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Boobs, bras, and baring it all

Image from CNN International

Lina AbiRafeh

The cold has set in here in New York. I’ve gone from t-shirt to turtleneck in minutes. While I reflect on those balmy t-shirt days, I’m reminded of the freedom I felt in the city all summer — sun on my face, arms exposed, and… no bra. It was blissful.

Everyone was braless, it seemed. Women of all ages and sizes seemed to simply no longer care about this particular garment. How liberating!

I feel like we’ve normalized the idea of boobs — they’re not a perversion, they’re not an anomaly. They are natural, they are beautiful, they are healthy in all their shapes and sizes, and it is OK to go braless.

At the same time, whenever I left the bubble that is New York City, I didn’t feel the same freedom. I found myself uncomfortable. Almost missing my bra.

And so I took the question to TikTok — I wanted to know what fellow TikTokers thought of my sense of freedom. Was it geographic? Was it just a passing summer thing? Was it about our changing norms? Or a (wonderful) post-COVID relic?

And in true TikTok fashion, the comments came in!

Size certainly was a factor, as these women had to say…

Mine are big. I need the support. But everyone should do what makes them happy and comfortable!

The gravitational pull is not working for me. I need to use a seat belt for the girls.

But society played a part as well…

I get bad attention from men.

I don’t care until I’m at work, only because I’ve had comments from male managers before.

Others simply enjoyed the freedom…

If I am wearing a shirt that won’t make it obvious I go without.

Been doing this for about a year and I’m never going back!

I love this! West coast sister here bringing up (or down) the left!

Sure, bras have a function. Forget social expectations for a second. Let’s focus on support. Some of us need a bra to avoid back pain. It turns out that most women are wearing the wrong bra size, leading to discomfort and pain, effectively undoing any work the bra is supposed to do. While there are not many scientific studies looking at this issue (another problem in itself), anecdotal evidence and expert opinion suggest this to be true.

I know some actively prefer a bra for aesthetic reasons, such as my small-boobed sisters who opt to wear bras for added boob. And added confidence. Or my big-boobed sisters who prefer to minimize. I fall into camp #2, having made feeble attempts to minimize the cargo for decades. I’ve since surrendered — we are stuck together, these boobs and I.

Anyway, cup size — actual, perceived, or desired — is a whole separate conversation.

So, decisions whether or not to bra rest on many factors — support, comfort, size, society, setting, occupation, fashion and so on.

There’s also been a major shift since the onset of COVID. Research into women’s present-day underwear preferences and habits has interesting results. We spend too much time in discomfort due to our undergarments, it seems. And more than half of women surveyed “can’t wait” to take their bras off at the end of the day. Almost half have started ditching their bras in the name of comfort.

For those who have preserved the tradition, 60% have made the switch to non-wired because — geez! — no one ever wanted wires poking into their chest! More women have committed to wearing the most comfortable pandemic bra possible — even when we are post-pandemic!

In the words of one woman:

COVID had a big impact where people didn’t leave the house as much and got used to comfort over style and then were like why would I go back to wearing something I find uncomfortable?

These findings really gave me a… lift. I had to keep poking around! And women didn’t… minimize their commentary. OK, enough boob puns. Here’s what they had to say:

I rarely wear bras myself but most people here would. I am often told I get away with it because I have smaller (no) boobs. I definitely feel self conscious sometimes in certain settings but for the most part I’m happy to go bra free regardless. Abroad I would sunbathe topless and don’t even pack bras on holidays but 100% depends on the country.

Many women agreed with this view. Young women, that is. There’s likely a generational gap here too, but that’s the subject of another blog!

“It depends on where you are,” many said. And this even varies from city to city in the same country. There are cities that are more open (or, boob-friendly) than others.

Another said:

Depends on how big your boobs are. Not in terms of acceptability but in terms of how comfortable you are going about the place and how you feel about your boobs flying about the place.

This meme was brought to mind then:

One woman added:

I do think I have to wear one, apart from the comfort I feel un-put together, lazy and like I can’t achieve anything in my day until I put one on! I think it’s fashionable with the Gen Z not to wear one, but I guess it all depends on your cup size and how confident you are. If you have a medium to generous cup size it’s more obvious and do people do it to grab attention or to shock? Or is that just what society has told us?

Another agreed with the societal expectations saying, “I think it’s acceptable but I think societally, if you don’t have as much boobs it’s kind of less in your face so you can get away with it.” And she added: “But that’s more what society says, not me.”

And another:

Definitely in summer I wouldn’t wear a bra but then when the weather gets colder I tend to because I still get the comment (from men) “Are you cold?” and I’ve even gotten “Oh the headlights are on.”

Many still opt to wear bras. “Oh god I can’t not wear a bra!” one woman said. “I only let them free at night,” added another.

“Mine are droopy now… if I run I need to wear my own bra with two sports bras over my original bra to stop them from jiggling!” But for everyone else, she said, “free the titties!”

“I would feel comfortable going bra free,” another said, “but sometimes I like how my boobs look in a bra and the confidence I get with that.”

Wearing a bra for work was pretty standard response. In the office, most of us feel “obliged to wear one to work,” even though “I don’t need the support,” one added.

“I think it probably is the done thing to wear one to work,” another woman added. Even if minimal, like a bralette.

Another woman explained that it isn’t about the boobs but about the nipples. “Certain tops I don’t wear a bra but would put on nipple covers,” she said, recognizing that this has more to do with how society views visible nipples.

Another one echoed this:

If I’m wearing a top that doesn’t work with a bra I go braless no problem but I do kinda try make sure nips are covered I guess? I know like it’s definitely some toxic masculinity shit going on.

For the younger generation, covering nipples is less of a consideration.

Definitely a bra to work but probably depends massively on your uniform/outfit and what your job entails. Outside of that each to their own. The “nips out” is all the rage now sure!

“Yeah nips out and 90s fashion is back!” another agreed.

At the end of the day, in the words of one woman “I’ve got a few things to get off my chest… like this bra!”

Why do we wear bras anyway? Society. Support. A bit of both, perhaps? The truth is that there are many good reasons not to wear a bra, including “you just don’t feel like it.” The expectation (to bra or not to bra?!) has been placed on us since the beginning of time, with the first bras appearing as early as the 14th century.

And then there was the corset. And women literally breaking their ribs to squeeze into them. The corset has an interesting history with varying viewpoints — oppressive or empowering. Impractical and often hazardous, many regard them as a symbol of repression. Others thought they celebrated femininity. Presently corsets are incorporated into fashion trends, thanks in large part to TikTok (and maybe Madonna, for us kids of the 80s out there!).

