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(Re)producing Rural Life: Critical Agrarian Perspectives of Labor in the MENA

Session XI-19, sponsored by Organized under the auspices of the Jadaliyya Environment Page, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Reproductive labor is central to the functioning of global capitalism, yet is often relegated to the “gender slot.” This is especially evident in a long-standing and enduring division between feminist inquiries and Marxian analysis of labor in the Middle East. Where the latter has traditionally focused on organized labor and capitalist class formation in largely urban contexts, the former is presumed to speak for activities cast narrowly as “women’s work,” including food provisioning, child rearing, domestic work, household management, and subsistence agriculture. Some strands of Marxism have even fixated on crude, accelerationist predictions about the eventual disappearance of the peasantry and, thus, their vital forms of reproductive work. Under the banner of rural development, socialist and capitalist states alike targeted reproduction as a domain of “improvement” while squeezing reproductive labor to meet changing demands of production. The uneven aftermaths of land reform in the MENA remain deeply gendered. As agriculturalists across the region grapple with large-scale privatization and deepening ecological and health crises, they also defend their livelihoods in ways that defy a separation between reproductive and productive labor. This panel seeks to bridge the gap between political economy and feminist analysis in the MENA through the lens of agrarian reproduction, based on ethnographic research in Lebanon, Sudan, Jordan, and Iraqi Kurdistan. Bringing together feminist political economy and critical agrarian studies, each paper traces how macro-processes of agrarian change are linked to micro-level shifts in everyday reproductive activities. In doing so, the panel addresses the following questions: How is agrarian life sustained and reproduced in the MENA? What are the forms of labor – remunerated, unremunerated, gendered, informal, other-than-human – that allow rural families to derive a livelihood, partly or entirely, from agriculture in the region? What inequalities have emerged in the countryside amidst decades of welfare retrenchment and market liberalization, and how do different classes of cultivators defend their right to remain agriculturalists in ways that challenge the presumed separation between waged and unwaged labor? Finally, how can ethnographic analysis of rural reproductive labor in the MENA contribute to broader theories of the restructuring of social relations under late capitalism, particularly in our current era of ecological crisis? Taken together, the papers in this panel show how focusing on reproductive labor illuminates material changes and continuances, particularly social and environmental, across multiple scales (the body, the family and household, the village, the nation, and the region) in rural life.
  • Mapping a transregional economy through which Sudanese peasants become service migrant workers in the Middle East and accumulate debts in the process, this paper follows the life of debt among young migrant returnees in Sudan. Subsistence farmers in rural western Sudan (Kordofan), who have been dispossessed of their means of subsistence by decades of political warfare on their land, have long relied on seasonal labor migration and crop speculation to sustain their livelihood. Labor migration in particular has changed gender roles of production and debt. Women are now in charge of running the farm and of husbanding the household economy, in lieu of the absentee male household providers, who migrate to cities of the Middle East. The men migrate with the expectation of making money abroad, but with the devaluation of the regional labor economy, migrants increasingly return indebted. They also return to a debt that has been withheld during their absence from the land. The paper examines how this unfolds for Bashir who, upon returning to Kordofan after ten years in Lebanon, mortgaged his mother’s crops to pay back his debts. By indebting the family’s subsistence, the son put the families at risk, yet he also ensured their short-term resilience in an economy that validates people not by their labor-power but by their indebtability. The paper conceptualizes indebtability as a potential “credit-worthiness”, distinct from the material condition of being indebted. For peasant-migrants who labor on the fringes of a transregional economy, and who cannot survive from their land alone, indebtability has become a currency to stay relevant and valuable as economic subjects. The paper traces the migrant returnee’s debt from Sudan's present economic and political crisis following the 2019 revolution back in time, by revisiting an interregional history of expropriation of land and labor across the Red Sea. In so doing, the paper foregrounds racial capitalism as integral to a critical study of political economy in the Middle East; a region whose boundaries bend and expand when we follow the debt.
