[This article is part of a special bouquet on the interrelationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and social mobilization in the Middle East, North Africa, and the United States. Click here to view the entire listing of entries.]
This contribution is based on an open-access article I recently published with the European Journal for Women’s Studies for their special issue on feminisms in the Global South. In the article, I address the gendered implications of COVID-19 in the Global South by paying attention to the intersectional pre-existing inequalities that have given rise to specific risks and vulnerabilities. While I am personally more involved with and knowledgeable about feminist mobilization in the Middle East, I felt that politically it was important to look more broadly at the gendered implications of COVID-19 and feminist mobilizations that have arisen in relation to it. This is not to brush over important historical and empirical differences but rather to illustrate some wider trends and also challenge the exceptionalism often associated with the Middle East.
In this context, I explore various aspects of the pandemic-induced “crisis of social reproduction” that affects women as the main caregivers but also address the drastic increase of various forms of gender-based violence. My article looks at specific regions and countries to illustrate wider challenges faced by LGBTQ populations, ethnic minorities, domestic workers, migrants, and sex workers. Against the background of these gendered intersectional challenges, I discuss feminist initiatives and mobilizations to deal with the crisis in specific local contexts as well as nationally, regionally, and transnationally.
Here I would like to share a summary of my conclusions that highlight a number of visions, tensions, and dilemmas faced by feminists in the Global South that will need to be taken into consideration in terms of transnational feminist solidarities. My main argument revolves around the question of whether feminist initiatives in the Middle East, with parallels elsewhere in the Global South, should collaborate with state-led initiatives. Calls for increased centralized government interventions, and in some cases, even calls for the military to get involved to tackle COVID-19, are clearly problematic in contexts where governments and militaries have been part of the problem in terms of maintaining or even exacerbating structural inequalities, different forms of injustice and violence. Women in many countries in the Global South, but also some countries in the Global North, most prominently the United States, have not been able to rely on the state and state-related institutions, like the police and the judiciary, to protect them from gender-based and sexual violence, allow them access to resources, and provide security and protection. In contrast, government-related institutions, the military, and sub-state militia have been controlling women’s bodies, mobility, dress codes, personal relations, and sexuality, reinforcing patriarchal heteronormative gender regimes, toxic masculinities, and authoritarian politics, whether religious or secular.
One question that feminists throughout the Global South have to ask themselves is how far their advocacy and strategies should focus on criticizing the consistently gender-blind policies, interventions, and relief programs of governments, or whether their strategy should be to influence governments by trying to get involved without being co-opted by them. In some contexts, collaborations and joint initiatives might be possible, and even effective, whether they are strategic temporary alliances or more lasting ones. But in other contexts, joint ventures with authoritarian regimes might mean not only that feminists have to cross red lines, but also these ventures could lead to the further discrediting of feminist activists and organizations who are already often under pressure and under attack for either being co-opted by authoritarian states or supposedly importing Western alien ideas and concepts. The latter being a common strategy to discredit feminist activists in many parts of the Global South. In contexts of authoritarian repressive regimes, such as Iraq and Egypt, or severely incompetent and corrupt regimes, like Lebanon, for example, should feminist activists be involved in decision-making processes and demand seats at the table, or should they try to stay far away from the tables associated with corruption, repression, and securitization of bodies and sexualities? In my view, in the context of the specific countries mentioned above, working around instead of with governments might be the wiser approach. However, in general, I would like to stress that these are difficult and complex decisions that need to be made on a case-by-case basis, and cannot be categorically assessed, especially not from the outside, without knowing the complex internal local and national dynamics, pressures, and challenges.
Some feminist activists and researchers have commented that there might be a silver lining in terms of the conditions of the pandemic, and the opportunities it might open up. There is, of course, the risk gender-based claims and injustices might be yet again pushed to the side, and into the eternal waiting rooms of what is always presented to us as “priorities” and “wider issues.” Feminists will be particularly challenged to not be marginalized, or, worse, be threatened, by the right-wing populism and militant ethno-nationalism that seem to have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and that might increase as part of the backlash against growing global anti-racist mobilization. But, then again, maybe we are actually witnessing a shift in thinking and a wider and deeper recognition of life-making activities, social reproduction, and caregiving? However limited and gender-blind government responses and policies have been in the past and might be in the future, we have already seen the emergence of creative, powerful, and important feminist responses, initiatives, and solidarities at local and at transnational levels.
In the context of the Middle East, demands by protesters during the revolutionary demonstrations preceding the pandemic are resurfacing, now with even greater force and justification. We have also seen the rise of large scale anti-racist and anti-police brutality movements sparked in Minneapolis, Minnesota with the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 that in turn have prompted solidarity movements globally. Protests have not only been taking place all over the United States, and many cities in Europe, but there have also been solidarity demonstrations in Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria, and Kenya, amongst many other countries. It remains to be seen how far transnational solidarity in relation to anti-racism and social justice might or might not translate into intersectional demands that include gender-based justice and challenges to heteronormativity. At the same time, more than ever, feminists in the Global North will have to be vigilant that the feminism they promote, advocate for, and enact responds to global inequalities, is anti-racist to its bones, respects and accepts mobilization and leadership by activists from the Global South, without either essentializing or reifying differences.