Despite their ancient origins, bras became normalized in the early 1900s, and by the 1930s they were an essential wardrobe staple. Along with evolution of the garment came evolution of our standards and expectations. In every age and stage, we have been told what our bodies are supposed to look like. And we’ve enlarged or reduced our boobs according to the norms of the day.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the most common cosmetic procedures are breast augmentation or enlargement, breast implant removals, and breast lift. Globally, too, one of the most common surgical cosmetic procedures is breast augmentation, with over 1.6 million procedures performed in 2020.

The bra is tightly… fastened to the status of women and patriarchal views of the female body. We are expected to “cover it up” — boobs, hair, whatever. To me, any forced form of covering plays a similar role. I’m not saying we should all go topless, but what I would like is for us to have more freedom around our choices. In other words, if I am not wearing a bra under my top, shouldn’t that be up to me to decide?!

I remain opposed to any attempt to forcibly cover, restrain, restrict, deny, or hide parts of our bodies that should otherwise be natural.

There’s an ongoing conversation about this. Popular campaigns like #FreeTheNipple became a rallying cry to point out hypocritical double standards where images of female breasts are censored or removed from social media sites. Meaning, women’s bodies are perceived to be indecent and sexualized, while men’s bodies are natural.

The same argument can be seen in conversations on breastfeeding in public, one of the most natural acts. The argument here is that it makes people “uncomfortable” because breasts are sexual. I don’t have words for how archaic this line of thinking is.

Anyway, there’s much more to say about boob-politics. But back to bras.

In Papua New Guinea, where I lived for many years, the word for bra is kalabas blong susu. And the translation is poetic and perfect: prison for breasts.

That’s how I feel about bras, anyway. But if you choose to wear such a “prison” — with emphasis on the word CHOICE across every single aspect of our lives — then I’d suggest doing what I probably should have done: get a really good fitting, invest in a high quality bra, and don’t pick based on aesthetics. Admittedly, I failed across these fronts, and have since all but abandoned my pretty little prisons.

More importantly, get to know your boobs. Check regularly for lumps or abnormalities. Speaking of, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We need to understand breast cancer — and fully fund its research. And we need to show support and solidarity for those affected by breast cancer — we all know too many people who have been affected. Donate here.

So, do we burn our bras?! Not necessarily. Bras might fuel our fire — or light our fire — but either way the choice is ours.

Read the full piece here.

Equality for women? Nope. Not even close.

Lina AbiRafeh

“Women in much of the world lack support for fundamental functions of a human life.”

That’s what Martha Nussbaum said in her 2000 book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.

Meanwhile, 22 years later… where are those “fundamental functions”?!

Women are still less likely to live a free and full life — and we are more vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. You’ve heard me howl about the gender gap and how it is getting worse.

And here goes yet another reality check.

Women at work still enter at lower levels, stay at lower levels, and are paid less — even if we reach higher levels. Women in politics have even more hurdles to jump through. The law still doesn’t see women as equal in too many countries — including right here in the US. Women are still expected to take on the bulk of domestic and childcare burdens. And, worst of all, women still suffer from violence that deliberately targets us — because we are women.

So, no wonder women are not able to reach their full potential — the world actively keeps us from it! Meaning our freedoms and capabilities are actively, and deliberately, constrained. This is the stuff that dictates human development. What is that, really?

Well, human development can be anything from basic stuff like access to clean water to more strategic stuff like better laws, representing different levels of empowerment. When our freedoms and capabilities are restricted, we lose out on human development. And when that happens, we fuel gender inequality. We know this to be true — and increasing — from just about every single report in recent years.

The 2020 UNDP Human Development Perspectives Report is yet another case in point. Focusing on the concept of social norms, it shows us that progress toward gender equality is slowing. In areas that are considered basic, progress towards equality is present. But not so in the so-called strategic stuff.

What does that mean?!

Basic needs are about subsistence, the stuff we need to make everyday life easier like access to water and health and so on. Strategic stuff is what we need to move towards more equitable gender roles and relations, for instance laws that protect women from violence, ensuring women have access to credit, and those types of critical things.

Strategic stuff alters gender power relations — for the better. These are about agency, power, change. Basic needs do not challenge power relations (although in the long term they may make microscopic changes — but these aren’t good enough or fast enough).

Already disadvantaged groups, like women, catch up in the basic needs and fall behind in the strategic needs. The gap widens where it really matters. The higher the power and responsibility, the wider the gap. Our basic needs are closer to being met, but our strategic needs are a long way off. Meaning progress is uneven, and the trap of the unequal distribution of power continues.

Areas such as politics, the economy, leadership, and decision making all remain vastly unequal. So, yes women can vote, but are they heads of state? Yes women have gainful employment, but are they on the CEOs and billionaires lists?! Although women’s overall employment might be close to parity in some countries, women are underrepresented in more senior positions.

The glass ceiling is more like a concrete roof.

If we want gender equality (ohhellyes FFS it’s about time!), we need the strategic stuff because that’s going to expand women’s agency and empowerment.

Gender inequality is inherently tied up in discriminatory social norms, traditional roles, and unequal power dynamics. Social norms are the values, behaviors, and attitudes held by society which in turn influence and uphold power relations between individuals, communities, and institutions. (In short, CisHet white men have power over women and marginalized folk.)

Social norms heavily influence someone’s identity — things like age, gender, ability, ethnicity, religion, and so on. We are multidimensional beings, and therefore our lives are layered. Meaning that our roles, expectations, obligations are layered too. Meaning also, that the norms and stereotypes that define our layers are, well… layered.

All this stuff determines power relations — who has it, who doesn’t, how they use it, and how they abuse it.

When these social norms and stereotypes are discriminatory, they can reinforce and perpetuate inequality and unequal power dynamics. For example, norms dictating strict expectations for masculine and feminine behavior will impact individual choice, freedom, and capability — and not in good ways. Those who share a common identity are required to abide by these ideals, even if they don’t necessarily agree with them.

If you want to belong, you’ve got to behave… or you’re out. That’s what society says, anyway.

So, norms determine the extent of our autonomy and freedom. And they also determine the price we pay if we transgress. That’s why the Gender Social Norms Index is so important — because it measures the beliefs, biases, and prejudices that are keeping us from equality. They were first introduced in the 2019 Human Development Report, inspired by the World Values Survey, global research examining how our values and beliefs impact societies over time.

The survey found 91% of men and 86% of women show at least one bias against gender equality across politics, the economy, education, intimate partner violence and women’s reproductive rights. Approximately 50% of men and women from 75 countries believe men make better political leaders than women and over 40% of those surveyed felt men made better business executives. Nearly 30% agreed it is justifiable for a man to beat his partner. Nearly 30% of men and women agreed.

Only 14% women and 10% men have NO gender social norms biases — yup, that’s all.

