females are unemployed, compared to 17.1% of males.
|Hunter-gatherers: Women going beyond their “biologically-valid” roles.||• At the beginning of time, roles were “properly” distributed among men and women.
• Women stayed at home and took care of the children who were attached to them, and men worked outside to make sure to sustain the family.
• Things went downhill, so much that men started asking for women’s permission on private and financial matters.
|This pattern’s arguments suggest looking into the “origins” of humans before our supposed roles changed and women “became allowed” to work. This pattern tends to ignore unpaid work17 distribution.|
|Marriage: Esteemed potential partners?||Possessing a stable job is a condition many men put in their future wife criteria. Living costs are too high.||Contradicting statements appeared later, where some users indicated that a working wife is less desirable and fulfilling as a partner, because they think it is harder for her to remain “beautiful”, “feminine” and “energetic” after work hours.|
|Family, Motherhood: Mixed Views.||• A woman is a jewel, a princess, a queen. She holds the most sacred and difficult job, which is raising children.
• Husband says that working outside means potential abuse and harassment, therefore it is safer to be at home.
• A woman can tolerate so much at home and outside of it that it is hard to imagine what kind of jobs a man can do but she cannot.
• Street children are increasing because of working women.
• When women didn’t work, they raised real men.
• Women’s employment can motivate domestic violence. A husband could commit a crime to get the insurance money.
|Despite what appears to be an honoring of the sacred roles of a wife or a mother, homes are plagued by domestic abuse.
Some jobs did appear to be specifically endorsed for women, such as these in the public, healthcare, and education sector.
|Civil Society: Privileged/Urban Feminists, and Victims of Development Programs||• Women in the rural areas work and no one thinks it is strange. This is a made-up feminist debate, and it ignores many communities.
• NGOs tricked women into work and doctrines of independence, lowered her human value, and made her a victim of things like microloans, which resulted in many women going to prison.
|There are many schools of feminism, including Postcolonial Feminism. Achieving real inclusion and critical participation are a challenge and an active learning opportunity for any movement. It would certainly be very interesting to explore the work realities of women in rural areas.
However, the issue of women and entrepreneurial microloans has been covered previously, most recently here.18
|A Religious Perspective||Religion has honored women and their role(s) in ways no other ideology has proposed to do or done.||This topic is too multi-layered to address, and requires a level of scholarship I believe I do not possess at present, therefore I will leave the most common statement the way it is. Reflections are, of course, encouraged.|
|Modernization: Faces of Contemporary Life, and Trailblazers.||• Times have changed.
• There are many working women role models around us.
• No one can do it alone, we need one another.
|High living costs were detected as the top reasoning for the “normalization” of women’s employment, with a portion of statements suggesting the necessity of opening up to change to achieve prosperity, and boost literacy in additional knowledge areas in society through activating women’s potential.
The lack of accessible transportation was listed by men and women as a leading challenge to women’s safety and potential-realization.
Women’s employment was being overwhelmingly spoken about as a manifestation of a “compromise” or a “downgrading”: a socioeconomically unstable, or religiously-shaken family will send its women to work because there’s a collective need for her to do so on a family-level, but the master narrative also goes on by concluding that the decision will inevitably lead to even bigger issues than these which triggered it in the first place within the family, impacting the whole of the society. Street children, jobless men, and moral decay are things working women being, at least partially, held responsible for.
There’s little evidence proving that women’s work, in the public eye and mouth, is believed to exist because she is a person with ambition, responsibilities or own needs (mind you under capitalism)- and this doesn’t have to be justified with children, parents, or anyone else’s human conditions. Why is it abnormal if it’s an individual decision or need (at least in the first place)? The answer partially lays in a crippling, toxic form of glorification of motherhood, promoting a set
of behaviors and mental modules in which the road to “martyrdom” begins with a little girl who’s being “prepared” to be a future bride, and later a selfless, unconditionally altruistic child-bearing wife.
Overall, there is certainly a lot more to the discussion on women and work in the Middle East. But while online conversations can be categorized for research or making-sense purposes, it is
impossible to do the same for the wide range of realities and experiences of women with (un)employment and financial (in)dependence, at least not without oversimplifying what
decades of armed conflicts, uneven distribution of wealth, inter-generational trauma, colonial heritage, and guardianship system byproducts did on a regional level to our everyday. How
much do we have to work before our everyday is our own?
An explorer of the intersectionality of media, tech, and culture, Diana Ishaqat currently works with civil society organizations in Jordan, campaigning for a participatory transition into digital learning in the Kingdom. She has previously presented and published her work in various countries including South Korea, the United States, and Denmark. A polyglot, Diana has recently received a Master's in Media, Campaigning, and Social Change from the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom.
5 Hespress. عمل المرأة خارج البيت يقسم الشارع المغربي بين مؤيد ومعارض [Internet]. 2020 [cited 13 April 2020]. Available from: www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=28&v=oIQZkUCSOPI&feature=emb_logo
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9 Khalifeh L. When will people stop comparing hijabis to wrapped candy and sealed letters? [Internet]. StepFeed. 2019 [cited 13 April 2020]. Available from: stepfeed.com/when-will-people-stop-comparing-hijabis-to-wrapped-candy-and-sealed-letters-7264
10 Rogers R. Taking Notes Isn't "Women's Work:" What to Do When You're the Default… [Internet]. The Muse. [cited 13 April 2020]. Available from: www.themuse.com/advice/taking-notes-isnt-womens-work-what-to-do-when-youre-the-default-admin
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14 Bail C. Text Networks [Internet]. Compsocialscience.github.io. [cited 13 April 2020]. Available from: compsocialscience.github.io/summer-institute/2018/materials/day3-text-analysis/text-networks/rmarkdown/SICSS_Text_Networks.html
17 UN Women. Redistribute unpaid work [Internet]. UN Women. 2017 [cited 13 April 2020]. Available from: www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/csw61/redistribute-unpaid-work
18 Sweis R. Microloans, Seen as Salvation for Poor Women, Trap Many in Debt [Internet]. Nytimes.com. 2020 [cited 13 April 2020]. Available from: www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/world/middleeast/microloans-jordan-debt-poverty.html