In 2016, American historian Amy Dru Stanley asked: “Why is the emergent grand narrative of a ‘new’ history of capitalism so blind to the problem of sex difference?” Stanley noted that new histories of capitalism were transforming the study of labor, debt, wealth, and finance in American and European history, but they rarely addressed questions about women and sex, despite the important role of feminist analyses in shaping earlier generations of Marxian scholarship. Here, historians of MENA respond to Stanley’s challenge, arguing that questions of gender and sex should be central to the new history of capitalism emerging for the region.
Older histories of capitalism in the Middle East focused on peripheralization within a world economy, spatial fixes, and the politics of organized labor. A new generation of Middle East historians working on capitalism address questions of culture, ideas, and politics as more than superstructure, capable of transforming existing narratives. So far, however, this work has focused almost exclusively on the culture, ideas, and politics of men. Indeed, Omar Cheta’s comprehensive review of the historiography of capitalism in the region (2018) mentions only two works taking gender as a central category of analysis, neither of which is assessed for specific contributions regarding gender and sex.
Building on these groundbreaking works, these papers argue that considering gender and sex enriches the historical study of capitalism in the MENA region and beyond. Through archival and textual sources, the papers place the study of women, sex, and gender at the center of histories of capitalism in the modern Middle East. One paper examines how love and marriage shaped the evolution of the company form in the fin de siècle Levant. A second addresses debates about breastfeeding and pregnancy in interwar Egyptian and Lebanese women’s journals as the site of a boundary struggle between social reproduction and production and a debate over the meaning of "labor" itself. A third turns to the visual culture of advertisements in the Syrian and Lebanese women’s press to address links between aesthetics, consumption, national liberation, and the specialization of labor. A fourth moves to Egypt to examine the place of women’s activism in the history of the Egyptian labor movement. The final paper examines the gendered nature of production in the PLO’s economic program in 1970s and 80s Beirut, arguing that gender is crucial to understanding tensions between transnational revolutionary visions, capitalist conceptions of labor, and the politics of national liberation.
Alongside contemporaries elsewhere, writers in the Arabic women’s press between became transfixed between 1900 and 1939 by the problem of the female body and its newly-assigned domestic labor: pregnancy, breastfeeding, childcare, and housekeeping. Journals published by women in Cairo and Beirut framed these tasks as feminized social labor to be governed by embodied sentiment and affect and separated from both the market and the state. Even as male nationalists came to understand control of capital accumulation and the conditions of market exchange as essential to state sovereignty, theorists of childrearing and domesticity continued to insist that social and political reproduction—the generation of workers’ bodies and citizens’ minds—must be women’s unpaid work.
This paper argues that these discussions about the laboring capacity of the female body represented a “boundary struggle” between economic production and social reproduction, i.e., “the work of socializing the young, building communities, and producing and reproducing the shared meanings, affective dispositions, and horizons of value that underpin social cooperation” (Fraser 2017). Nancy Fraser and other feminist theorists have long insisted that social-reproductive activity is “absolutely necessary to the existence of waged work, the accumulation of surplus value, and the functioning of capitalism as such.” Capitalist society, then, is constituted, not merely reflected, by boundary struggles over production and social reproduction.
This paper, in turn, argues that key categories of colonial political economy—labor and value—were forged not only in the fields and the banks, but in the crucible of gendered debates about what kinds of work could be commodified and what kinds of bodies could harbor an autonomous, sovereign self. Debates about wet nursing, breastfeeding, and household chores turned on whether female bodies were capable of alienable labor, and whether the unchosen porosity of the female body threatened the ideal of self-ownership required for both the commodification of work and the institution of popular sovereignty alike. Regimes of political equality, self-governance, and self-reliance envisioned men as autonomous subjects defined by ownership of the body as a discrete and sovereign space. The feminized tasks of breastfeeding, housecleaning, and wet-nursing posited, by contrast, a view of the body as a space defined by radical interdependence and porosity vis à vis other organisms, from children to microbes.
What part do changing gender roles play in the evolution of the company form in the Middle East? Literature on the nineteenth-century corporation in the Global South provides two primary narratives. The first is characterized best by Ritu Birla’s study of the Marwaris. It suggests that companies in the Global South follow the rules of kinship and “custom” as distinct from British or Western capitalism. The second, exemplified in Timur Kuran’s work, treats the family company as the product of the hinderances of Islamic law to permit limited liability – an ideal form for capital accumulation. What both narratives share is their preservation of the same fundamental mythology: that the private domestic realm and the public limited liability company are not interrelated.
In this paper I will trace the evolution of the Levantine companies between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I will argue that not only was the company form tied up in the political economic shifts during this period, but it was also entwined with changing gender norms. Specifically, diminishing practices of extended family inhabitation, love-based marriages verses arranged unions, and growing social and sexual freedoms for women were inextricable from the rise in incorporated companies in the region and the forms that these incorporated companies took. Indeed, the limited liability company is founded on the mythology that the company is an object separate from its individual members. Yet, changing gender norms influenced not just the kin-based unincorporated entity but it impacted the limited liability one was well.
By examining the record books, private letters, court cases, and official company documents of several companies in Beirut, this paper will specifically make two interventions in the current literature on the company form. First, that the increased autonomy of women in the social realm that Elizabeth Thompson carefully outlines for post-World War I Lebanon curtailed certain women’s autonomy in the business realm. Second, these changes were not merely causes or effects of the changing company forms in Lebanon and globally, but inextricable from evolving institutions of capitalism, and yet widely treated as external to them.