It comes as no surprise that women have less bias against gender equality and empowerment. But… bias is on the rise globally, despite decades of progress in women’s rights. Instances of backlash and regressive attitudes are evident — in both men and women.

But there’s good news! Norms can change! It’s just like that pesky word “culture” — it’s not static. Stop using it as an excuse to oppress.

It starts with the family — they lay the foundation for any unconscious (or entirely conscious) gender bias, meaning there is opportunity to learn and unlearn traditional attitudes. Adolescence is an arena of socialization also, especially for boys. This is where they come to understand how society defines what it means to be male or female — although I’d say that happens even earlier. But during this period, beliefs crystallize into behaviors and more rigid expectations and pressures are placed on them.

It is especially important to intercept the fixed social and cultural expectations related to masculinity that are placed on boys as they will then go on to reproduce and perpetuate the patriarchy.

Challenging these stigmas and stereotypes are difficult, especially by individuals who have the most to gain from complying with norms and the most to lose from defying norms. But it must be done — otherwise women are kept from claiming rights due to the power of social expectations.

We need to change. Universal policies help to provide a basic floor — but they aren’t enough. They specify that we all should get the same things. And yes, we should. But inequalities built from social norms and resulting in social exclusion are harder to tackle. Social exclusion actively keeps people from participating in a full rich life because of the bazillion ways we discriminate against each other.

In these cases, targeted or affirmative action policies can help — when a group has been historically disadvantaged and things won’t “equal out” on their own. When we speak about historic disadvantage, gender is one of the most prevalent. And no, it’s not progressing just fine without our help. We need to do more. And do it better. And faster.

Is there a positive in all of this? A glimmer.

There are new social movements — particularly in the online space — to raise awareness, assert independence, agitate for equality, and ultimately help shift norms. Hashtags and movements like #IWillGoOut in India and #NiUnaMenos in Latin America are good examples. #IWillGoOut is a movement asserting women’s right to public space — to safe public space. To go out at any time, anywhere, without fear. It’s a pretty radical idea considering that fear exists just about everywhere.

#NiUnaMenos — or, Not One Woman Less — advocates for bringing “our bodies, our abortions, and our desires out of hiding” — and not going back. “We will not let ourselves be burned,” they say, “because this time the fire is ours.”

This time the fire is ours.

Read full post here.

Violence Against Women in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Lifeline

Rebecca O’Keeffe

The podcast Essential Voices with Wilmer Valderrama recently released an episode called ‘Lifelines’ which discussed sexual and domestic violence and the particular effect COVID has had on this issue. The episode featured essential worker Solange Ramkissoon; actor and advocate Gabrielle Union; and gender-based violence expert Lina AbiRafeh. 

Solange Ramkissoon described her work as a sexual violence advocate with SAVE (Sexual Assault and Violence Education). As part of a sexual assault response team, they operate a hotline for survivors of sexual violence. Gabrielle Union mentioned how, as a rape survivor, she has been using and recommending these services for nearly 20 years and has never heard of them being referred to as essential – even though they are lifesaving. They are the real superheroes. 

Ramkissoon outlined the massive impact the pandemic has had for survivors in terms of juggling health, familial wellbeing, insecurity, and employment uncertainty on top of the violence they may be experiencing. But it should be noted that this issue is everywhere, everyone, all the time – COVID or not. And the statistic is really disturbing as AbiRafeh highlighted:

“One in three women and girls worldwide are going to experience some form of violence, and that’s just what we know. And that’s in the so-called normal times. So let’s bring in a COVID, or a disaster, or a war and everything that happens is going to get much worse.”

COVID has not only created new forms of abuse, but it has amplified and made existing forms of violence – intimate partner violence and sexual violence – so much worse. Women and girls are always the most vulnerable in any crisis, and that vulnerability is just magnified. 

Most notable, however, was the issue of privacy. Union added that due to COVID, some people were in the exact same space as their abusers which presented so many other obstacles, “Where do you find the space to make the call and to speak unedited and to get the help that you need? Where is that space? Where is that privacy?

People were now isolated, confined to home, and couldn’t connect like before. As a result, there was a wave of quietness for a period which was very concerning for the service providers. But we know sexual violence didn’t stop. Survival mode kicked in and getting help was not the main priority anymore.

And this happens on a macro-level too. AbiRafeh, who has worked on this issue for 25 years in over 20 countries, referred to it as the “tyranny of the urgent” meaning already scarce resources for women are reduced or redirected. These are the programs that tend to see funding stripped first and revived last. In this instance, critical resources – shelters or safe spaces, services, support, hotlines, health care – were redirected for COVID. 

But, what could be more important? AbiRafeh continued, “In all the countries I’ve been in, all around the world, you know, there’s really nothing more important than being safe and free and comfortable in your own body, in your own home, in your school, on the street, in the market, in the office, in public office.”

And that’s the thing, sexual violence – as underreported as it is – “permeates every industry, every part of society, every culture, every community”, as Union put it. It is a normalized experience and every woman has a story. All of us are victims because even “the fear of violence is a form of violence”, as AbiRafeh said.

But how many victims will it take before the problem is eradicated? AbiRafeh described it this way: “What’s your magic number right now to make a difference here? One hundred? One thousand? If there’s a number for you, and it’s going to make a difference, I assure you, we’ve got that number and more” Ultimately though, AbiRafeh insists, “even one is one too many, and that’s what we should be saying.”

So what can be done?

Understanding how pervasive it actually is and how it affects individuals, families, communities, and countries will help tackle the issue. The best predictor of peace, prosperity, and progress in a country isn’t about the government, or the economy. It’s about equality. It’s about how you treat your women because that tends to be the most marginalized parts of the community. Everybody deserves dignity, equality, respect, rights, bodily autonomy, safety and security. These are basics.

The way we deal with sexual violence is flawed on so many levels. There’s still a lot of shame around sexual violence and the utilization of services. There needs to be a societal shift where we talk about it, normalize it, and see what work needs to be done – having these conversations is the only way we’ll end it. 

But we need to start young. AbiRafeh recommended normalizing conversations around bodily autonomy and consent, having universal sex education, and seeing rights as rights for everyone:

“This has to be from the fetus to the funeral. You know, it’s your body from day zero. And we really need to see it that way. And for me, it’s not something that I’m willing to tolerate in my lifetime, and I certainly don’t want to hand this on to the next generation. I’d like us to fix it.” 

Union is adamant about using her platform to center the most marginalized people in society, and in so doing, believes it to be the most effective way to combat the issue:

“What this work does is center the needs of the most marginalized in this particular movement, talking about sexual violence, but also in all of the things that I do. That’s just how it has to go. When you sign up for me, you sign up for all the marginalized folks.”

