Digested read: 3 new papers on measuring women’s empowerment; gender and ISIS; women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa

June 29, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Just sampled a couple of hundred pages of Oxfam’s prodigious output on gender issues. 3 new papers, to be precise, How To coverall of them ground-breaking in different ways. A ‘How To’ Guide to Measuring Women’s Empowerment; a Gender and Conflict Analysis in ISIS-affected communities in Iraq, and Gender Justice, Conflict and Fragility in the Middle East and North Africa.

All of them ground-breaking, but none of them easy reads. The How To Guide is for the measurement geeks, setting out our best efforts to combine rigour and affordability (our MEL supremo reckons we can construct a pretty robust empowerment metric and measure it for about $20,000 a pop). I’ll leave the intro to one of the authors, Simone Lombardini, but I love the effort to construct an index based on the views of those being ‘measured’, combined with a thorough reading of the literature on ways to understand empowerment.

For the ISIS case study, the authors used a joint gender and conflict analysis to try and understand how gender roles evolved in communities in Iraq that were first occupied by ISIS and then fled to IDP camps. The aim is both to understand what happened, and identify points of entry for humanitarians trying to mitigate gendered forms of violence and tensions, and support ‘gendered drivers that contribute to stability and community cohesion’.

To be honest, I sometimes struggle with these papers, which seem to take a rather long time restating the obvious in very inaccessible language. But it’s worth persevering (especially when the authors know how to write a good executive summary) for those little insights and surprises. In this case:

ISIS and gender cover‘From 2014 onwards, ISIS imposed a strict social control over communities in Iraq. In response to the disruption of the social fabric, the retraction of safe public space, the conflict-induced disintegration of household units and the regulation of marriages, household members increasingly withdrew to the domestic space, which resulted in increased household tensions.’

Translation: People were too terrified to leave the home. Cooped up inside, they started to bicker and fight.

Under ISIS occupation, women ‘extended their scope of practices in the course of ISIS-occupation to interpret well-being of the family in terms of protecting their children from joining ISIS, keeping their families safe and stressing the importance of education in a context where the formal school system had been dismantled. The acknowledgement of women’s diverse roles in keeping their families safe and shifts in intra-household power dynamics, constitute a possible entry point to strengthen women’s participation in contexts of displacement, as they strive to resume paid work, report an increase in joint household expenditure decision-making within the household or expressing their interest in being more involved in community decision-making.’

Translation: An unexpected silver lining in terms of women’s rights. Under effective house arrest, women’s roles expanded to include keeping their kids safe and trying to keep them studying. In the IDP camps, women are now bouncing back, wanting more control over their lives and money. Outside agencies can work with that.

I found the paper on gender justice in MENA particularly interesting, but at 118 pages, not for the fainthearted. It covers Egypt, Iraq, the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and Yemen. It charts how progress on women’s rights in the Arab Spring in Egypt and Yemen went into sharp reversal. In the words of one Yemeni activist:

“The moment that violence was used to reach power, that stopped everything. The use of violence gives the idea Now is the Time coverthat those who use their weapons will reach their goals. So we ended up with the … parties that use violence [being] the ones who are heard and included to make decisions. They are the ones that the international community engages with. As women are not part of this mechanism using violence, it means automatically that women are not heard and are not a part of the process.”

The report has harsh words for the donors and international NGOs for imposing their priorities and processes on Women’s Rights Organizations that already have their backs against the wall:

‘Across all contexts, this reflects the larger phenomenon of “NGO-ization” that has overtaken the region. By reducing activism into distinct units of ‘projects’ of limited time and funding, donor and INGO models prove reductive to the indigenous forms of activism that are actually able to precipitate long-term positive change.’ Ouch

There is a nuanced account of people’s views on the links (positive and negative) between faith and women’s rights in the region. On the one hand, this from an OPT academic:

“The community has become superficially more conservative. There has been a change in the way that people dress – but this is not an indicator of content … There is a lot more support for women in higher education and a lot more women in higher education. There is also a greater demand for women to be in the workplace. There has been a revolution among young women over the past 10 to 15 years. There are more people attending the mosque and wearing niqab, but there is actually a lot more rights for women living in the West Bank.”

On the other hand, an Egyptian interviewee isn’t buying it:

“This is what we have been doing for years and years, and it shows no results. Show me something good that comes out of working with religious leaders. At the end of the day, they are conservative old men.”

Finally, a fascinating and subtle account of the Arab Spring and aftermath. Women in Cairo described the uprising as the moment in which the “barrier of fear” was broken – and the last two years of fear and insecurity have not returned their lives to the status quo ante. There is greater awareness around sexual harassment due to campaigns and the discursive opening post-revolution. Increased awareness and acceptability of speaking about harassment has empowered women and girls to report incidents to the police, something that was almost unheard of before. As one feminist activist said:

“After the revolution, we began to know each other. Before the revolution, there were many sexual assaults but women were silent about these and if we spoke about them, we were accused of being liars. After the revolution, women started to speak about this and the ugly face of Egypt came up.”

Would love to see more about the Arab Spring’s legacy in terms of women’s rights. Any recommendations?