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

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?

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6 Responses to “Digested read: 3 new papers on measuring women’s empowerment; gender and ISIS; women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa”
  1. Pete

    Thanks for reading and summarising these papers for me/us Duncan.

    Was there any indication that men have a gender too? With the title “Gender and Conflict Analysis….” I would hope (but maybe not expect) that there would be coverage on how the conflicts have affected men too.

    Men often have a choice to either leave the area, be conscripted into one of the armed groups, go to jail or be killed, which is why there are so many young male refugees.

    Amnesty International reported in February that up to 13,000 men were secretly hanged in Saydnaya prison. Actually, they don’t say ‘men, they say ‘people’ – but they do say the jail only holds men, apparently their gender isn’t important enough to be made explicit. I doubt that Isis are much more generous to men in areas under their control.

    • Duncan Green

      Men do appear in the report Pete, and not just as baddies, eg:
      ‘Social norms globally and in the MENA region have tended to link masculinity and male status
      with the role of the family breadwinner and protector, the latter often including the control
      of female household members in the name of ‘honour’. In MENA, as in other regions of the
      world, changing social and, above all, economic conditions, often exacerbated by war and
      displacement, have made living up to these idealised expectations increasingly difficult. While
      for some men this has resulted in frustration and the urge to reassert male control that is
      seemingly under threat and stress, others adapt pragmatically to the changes (e.g. by sharing
      household chores or supporting economic activities of female household members). A third
      group of men embraces the changing gender roles wholeheartedly.’

      • Pete

        But no analysis of how ISIS and the conflicts affect people who are men, because they are men?

        I think my problem is with language. I still think a “Gender analysis” or “Gender Justice” would analyse how something affects both genders, women and men, while its meaning seems to have moved to a narrower definition of how something affects women’s rights only (not that this isn’t valuable). I’m not aware of any analysis space or language that is used to see how conflicts, capitalism, poverty or whatever affects the other half of the worlds population based on their gender.

        I’m not against a focus on women’s empowerment, but I wish that gender analysis also included a (smaller) but similar look at how issues affect men who lack power in any given situation.

          • Pete

            Reading these papers is a daunting task, I was planning to rely on your summary and translations, but I will give it a go sometime.

            I read the linked post on International Men’s Day, and there are parts that I agreed with, like “Not all men have an equal portion of power. Some have very little, if any. Patriarchy also pits groups of men against other groups of men.”, but I disagreed with his conclusion that looking at problems men face means that we are ignoring different (and possibly greater) problems faced by women. I think we need to look at both. From an outsiders perspective men seem to be in greater danger in conflicts, women are worst off in more stable scenarios. It shouldn’t be beyond us to look at both rather than having to choose just one side.

            Have you read the Amnesty International report on Syrian prisons and wondered why in 1200 words they don’t mention that all 13,000 people killed are men?