Both Union and AbiRafeh believe listening is vital to responding to sexual violence. Don’t listen to react, don’t ask “What were you wearing?” or “What did you do?” or “Why don’t you leave?” Just listen. But you might also be a resource or a lifeline for someone so ask what it is you can do, how you can be of service, and know that there are services and support available. There is no one way to heal, but we need to support each other through it. It’s about all of us.

This problem is absolutely everywhere. But you can make a difference and it starts in your own little circle, with your own behavior – change the narrative, call out your friends. Whatever you’ve got at your disposal, in your little circle, you can make change there.  As AbiRafeh said, “Start where you stand, wherever you are.”

Listen to the podcast here.

The Economy She Deserves and the Path Forward

Photo credit of Wellesley College


The majority of us have heard of a recession before — a significant, long-term decline in economic activity. But have you heard of a “she-cession?” During the Economy She Deserves summit, author and economist C. Nicole Mason explained that she coined the term to describe the devastating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s labor force participation. Let’s take a look at what this “she-cession” really was, its impact today, and what needs to be done to correct it in the future.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the United States was hit by a recession that led to significant job losses, as well as food, housing, and healthcare crises for many Americans. Betsey Stevenson, former Chief Economist for the U.S. Department of Labor, explained during the summit that it is very rare for women to lose jobs during a recession: “1 in 4 women work in private sector education and healthcare jobs, and in every previous recession, that’s been an industry you might consider recession proof… it continues to grow during recessions.” Yet, the 2020 recession proved to be an exception. Within the first year of the pandemic, women’s labor force participation dropped to a level not seen since 1991 — for White women, this drop was around 1.5%, while for Black and Latina women the drop was close to 4.5%. For men, the effect of the pandemic on labor force participation was much less significant, thus explaining why the term “she-cession” describes the situation so aptly.

So, the big question is, why? Why were women, especially women of color, hit so hard by the pandemic?

One significant factor is that women are overrepresented in the industries that suffered the most during the pandemic. With the introduction of COVID-prevention lockdowns, the U.S. lost nearly ½ of all jobs in the leisure and hospitality sectors, which meant disproportionately large job losses for women. In addition, the sectors that were previously “recession proof,” such as education and certain types of health care, contracted significantly during the pandemic, thus worsening the economic status of women. 

But, on a larger scale, the economy is simply not built for caregiving women.

One of the key points addressed by all panelists in the Economy She Deserves summit is that millions of women with care responsibilities were forced to quit their jobs during the pandemic. Why? Because when paid care infrastructures collapsed during the pandemic, women were forced to set aside their careers and take on enormous burdens of unpaid care to provide for their families. Shauna Olney, former Chief of the Gender, Equality, and Diversity Branch of the International Labor Organization, stated that women were 4-5 times more likely to have increased care responsibilities at home beginning in 2020. The most shocking part? This is not a new trend.

In 2018, 600 million women worldwide (compared to only 40 million men) declared themselves unavailable for employment due to unpaid care responsibilities — this was before the pandemic. Such a statistic might prompt questions about why women were neglecting their careers to take care of their dependents when childcare and eldercare services existed. Well, with women (especially women of color) forming 64% of workers in the 40 lowest paying American jobs, childcare that costs an average of $216 per week and eldercare that can cost up to $290 per day is a far-fetched dream for many, especially during a worldwide pandemic. Thus, women are faced with the choice of supporting their professional journeys or their families, with virtually no pathway for attaining both. And we have seen the effects of this difficult decision.

As of April 2022, the United States seems to be emerging from the pandemic and beginning an economic recovery. According to Betsey Stevenson, 93% of jobs that were lost during the pandemic have been brought back, with 6.5 million jobs added in just the past 12 months. These statistics sound promising, and they are, but we are far from making a meaningful recovery that will not just benefit the White men of the working world, but also the women, and especially the low-wage women and women of color, who have suffered the most. In the face of a growing care crisis, Stevenson states that “…if we take a look at things like nursing care facilities and childcare jobs, we’re still missing a ton of workers in that space…” a statement which suggests that millions of women are still unable to fulfill their caregiving needs and return to their jobs.

But we are not helpless in the aftermath of the “she-cession.” There are many policies that we, as citizens, can advocate for our governments to enact, in order to build the economy women deserve. By far the most popular item on the policy wish-list of the summit panelists was universal paid family leave. The emphasis is placed on “universal” and “family” leave for two main reasons. First, although some companies do offer paid leave for the birth of a child, this leave is NOT consistent across all sectors, especially sectors where women of color dominate in low-paying jobs. Second, paid family leave is often NOT offered to fathers, thus reinforcing couple inequity and harmful gender roles surrounding women and motherhood. Panelists also called on companies to provide high-quality childcare services for their employees, so that women can return to work as quickly as possible and still manage their families’ needs. Lastly, several panelists discussed the concept of equitable flexibility, where companies allow employees (especially working parents) to set their own hours and work from home WITHOUT creating an environment where such “flexible” work is seen as less valuable or unproductive. These are just the most popular suggestions brought up during the summit; other options include raising the federal minimum wage, introducing child tax credit, increasing job benefits, and creating a domestic workers’ bill of rights. Ultimately, any one of us can research and advocate to become a better ally to the working women of our world. And in case you didn’t already realize it, this is not just a “women’s issue.” It is everyone’s issue. 

If the economy doesn’t work for women, it doesn’t truly work for anyone.

Women’s Rights Today: One Hundred Years Away

Lina AbiRafeh

You’ve heard me say before that it’s going to take us 100 years to achieve equality. ONE HUNDRED YEARS. I’m not making that up, that’s a fact.

But what does that mean — concretely? And why should we care?!

Well, for starters we know that gender equality is not only a human rights principle, but it is actually a prerequisite for peace and sustainable development. In short, it’s necessary and urgent for us to have a chance at a half-decent world — a world we’d actually enjoy living in.

Conversations about gender equality and women’s empowerment have been swimming around the global agenda for decades. And we’ve got all the right stuff on paper. However, despite global mandates — and great looking pieces of paper — many countries continue to struggle with inequality. Wait, I mean ALL countries. Because not a single country in the world has actually achieved equality. Yes.

Women and girls are still not able to fully participate in all aspects of social, economic, and political life. But what does that look like?

Head to Medium for the full piece – but here are some highlights!

In education, the gender gap can be closed in about 12 years — so that’s some good news.

In positions of power and decision-making, inequality is most visible because women are rendered virtually invisible.

In the economy, women are more likely than men to live in extreme poverty. Women’s unemployment is higher than men’s .

Research shows that women are 79% less likely to be hired if they have children. Women with children are treated worse in the workplace as they are viewed as unreliable and unprofessional. Meanwhile, men with children are treated better, because they are seen to be the “providers”. Family responsibilities give men respectability, but it makes women unemployable.

