The Middle East Program was pleased to host the book launch of COVID and Gender in the Middle East. Edited by feminist and scholar Rita Stephan, this book includes a compilation of articles from MENA scholars, activists, and policy experts, and zooms into the COVID-19 pandemic in MENA and its impact on the region’s economy, security, and human rights through a gendered lens.
COVID and Gender in the Middle East examines a range of national and localized responses to gender-specific issues around COVID-19’s health impact and the economic fallout and resulting social vulnerabilities, including the magnified marginalization of Syrian refugees, the inequitable treatment of migrant workers in Bahrain, and the inadequate implementation of gender-based violence legislation in Morocco, as well as whether masculinity in MENA impacted mask wearing.
Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, a shadow pandemic emerged that significantly exposed women and girls to heightened risk social vulnerability. Shedding light on a similar phenomenon, Lina AbiRafeh referenced the “stay home, stay safe” message that millions around the world received in the wake of the pandemic. Unfortunately, this was an assumption not all women could afford to make. Maro Youssef added that women throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) became increasingly vulnerable to domestic violence as governments lacked the political will, resources, and capacity to implement critical gender-specific preventative measures and responses.
Women in MENA often faced disproportionate barriers to personal safety and wellness during the pandemic, as they are marginalized by patriarchal legal frameworks and further victimized in both private and public spheres. For this reason, the book’s editor Rita Stephan explained that she “felt responsible to deliver the voices of MENA women in an effort to uplift non-Western narratives virtually silenced by COVID-19.” Given the region largely lacks sufficient medical infrastructure to manage the pandemic, she explained it became a question of “who lives and who dies, who gets access to help, and who is not worthy of saving.” Valentine Moghadam discussed the region’s exclusionary priorities, describing the “trade-off” between extraordinarily high military spending on one hand and social spending and women’s rights on the other.
Although, AbiRafeh noted that women face such a wide variety of troubles, COVID-19 was the “least of their problems,” a sentiment expressed to her multiple times on a recent trip to Lebanon. As the vast majority of MENA women have already been conditioned to the gendered implications of conflict, their nuanced circumstances during the pandemic were mirrored consistently across various crises. Mounira Charrad detailed the book’s potential to “serve as a tool for policymakers in the region and beyond,” as its arguments and ideas are relevant across international socio-cultural and political contexts. COVID and Gender in the Middle East shows vividly how women pay the higher price in times of crisis. Whether it be the pandemic, endemic conflict, climate disaster or famine – this book sheds light on the greater vulnerability of women and girls in trying times, alongside the nature of solution-oriented responses they bring to the table.
Despite this, Charrad described the book’s preoccupation with asserting women’s agency as “powerful” and “refreshing”, as it not only acknowledges that women are working to combat gender inequities, but also how they implement change. The stories of local women, caregivers, civil society leaders, healthcare providers, and others show the ways several countries in the region already had a culture of mobilization and coalition-building among women before the pandemic, a perspective often excluded from pre-existing bodies of literature. Each chapter concludes with a set of evidence-based policy recommendations, suggesting in various ways that women should be diversely and inclusively brought to the forefront of policy change and implementation.
Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, Northeastern University
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 U.S. 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
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