  • Olives are one of the largest crops by area in Jordan, only surpassed by barley. However, many areas that currently cultivate olives formerly cultivated wheat and other cereal crops. The US Food for Peace program (PL480) is at the center of local discussions and media coverage about the decrease in local wheat production, framing the decrease in wheat production as a loss of heritage as a result of neocolonialism. However, this telling of the story often relies on national level statistics about crops and prices and ignores larger changes in society such as the increase in family dependence on wage labor across Jordan in the mid-to-late twentieth century and its effects on agriculture and social reproduction in rural life. To fill this gap, this project asks, how do changes in wheat production (from the start of PL480 in 1954 to today) relate to broader changes in rural areas of Jordan? Today, several interested groups focus on growing and preserving native cultivars of wheat to promote food sovereignty and preserve cultural heritage. In this group, wheat cultivation is not only about producing profits, but it is also about the care and communal effort to preserve heritage. This paper seeks to put this project in historical context to carefully parse out the history of social reproductive changes that occurred alongside and in connection with the changes in wheat production. In this paper, I argue that reading wheat production as social reproductive labor highlights the communal activities associated with harvesting wheat and the role it played in society. In this light, the fall of wheat is not simply a story of declining profits, but also of changing social relations in which wheat became more trouble than it was worth at the individual and community scales, causing national-level declines in production. Furthermore, under this framework, today’s projects such as the cooperative-model of growing wheat in abandoned city plots of Amman create new social relations of production that differ from the traditional rural communal cultivation of wheat inspiring the project. This framework calls attention to wider agricultural change and changing human-environment relationships in rural Jordan over the past few generations. Furthermore, by taking a multi-sited approach that mixes archival and mixed qualitative methods in several locations across Jordan, this project pushes against the methodological nationalism of other studies about wheat and global geopolitics, resisting simplistic nationalist heritage narratives.
  • Based on eighteen months of ethnographic research among Syrian refugee-farmworkers in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, this paper traces what I call the “agrarian question of debt” from a feminist perspective. I argue that Syrian farmworkers’ loss of seasonal cross-border mobility throughout the war was a protracted crisis of reproduction, deepening their dependence upon debt-based labor arrangements, especially shāwīsh (camp headmen), who lend credit, housing, and services in exchange for agricultural work commitments. The paper analyzes how debt shaped struggles over the gendered division of labor within multi-generational Syrian families residing in shāwīsh camps. On the one hand, their mounting debts reflected a process of proletarianization, as wartime displacement pushed many women out of subsistence agriculture in Syria and into low-paid waged work as refugees in Lebanon. On the other hand, I show how struggles over divisions of labor were also tied up in the temporal pressures of debt itself, which involved constant negotiation between immediate reproductive needs and longer-term preparations for return to Syria. This paper also shows how these struggles were shaped by wartime constraints on Syrians’ mobility. For increasingly criminalized Syrian men, shāwīsh camps often became a safe place to wait out slack periods in the urban labor market, avoid the looming threat of detention by Lebanese authorities, and shield themselves from the indignity of what was often understood as “women’s work” in agriculture. Meanwhile, their female kin’s labor sustained the family’s baseline everyday survival, including absorbing the costs of men’s underemployment, through their continuous labor in the fields and in the home. In turn, unmarried women’s labor was valued as a difficult tradeoff between their long-term contribution to the household in the form of their agricultural wages and unremunerated labor, and the substantial short-term infusion of cash their family could obtain from the value of their bridewealth upon marriage. By tracing these connections between labor immobility, household debt, and (re)productive labor in the lives of Syrian refugee farmworkers, this paper brings a feminist analysis to a classic agrarian question: what causes rural indebtedness and what kinds of inequalities does debt produce? Going beyond the Marxist account of primitive accumulation, I show how agrarian debt is not only a linear process of expropriation whereby producers are divorced from their means of production and forced to sell their labor, but also a distinctly gendered, multidirectional struggle over the shifting value of reproductive labor within rural families.