More than 2.5 billion women live in countries with discriminatory laws.

Women’s bodies and lives are also on the line — that is where inequalities are most stark, and dangerous.

One in three women and girls worldwide will experience some form of violence in their lifetime. I often tell people to picture three women they know (or include themselves as one of the three). And then pick one of those. And that probably underestimates the reality. The reality is that every single woman I know has experienced something — or at least knows the fear of this. Even the fear of violence is a form of violence.

Sexual and reproductive rights are being stripped away globally, in every single country. Yes, including right here in the US. Child marriage is far too common, happening far too often — just about everywhere. Every year 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. The COVID pandemic has made this dramatically worse — 10 million additional girls are at risk.

Women and girls have every right to be safe at home, in the streets, in the market, in the office, in public office. This is urgent, necessary, and not negotiable.

So, yes, we’re living in a world of rampant gender inequality. I am not willing to wait 100 years. Are you?!

Here’s the full piece:

The Pandemic Inside the Pandemic – How We Move Forward for Women in the Arab Region

We are in the middle of a second pandemic, a hidden pandemic. Like COVID-19, this pandemic is dire, global, and ongoing. Violence against women is the pandemic resulting from the pandemic. For many women, “stay at home” is a message that brings great risk. The tendency to “other” instances of gender-based violence was never logical, especially now. COVID-19 is a global pandemic, meaning that women everywhere are affected, some worse than others. Many women who are experiencing the worst of the COVID-19 crisis are located in the Arab world.

In the Arab region, women already experience much violence in the status quo. The prevalence of gender-based violence in the Arab world is at a high 37%, the most common forms of violence being emotional abuse, physical violence, and denial of resources. Nearly 4 out of 5 women experience emotional abuse, and more than half are subjected to physical violence and denial of resources. More than one fifth of women experience family violence in Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, and Algeria, although it is largely underreported.

Worse, women often cannot escape because of social norms and a lack of legal protection. One reason women cannot escape violence is that women fear judgement for leaving their husbands because societies in the Arab world largely do not tolerate women living alone. One third of people in North Africa believe that women providing for families financially is not acceptable which means that women are often not able to make their own money to provide for themselves or for their families, and they are often reliant on a partner for financial support. Another reason that women often cannot escape violence is the fear of leaving their children with an abusive father or family member. Many domestic violence shelters do not allow children, and now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an even more limited capacity at shelters. As of 2019, only 6 Arab countries have laws that protect against violence against women. However, these laws are not truly effective according to human rights watch.

Seeking services and support in the form of shelter and safety from a partner is difficult under normal circumstances and even more difficult in times of insecurity, including natural disasters, war, or disease. Women in the Arab world are already vulnerable to violence, and any crisis, especially the COVID-19 pandemic, worsens the situation drastically.

For the past 18 months, the restrictions due to the COVID-19 crisis have negatively impacted women’s lives. Early statistics in a range of countries show that lockdown has increased reports of intimate partner violence. And reported cases will always underestimate reality.

The pandemic has caused an increase in domestic violence, fewer legal resources and support for women, and reduced access to health and humanitarian services. Since the beginning of lockdown, women have also experienced decreased independence, exacerbated gendered access to technology, and an increase in unpaid and domestic work. Finally, women are disproportionately more vulnerable to exploitation and disease, especially women refugees and migrant workers.

For many women and girls, the message to “stay at home” is risky and being quarantined safely is a luxury. During the first month of lockdown, reported cases of violence against women rose by 100% in Lebanon, and reported domestic violence cases rose by 33% in Jordan. 62% of Syrian refugees and Jordanian women also said felt an increased risk of physical or psychological violence.

Lockdown and curfew have forced women to spend more time with abusive partners. 

Travel restrictions have prevented men from leaving the house for work, and women are not able to leave the house to communicate with others, making it easier for abusers to isolate them from friends and loved ones. Abusers may also restrict women’s access to news or other sources of information, preventing them from knowing about or accessing vital services. 

Increased financial stress may also cause men to take out the pressure on women. Women who were already experiencing violence before lockdown are the most vulnerable, as they experienced a 73% increased rate of violence during lockdown. However, even women who did not experience violence before lockdown have experienced a 12% rate of violence.

Not only has violence increased but ways to escape and condemn violence have decreased. Financial resources for women are now going toward combating the coronavirus. Police and justice systems have also deprioritized domestic violence to enforce lockdown and health measures, causing 57% of women to feel less safe in their communities and 44% of women to feel less safe in their homes.

In Lebanon, sexual harassment and blackmail has increased by a shocking 184%. Also, female genital cutting in Somalia rose by 31% during the first months of lockdown

Female genital cutting has increased because the economic downturn has caused cutters to search for more business. Men would go door to door asking to perform genital cutting on household girls.

Health, police, justice, and social services programs have been negatively impacted. During lockdown, courts were unable to receive new cases, and procedures for legal redress, custody, and alimony cases were put on hold. There has also been an increase in informal or traditional justice mechanisms, which includes community mediation or dispute resolution through family members or traditional leaders. These methods often end up returning women to the cycle of violence.

Not only have legal services been impacted but humanitarian services as well. Over 62.5 million people in the Arab region are in need of humanitarian assistance right now. Women’s access to reproductive health care and assistance for survivors have been interrupted. This is because, like legal resources, health systems and social services have been diverted to coronavirus response. In some cases, women’s shelters, safe spaces, and other sites have been converted to COVID-19 response centers. Restrictions on movement during lockdown have also made it difficult for women to meet pregnancy, labor, and postpartum needs.

Women are also disproportionately more vulnerable to exploitation and disease. While unpaid work for women has increased, paid work has decreased. Women have been engaging in insecure labor due to financial insecurity, causing them to be prone to trade sex for food rent, or supplies. A large proportion of women in the Arab world work in manufacturing and service industries, which also happened to be two of the most negatively impacted industries during the pandemic. Many women have lost their jobs and have been disproportionately affected by the economic downturn.

In quarantine centers, officials have been taking advantage of their new power by sexually and financially exploiting women. Quarantine spaces are also characterized by poor lighting, over-crowding, and lack of sex-segregated hygiene, all of which puts women at risk for violence.

Furthermore, over 74 million people in the Arab world still lack access to handwashing facilities. Because women are mainly responsible for collecting water, this means that women have to congregate at public sources to collect water, increasing their risk of exposure to the virus. This issue is especially dire for women refugees in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon whose only access to sanitation is in camps where water shortages are common.

A feminist, gender-informed response is the only way forward

Women in the Arab world have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic. We must not only repair the harm that has been inflicted on women but change the deep inequalities that led to such disproportionate suffering in the first place. We need to hold governments accountable and develop a feminist response to the virus.

