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International Women’s Day 2024: The View from MENA

Today, on International Women’s Day, the Middle East Program (MEP) Middle East Women Initiative is highlighting this year’s publications on our blog, Enheduanna, which was launched five years ago on March 8. This year’s publications are focused on the theme: ‘Investing in Women,’ addressing the topics of alleviating poverty, empowering women in green and care economies, and supporting feminist change-makers. 

Today, on International Women’s Day, the Middle East Program (MEP) Middle East Women Initiative is highlighting this year’s publications on our blog, Enheduanna, which was launched five years ago on March 8. This year’s publications are focused on the theme: ‘Investing in Women,’ addressing the topics of alleviating poverty, empowering women in green and care economies, and supporting feminist change-makers.  

This International Women’s Day is grim as it marks 153 days since the onset of the Hamas-Israel War. This war has disproportionately killed innocent women and children and impacted survivors through sexual violence, starvation, and forced displacement. Meanwhile, struggles to realize women’s rights continue in various parts of the MENA region, most acutely in Afghanistan and Iran. While it may feel callous to commemorate this day amid active regional conflicts, it is nonetheless vital to underscore the hope offered by the momentous efforts taking place that are focused on a future where women have agency and are empowered—and societies are just, inclusive, and equitable—however rocky the path is. 

Shifting to a green economy & care society
Faria Nasruddin  

The global green transition is a critical inflection point not only for shifting the global economy to a more sustainable model but also for generating new industries and job opportunities. For that reason, the green transition is a great window of opportunity for increasing female labor force participation—which we know not only benefits women but national economies overall, potentially boosting country GDP by 1.2%.  

Yet, it is not enough merely to create new opportunities. The questions that remain are: How can we get women into the workforce? And what are the obstacles that inhibit them from fully participating in their national economies?  

Shifting to a care society entails accounting for the unpaid, and often unrecognized care work women undertake (of which they perform 76%), and incorporating policies and implementation frameworks that alleviate the biggest roadblocks to improving the gender gaps in the labor force.  

In MENA, this manifests in what job opportunities women consider. For instance, one study in Egypt found that women seeking a job weigh factors such as the availability of childcare, flexible working hours, and the safety of the commute. In journalist Leslie T. Chang’s latest book, “Egyptian Made: Women, Work, and the Promise of Liberation,somemanagers offer free transportation to the factories, alongside medical insurance, to draw more women into their employment.  

The green economic transformation entails a shift to ‘caring’ for the planet, or recognizing that natural resources are finite and that the current extractive model is no longer sustainable. Historically, women have been responsible for and led environmental stewardship across societies.  

Writing from Oman, Noor Al Zubair reflects on how “there is a certain sense of care and love for the environment...among Omani women throughout my life” and highlights the work of two women, Sayyida Tania and Rumaitha al-Busaidi.  

Agent of Change Fellow Eslam A. Hassanein argues that although Egypt has adopted policies and initiatives that individually address vulnerability to climate change and gender inequality in the private sector, only by mainstreaming gender in climate financing can the country ensure sustainable climate-neutrality and an equitable economy.  

Lastly, Basma Abdulrahman, founder of the entrepreneurial non-profit KESK, writes that “Iraqis get less than 12 hours of grid electricity each day.” Her NGO aims to provide a solution to the “demand for energy security and sustainability by making renewable energy technologies trustable, accessible to all, and profitable,” as well incorporate the voices of women and youth in the green conversation.   

While seemingly disparate, the shift to a green economy and care society both aim to resolve the current economic system which disproportionately harms vulnerable groups, namely women. Working toward these goals in tandem takes into consideration the resources previously taken for granted and centers people and planet as primary actors and beneficiaries. In MENA, where the green transition could create up to 10 million new jobs, the opportunity to create not only a green but an equitable economy for women is promising.  

Ending poverty  
Defne Onal  

The feminization of poverty is still a reality, especially in rural Tunisia. Women are disproportionately represented in agricultural and small trading sectors, where they often receive meager wages, perform strenuous physical labor, lack social protection to ensure decent working conditions, and have limited access to quality healthcare. Despite the critical tasks rural women perform for their communities, such as engaging in small-scale trading, their work in the agricultural sector is still seen as informal and they usually perform unpaid work on family farms or are low-paid seasonal workers. Because of their work status, they also often lack social security.  