During the 1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organization developed a complex of economic initiatives that were meant to form the backbone of a future Palestinian state. Working out of Beirut, the PLO’s economic arm, SAMED, built factories and workshops, exhibited their products at international fairs, and started agricultural cooperatives in Africa and the Arab world. At the height of its production in 1982, SAMED had forty-three factories in Lebanon with about five thousand employees. The rhetoric surrounding these endeavors was anchored in the language of the New Left, where the workers in SAMED’s factories were seen as revolutionary subjects and militants in their own right, contributing in their own way to the national struggle. SAMED’s declared aim was to integrate women into the Palestinian labor force as equals of men. The political education of its workers, both men and women, emphasized not only literacy, politics, technical skills, and hygiene, but also gender equality.
Despite these ideals, women were integrated unevenly into the workforce SAMED had envisioned during its years in Lebanon. Their type of labor remained gendered and was often carried out from home. The facile explanation put forward by SAMED’s cadres at the time was the “traditional“ nature of society in the camps. Rather than stop at such explanations, I argue that there were aspects to the PLO’s economic project that better explain the limits of turning women into workers. The PLO’s economic project was embedded within capitalist logics of production linked to the formation of a future state. In tandem with this, women were placed at the center of the nationalist imaginary and continued to be associated with tradition and traditional modes of production. I explain the inability to incorporate women as equal revolutionary subjects in the economic realm in terms of the tension between, on the one hand, forming revolutionary female subjects, and, on the other, women’s place in the nationalist’s imaginary and capitalist conceptions of labor. As such, gender is a crucial site for understanding the larger tension between the transnational revolutionary vision and the politics of national liberation.
In his pioneering work on the history of the labor movement in Egypt, historian Ra’uf ‘Abbas reported that he did not hear of any existence of a labor union of women workers even during peak activism of the interwar period, male unionists did not care to organize women workers, and women were not substantially present to form women-only trade unions. This assertation reflects two recurring challenges in writing labor and women histories: the lack of sources documenting working-class activism and gender biases in interpreting available sources. Both challenges have fortified the false assumption that only men participated in Egyptian labor activism, and the women’s movement ignored working-class struggles. Thus, the histories of labor, women, and capitalism have been separate terrains of inquiry.
This paper aims at examining women’s experiences in proletarianization and gendering the history of labor through tracing the origin and development of women’s labor activism in the interwar period and the Nasserist years in Egypt. It argues that gender matters to the history of labor and capitalism, and labor and class are important to understanding gender and women’s histories. We can write gender in the history of capitalism and in the labor movement by counting the emotional, social, economic, and political labors shouldered by women to sustain the labor movement and male activists. I reconceptualize industrial working-class women and labor activism by including women’s work at the factory and in the family that combined their gendered and classed positionalities.
To counter the repeated argument that patriarchal traditions kept women out of labor movements, I show how women manipulated the same gender regime to defend their labor rights and protect their male coworkers, husbands, brothers, sons, and neighbors. They stood up in the face of the police force, and when political repression forced their male relatives behind bars, they pooled their sources and shared knowledge to launch collective actions. I argue that staying at home, preparing meals for protesting or imprisoned men, and caring for children are practices that should be studied as activism to fight injustice rather than mere domestic chores. Women’s labor and support offered their families and imprisoned men provisions and love and contributed to the labor movements. Whether as factory workers or members of worker families, their multifaceted proletarian experiences as women, workers, and members in working-class families and communities informed their activism.
Due to French investment in silk factories on Mount Lebanon in the mid-late nineteenth century, the tremors of the capitalist world-system arrived in Lebanon earlier than almost anywhere else in the Arab world. As Akram Khater tracks in Inventing Home, by the time France formally colonized Lebanon and Syria under the League of Nations’ aegis, a distinctive but porous middle-class had arisen in the cities of Beirut and Damascus. Moreover, the rise of the industrial-capitalist model on the mountain instigated a process of generating sexual difference in laboring. Women became the primary pool of factory workers while men’s identities became increasingly tied to working the land. While the characteristics of this distinctively gendered division of labor transformed in the runup to French colonialism, the maturing of this middle class nevertheless maintained separate gendered expectations between what women and men were “supposed to do” in order to liberate the newly-conceived nation as France installed its colonial project, even within the diaspora. These conditions yielded an intensely generative arena for women’s magazines and periodicals, all of which dealt with the question of modernizing and what it demanded of/for women specifically.
To examine how women were beginning to define and participate in modernity with an eye to liberating the nation, this paper looks at the role of visual advertisements embedded in women’s periodicals in interwar Lebanon-Syria and its diaspora, linking the realms of aesthetics, consumption, gender, modernity, and work. It argues that if “modernizing” via participating in a capitalist system represented a form of liberation to Lebanese and Syrian women in the interwar period, then purchasing power, making desirable choices, and defining the “ideal” woman as a consumer represented a yardstick measuring one’s proximity to liberation in both the homeland and the diaspora. The kinds of commodities advertised in magazines circulated in the Arab world and Arab communities in the United States suggested what kinds of objects could signal one’s moves towards liberation—advertisements for cars, women’s fashion, and tobacco products were three of the most evocative. In subtle ways, all three represented gendered conceptions of modernity, particularly incipient shifts in the new arrangements of the family, understandings of (racialized) beauty, and the role of the family as a cosmopolitan and consumption unit. These advertisements were creating an aesthetic-cultural hegemony that proved essential in equating liberation to modernity to consumption to new models of the family and the role of women.