Response to violence against women must be integrated into COVID-19 relief policies. COVID-19 and violence against women go hand-in-hand. Any crisis results in an increase in violence against women, so any legislation regarding COVID-19 must also address women’s issues. Women frontline responders, women leaders, women-led organizations, and youth rights groups should all be part of the design and implementation of COVID relief measures.

It is important to adapt stay-at-home policies to women’s needs and ensure that violence against women prevention is designated essential during any crisis. National and sub-national legislation is needed to ensure the continuity of GBV response services during quarantine, including implementing policies to ensure that a budget is always available for emergency response to violence.

Because many women are trapped at home, it has been hard to call for help without drawing attention. Technology-based solutions are important in adopting more inconspicuous help-signaling methods for women. Smartphone apps should include panic buttons that link directly to the location of support services and should also provide a confidential chat option or remote psychological counseling for support. Technology is also essential for secure data and evidence collection. Regular data collection on violence against women trends will help guide accurate prosecution, emergency response, and evidence-based policy that prioritizes women’s needs and reduces adverse effects in the future.

It is important to ensure that women and girls can continue distance-learning during the pandemic and future contexts of insecurity. Also, because women are largely responsible for keeping their families healthy and managing resources, information on proper pandemic response should be circulated in relevant languages, with a focus on reaching women and children.

Implementing alternative housing options and shelters that allow children will help women feel safer and more confident in escaping an abusive situation. Shelters should be prepared to accept women and their children. Domestic violence shelters should also increase their preparedness for crises by incorporating protocols and measures to protect women from pandemics.

It is also important that social organizations and governments organize campaigns directed at bystander engagement and awareness. This can be implemented by distributing posters in commercial and public spaces such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and elevators. Television, radio, internet, and social media are also helpful ways to distribute effective information about helplines and call on bystanders to recognize and speak out against domestic violence.

Arab governments should implement legal protections for female health workers to protect them from increased exposure to the virus as well as vulnerability to sexual harassment and violence. Social protection measures, including health insurance, unemployment benefits, emergency financial aid, and tax exemption measures, should be expanded to ensure support for women fleeing violence.

COVID-19 demands a swift and concerted global response to contain the virus while also protecting the most vulnerable — placing women’s safety and women’s rights at the heart of the response. For the majority of women, their challenges do not end when the crisis is resolved. For women and girls, the crisis is just beginning.

A World After Covid-19: Charting a Path for Gender Justice in the Arab Region

There was a recent, critical, event that can be useful in creating a path forward for gender equity and justice in a post-COVID world: Accelerating Gender Justice in the Arab States region: a pathway to achieving the 2030 Agenda post-COVID.

Fadia Kiwan spoke about the context of the economic crisis in Lebanon where women: were the first to be fired since men are considered the “providers of the household,” have suffered under the double burden of working from home and supporting the family and the children, and have been facing increases in violence.

WE NEED: to look at the labor laws and amend them to protect women and provide them with facilities, as well as close the gap between unequal work for men and women at home; to strengthen women’s public affairs roles, where women have weak power; support by women’s NGOs, and gender mainstreaming implementation. The contribution of women in the Agenda of 2030, should focus on social change and gender mainstreaming. We also need to engage men in gender mainstreaming and public policies.

Fatema Barkan spoke on the several challenges in Morocco as the suffering and crisis is ongoing. There have been some steps to support families and women through creating a committee to take quick decisions regarding this support. The decisions involved the private sector because one sector only should not take the fall of the results of COVID-19. It was important to support people in the informal sectors since most of these workers are women. Support cards were provided for people with a focus on women. Social media campaigns focused on supporting women in finding shelters if needed and especially those who suffered from violence. During the lockdown, we were able to develop a national plan that already existed. We developed it and were able to reach a larger number of women: 199,000 women benefited from the support programs.

Shamsa Saleh spoke on the status of the United Arab Emirates. She regards the UAE as one of the best success cases in managing the pandemic. For example, the Minister of Education managed to support women who have children attending online school by sending them paid leave from their work to support their children. Gender equality is extremely important and is included in the long-term plan of the UAE for the next 50 years. They are looking at alternative working ways, especially remote work, to make the pandemic an opportunity. In regards to political participation, there is a 50% quota for women in parliament. All companies and banks are obliged to treat both women and men equally as well. There is a new protection law: a law to protect women and girls and all family members without discrimination. There are nurseries in companies exceeding 50 employees. These are the types of efforts being made.

The UN Women Regional Director Arab States, Susanne Mikhail Eldhagen, shared preliminary research from a UN Women and partners study on Access to Justice Mechanisms for SGBV Cases of Syrian Refugee Women and at-risk population in Lebanon.

Some Findings:

There is a high prevalence of gender-based violence against Syrian Refugee Women in Lebanon, which increased during Covid-19 and the economic crisis. Women are afraid to appeal to state justice services out of fear of arrest or abuse. Even if they decide to come forward, there are limited legal protections, services, and information available.

Syrian refugee women confront social, legal, and structural barriers to the formal justice system, often turning to informal justice mechanisms. Patriarchal socio-cultural expectations expect women to endure abuse and avoid formal justice mechanism, especially in instances of family violence. Lack of legal residency, economic fragility, lack of information about rights, and dependence on perpetrators exacerbate these life threatening issues.

Male-dominated and patriarchal justice structures control women’s choices. Men make up the majority of police and judges. Male leaders with decision making power in refugee communities are men, particularly among Sheikh and Shawish communities.


-Provide proper accountability and supervision of informal justice actors, such as the sheikhs, religious judges. 

-Prioritize funding for sustainable long-term economic empowerment programming targeting refugee survivors of SGBV.

-Increase women’s representation in the justice and the legal system at the national and decentralized level (in line with WPS1325)

-Advocate for more permissive policies on legal stay for refugees, including faster and more affordable residency approval procedures. 

-Scale-up programming that engages men and boys, particularly community and religious leaders to prevent SGBV and change harmful behaviors and attitudes. 

– More female lawyers, which results in more laws focused on gender equality

The panelists gave suggestions on improvements still needed and how to move forward.

Some of which included:

– More follow-up on the work the countries are doing. For example, the database capacities of the hotlines the countries are added to should be improved. 

– Civil society and private sector need to be partners in policymaking. A culture of self-criticism needs to be a pillar in the government’s work in the Arab region. 

– Key objective: help governments achieve the sustainable development goals. 

– Help for governments to achieve Principal SDG 5, and also 4 and 16

– Codifying the international standards for justice and equality before the law

– Reviewing laws with a gender justice approach, looking at states with strong gender justice.

– Allow sexual and reproductive laws to be on the table.