Even though poverty declined in non-municipal regions in the 2000s, since the pandemic, poverty—and therefore unequal access to income—has worsened. While poverty in Tunisia is projected to decrease to 17.1% in 2024, there is a high probability that the vast differences among regions will remain, perpetuating rural women’s vulnerable position in Tunisian society. 

However, there are signs of progress: many rural women can now access social security and pay their contributions with a free app,‘Ahmini.’ This social enterprise has meant freedom from uncertainty for many rural women who do not have a safety net for themselves or their families.  

Future research projects should involve rural women in Tunisia and their role in food systems. If rural women in Tunisia had equal access to the labor market and income, agricultural production could increase, which would lessen food insecurity, something that, according to 2022 numbers, more than 1.5 million Tunisians faced. 

Reflecting on her long-standing engagements with rural women, Lilia Labidi, former minister for women’s affairs in Tunisia, writes that “it is not surprising that unionism is today [women’s] new strategy” and reports on grassroots programming in rural Tunisia aimed to empower women economically. 

Moving to Lebanon, Lynn Zovighian outlines a new vision for the private sector in the crisis-ridden country, where less than 10% of small and mid-size enterprises are women-owned. By introducing a “women-centered” and “ethical” private sector, Lebanon can inspire responsibility, accountability, and innovation. Meanwhile, Genevieve Jobson features the vendors at the innovative Souk El Tayeb, who are combining revived Lebanese traditions, sustainable practices, and women-led entrepreneurship.  

Supporting feminist change-makers  
Maryam Rezaeizadeh 

Women in MENA play an instrumental role in foreign policy and politics. Women from these regions have not only challenged the traditional gender norms but have also made significant strides in influencing policy decisions, peace negotiations, and diplomatic relations. Their participation is crucial in a world that significantly benefits from diverse perspectives, especially in areas fraught with conflict and are in dire need of nuanced peace and security approaches. 

In MENA, women working under challenging conditions have effectively advocated for peace, human rights, and gender equality. For instance, women's active involvement in peace processes like the Yemeni Women's Pact for Peace and Security has proven to be a game-changer, bringing about more sustainable solutions and fostering inclusive dialogues that consider the needs of all community members. 

Despite facing systemic barriers and societal challenges, women in MENA have demonstrated resilience and determination. They have broken through the glass ceilings of male-dominated foreign policy and political spheres, showcasing that their leadership and insights lead to more effective and equitable outcomes. Supporting these feminist change-makers not only honors their achievements but also reinforces the critical need for their voices and leadership in creating a more peaceful, just, and equitable world.  

Afghan-American author Sola Mahfouz reflects on the importance for every woman to have a ‘rooms of her own,’ so they can invest in their own self-education, improvement, and empowerment. 

Neslihan Çevik, Turkish sociologist with experience in the private sector, international development, and Turkish domestic politics looks at how ‘bro-culture’ is pervasive in Turkey’s entrepreneurship and technology sectors. Based on a workshop she attended with 35 female leaders in the field, she advocates for bottom-up solutions (‘hacks’) that incorporate women’s lived experience. 

Lastly, Julia Taleb, an experienced gender and development practitioner, reflects on her career path as a journalist, reflecting on how she first “belonged to herself,” and balanced self-empowerment with fostering inclusive spaces for other women.  

In conclusion, ‘investing in women’ recognizes the necessity of gender-responsive financing, adapting economies, alleviating poverty, and supporting feminist organizations as the first steps to realizing women’s rights and gender equality at all levels, from top governmental echelons to the grassroots. It is, in other words, a ‘non-reformist reform’ that takes its end-goal as structural change—in this case, democratizing power along gendered lines. 

The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not express the official position of the Wilson Center.  


Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

Middle East Women's Initiative

The Middle East Women's Initiative (MEWI) promotes the empowerment of women in the region through an open and inclusive dialogue with women leaders from the Middle East and continuous research.  Read more