Gender justice is multidimensional. No one left behind is a key principle

COVID has been both a disruptor and accelerator across all industries but has been decelerator for women’s rights, especially in the MENA region. Consequences of the pandemic have been more difficult for the MENA region and we need to address gender justice during the recovery from this pandemic. Women’s participation in the labor force has lowered, women are more susceptible to contracting COVID, and lockdowns have increased violence against women across the board. While representation and awareness are important, action is key.

How to Bring Women into Foreign Affairs & Retain Them

The discussion around the need for women to be involved in foreign affairs and foreign policy has been around as long as the institutions themselves. It has become an even more urgent crucial lens to use when we look at the economic crises facing nations around the world because of the pandemic. It brings an important question into center view: With the impact the world has been undergoing, will nations be able to lift themselves back up and truly create change and opportunity for women?

A recent panel discussion, “Gender and Geopolitics: The Role of Women in Foreign Affairs” included Eugenia Podesta (Senior Director of Economic Empowerment and Entrepreneurship at Vital Voices Global Partnership), Rachel Vogelstein (Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations), and Jenna Ben-Yehuda (President and CEO of the Truman National Security Project and the Truman Center for National Policy), and tackled the different elements of change needed to advance women’s involvement in both American foreign policy and global policy. It is not just important to create the frameworks and make the promises about including women in foreign policy; it is now critical that we demand implementation. 

We start off with Jenna Ben-Yehuda explaining why she takes issue with the common question: Why is gender equality important?

It puts the onus on women to defend equity. How could we possibly afford, in such a complex and interwoven world with so many simultaneous and complex issues, to exclude half of the world’s voices? It’s no longer defensible – it is imperative that women are at the table. There should be nothing about us without us. 

We see legal barriers to women’s economic participation – over 100 countries have such laws on the books. Structural barriers exist – girls are less likely to have access to education compared to boys, child marriage truncates girls’ ability to provide for themselves and their families, boys education being prioritized over girls is often a culturally entrenched belief. As greatly emphasized during the panel discussion, it is a necessity to recognize the current economic impact of COVID-19 and use what is staring us in the face as an opportunity to create new changes – both structural and otherwise – as we rebuild our economies. Though, this opportunity is not a given, despite the many conversations and the amount of organizing around these issues.  

What are some of the issues being brought to light about work environments and the care economy during Covid19 and the need for structural changes that would benefit women? How can we retain women in these industries?

Sometimes, like in the State Department, it’s not that a pipeline of talent doesn’t exist, but rather that the pipe leaks. Retention is an issue. There are barriers that need our attention, ones that if fixed would have drastic positive impacts for women in their work environment. For example, there needs to be child care services at work. We need to listen, first and foremost to the needs of our employees.. For example, if these flexible, telecommute strategies are working, then we need to keep them. Moving forward, organizations have to at least be able to discuss flexibility options, but not without caregiving to back it up. We need to be human centered in our solutions and changes. 

Women are working in vulnerable industries (hospitality, education, food service, retail) and women make less in every country in the world where there is data available, as compared to men. Women comprise only 39% of the labor force but account for 54% of job losses in the pandemic. The care economy runs on the work of unpaid women and these roles have increased with closures of schools and care facilities, and in the context of lockdowns. It is not a given that these issues will be dealt with, even though they are being discussed. 

Caregiving and education structures need to be treated like critical infrastructure. In our government structure, we have about 20 critical infrastructure categories. Hospitals and nuclear power plants are in there but schools are not. The need for budget strategies and other structural strategies become clear in this instance. Education and caregiving are the unsung critical infrastructures of our society and they are being underserviced.  

How can we center women of color in particular when it comes to getting people working in foreign affairs industries?

Transparency and accountability is key. You can’t just toss out a net, you have to really make an effort and do engaged outreach. Reach out to HBCUs. Employers can do a lot to change the perceptions as well: posting salary ranges, not requiring the disclosing of previous salaries – which can reinforce wage gaps. If you have a position and your application pool is not diverse, then you have to start over because you’ve done something wrong. The notion that you ‘just didn’t get anyone’ is lazy and doesn’t cut it. Employers can’t just say Black Lives Matter, they have to show how they are changing internal policies and making structural changes.

We need to think more about targeting and benchmarks. We need concrete data and structural benchmarks. Quotas are not typically viewed favorably in the US, though interestingly enough it is happy to export the use of quotas internationally and in their development work. 

We also know that in peacekeeping, a diverse workforce creates stronger outcomes. Rachel Vogelstein did research recently at CFR around peacekeeping operations. There were claims that they couldn’t ‘find qualified people’ to deploy. Yet, what they found in their research was that women were being trained, but they were not being deployed. And what does that say?

The foreign affairs field and its industries both appear to be, and are, exclusive. What are we doing to bridge the gaps and foster interest and education in these topics? There is a lack of understanding of the possibilities. It feels unreachable to people. We have to be clear about what the pathways are, and we have to be more intentional about creating more access and opportunities for others. 

Awakening is often the outcome of crisis. People have awoken to the challenges and that can set us up to make the changes we need to make moving forward. We need to make room for new structures and new innovations. Collaboration, cooperation, and flexibility should be at the center of our work moving forward.

Where Women Stand in Lebanon – Post Explosion & In an Ongoing Pandemic

Even before the current crises originating from the explosion and the pandemic, Lebanon was not doing well in terms of women’s rights and equality. In 2020, the country ranked 145th out of a total of 153 countries in overall gender disparities and 12th out of 16 Arab countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. Lebanon ranked 136th out of 153 countries in economic participation and opportunity as well as 149th out of 153 countries in political empowerment. Lebanon consistently ranked low in female participation. 

Women struggle in the workforce due to outdated stereotypes and misogynist cultures that question women’s intellect and competency. They are the first to be fired and the last to be rehired. Women often don’t join the formal economy as a result of discrimination and instead create their own informal economy by making and selling their own items. Historically, women will do whatever it takes to care for their children. Due to Covid-19 and the explosion, and the insecurity in their aftermath, many children are out of school and at home during the day leaving women to struggle to take care of their children, the house, and their professional duties. Schools gave women a chance to leave the house and do their work and now women must stay home either to help the children with online school or stay with them if their school was canceled.

In Lebanese political structures, women are severely under-represented and those that are in the system have become increasingly frustrated with the rampant corruption and sectarian power plays that have debilitated Lebanon for decades. The last government had 30% female representation with 6 women as ministers, yet they were unaware of what women needed. Recently, they refused to include sanitary pads as a subsidized product on a list of imports. What may seem like a small example is actually an indicator of a perpetuation and increase of what people call “period poverty,” a small pillar of a wide foundation built to keep women in insecurity.

As the Covid-19 pandemic progressed, many women found themselves caring for the sick at home or in the hospitals, making them more exposed to the virus. The nursing sector in Lebanon consists of 79.52% female from the Order of Nurses. These nurses face trauma from the blast. As the economy has worsened, nurses are paid less and expected to work longer hours. This gendered economic immobility prevents some young girls from gaining access to mental health resources as they have no access to an income. Between mid-March and June of 2020, over 300 calls were made to the National Emotional Support and Suicide Prevention Helpline, 50% of which were women and 16% of whom were actively contemplating suicide. Many women report feeling socially isolated and are experiencing major stress in regards to trauma, loss, family discord, relationship problems, and financial difficulties. 

During times of crisis, girls are the first to be pulled out of school and the last to return. Many girls are expected to do additional labor at home and in poorer households, girls are denied education altogether. With Covid-19 and school being canceled, children have lost a year of education and social interaction. We don’t know how the long-term effects of social isolation will impact young people, but we can anticipate that the effects will have long term ramifications and will require explicit attention. 

Violence against women increases during times of insecurity, and the pandemic is no exception. The numbers of calls received by the NGO hotlines in March 2020 was double that recorded in the same period of 2019. KAFA, which means ‘Enough’ in Arabic, reports that the number of calls that received has increased by 4.5 times between March and June of 2020 from 299 to 1371 calls. New calls increased three-fold from 75 to 236 between that time period. ABAAD, meaning dimensions in Arabic, is a Resource Centre for Gender Equality that found that domestic violence cases were up 20% since March 2020. The pandemic resulted in exacerbating pre-existing cases of intimate partner violence as well as creating new cases. For women and girls, being quarantined safely is a luxury.

LGBTQ populations, female migrant domestic workers, refugees, and other groups were already vulnerable before the pandemic. When Lebanon got rid of the US Dollar, they prevented female migrant domestic workers from sending money to their families. They also cannot leave the house as their employer’s fear that they might get Covid and, with their employers at home, they are expected to work all day. Many domestic workers are abused sexually, physically, physiologically, and economically although it has also increased drastically due to the stress from the deteriorating economic climate and health risks. Due to the financial crisis, many employers have not paid their domestic workers or have left them on the streets outside the embassy as the employers refuse to pay their repatriation fees. The Embrace and the Internal Security Forces noted that during the first six months of 2020, 15% of suicides were committed by female foreign domestic workers as compared to 17% in all of 2019.

Discrimination against refugees has been rising as the narrative of refugees “taking Lebanese jobs” has been on the rise. Many refugees do not have a choice but to keep working in order to support their families. The UNHCR was able to provide emergency cash support to nearly 200,000 additional refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey who previously did not receive financial aid yet this is still not enough to keep the increasing refugee families from living well below the poverty line. ILO surveys found that the workforce has faced major layoffs with nearly 60% of respondents reporting that they had been permanently or temporarily laid-off; the majority of respondents were refugees. They are also blamed for spreading the virus as they were unable to stay home and unable to self-isolate for a majority of the pandemic. LGBTQ populations are forced to live in situations where their identities are negated or denied without the support of their communities and other outlets.

When the crises are over, the risks will not end for women. Life will be different in Lebanon going forward as the economy, politics, health, and infrastructure will all have been impacted. We need to be productive in mitigating risks for women and in making sure they are an active part of the recovery in leadership and decision-making roles. Our job is to ensure that women’s rights organizations and feminist activist have the tools and resources they need to advocate and act on behalf of women and girls. If women are once again left out of leadership roles in the response to the pandemic, the patriarchal consolidation of power in these areas will have devastating effects on women’s rights, equality, and autonomy. Women in Lebanon are an under-utilized asset. They are an economic force, and they are the country’s social safety net. Women are the ones who know who is in need, what they need, and how to get it to them. Centering women in the response will enable the country to recover better and to better withstand future shock. A Lebanon with women in the lead is better for everyone.

Women Entrepreneurs in MENA & COVID’s Impact

A summary in part of Victoria Fibig’s article for the Wilson Center

Women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa have created strong business models and communities, but COVID has posed a significant challenge to many businesswomen in the region. This is highlighted by Victoria Fibig in her recent article for the Wilson Center discussing the effects that COVID-19 has had on women entrepreneurs in the region.  Though the COVID crisis is far from over and many women’s businesses have been severely harmed by the pandemic, the overall situation for female entrepreneurs in MENA appears relatively hopeful, as women have adapted their business models to survive the pandemic and lead the transformation of entrepreneurship in the region.

The first portion of Fibig’s article lays out the challenges many women are facing as a result of the pandemic. The worst consequences of economic and social fallout affect women, and COVID could easily set back many efforts to advance women’s rights.  In the Middle East and North Africa, approximately 700,000 women lost their jobs, the employment gap widened, and significant blows have been dealt to the future of female economic empowerment.  Fibig goes on to detail the experiences of a few specific women from countries throughout the MENA region, highlighting the diversity in women’s experiences of the pandemic and the widespread resilience of women entrepreneurs when faced with the daunting challenges COVID presents.

Fibig highlights the stories of Deema, Sireen, Randi, Ranoo, Hayfa, and Christina, female entrepreneurs from Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Tunisia, and the UAE, illustrating how each woman’s life and business was affected by the pandemic.  These women’s businesses range from online retail platforms to apps for locating construction jobs to marketing and communications firms.  Some, such as Ranoo’s app, have fared well during the pandemic, as many construction workers have registered in the app’s database since jobs are difficult to come by since the pandemic began.  Others, such as Hayfa’s communications firm and coworking space, have suffered as she is inhibited from traveling and conducting social interactions as she usually would to grow her business.  

In closing out her article, Fibig recommends that policies be created that address the current state of business operations under COVID and promote the digitization of business as well as remove the structural barriers that women in business face because of their gender. Fibig mentions that most states in the MENA region have not made efforts to support female entrepreneurs, and women do not feel as if their countries have their backs.  The business registration process is particularly difficult in the region, as there are many hidden fees, copyright issues, and currently few laws relating to the registration of online businesses. Fibig’s article does a skillful job of highlighting the structural and COVID-related constraints that women entrepreneurs face in the Middle East and North Africa, with the accounts of individual women’s experiences with their businesses during the pandemic providing faces for the information the article presents and showing readers the tangible negative effects of the pandemic operating together with ineffective state support. As Fibig presents, women entrepreneurs in the MENA region are highly dedicated and resourceful in their pursuits, but they need state support as they combat the unequal weight placed on them by the pandemic and systemic barriers to their entrepreneurial pursuits. We need to continue to call for a feminist response to the pandemic – now and in its wake where women are likely to feel its impact for decades.