It was impossible to predict how our world would change in March 2020. What began as temporary measures to assess an unusual situation swiftly turned into a global response to an unprecedented pandemic.
That’s how I started my piece for the book COVID and Gender in the Middle East that just came out. Remember COVID? Yeah, sometimes I’ve forgotten it too. I’ve forgotten that we spent two years in lockdown, our movements restricted, our faces hidden, our offices and schools closed, our lives reduced to our homes. We’ve put it behind us.
Or have we?!
In many ways, we are in the era AC — After COVID. But for whom is it over, really? And who is going to bear the brunt of this pandemic for years to come?
Yup — you guessed it. Women.
We know a few things:
- The pandemic was gendered.
- Women were impacted across every aspect of their lives — economically, politically, socially.
- Violence against women increased dramatically. And continues to increase.
- Effects of the pandemic are still playing out on women’s lives.
Take the gender gap, for instance. In the era BC — Before COVID — the gender gap was 100 years. Meaning, we’d need 100 years to achieve equality. Now, we need 132 years — an additional generation has to wait for equality, because of COVID. And it’s even wider at the regional level.
So when feminist activist scholar Rita Stephan asked me to write the Foreword for her book, I said Hell, yes! There’s still a lot to say about the impact of the pandemic on women — and a lot to say about what that impact looks like in the Middle East in particular. I’m focusing there for a second because, well, we just don’t focus there enough. There’s so much we don’t know — and this book is a start to knowing what we need to know in order to act.
In the Foreword, I explained that yes, we’re all affected by this collective crisis. But we know from global evidence that both the virus and its aftermath affect women and girls more severely. And it’s even worse for women and girls who are marginalized or discriminated against. The burden is complex — and layered.
How do I know that? Well, I spent over two decades as a humanitarian aid worker in insecure environments, supporting women to mitigate risks and access the safety and support that they desire and deserve. And I’ve seen this play out everywhere — from Afghanistan to Mali to Haiti. Women and girls suffer more — it does not matter if it is a conflict, natural disaster, or epidemic.
Or even an ordinary day.
Zooming in on the Middle East for a sec, here’s what I know: Women were vulnerable before the crisis.
And even while much of the world is AC — After COVID — what I’m seeing is that the crisis for Arab women and girls is just beginning. They already had it rough — conflict, insecurity, instability. “The pandemic is the least of our troubles,” one feminist activist told me during my last trip to Beirut. In a region where more than 79 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, that’s pretty telling.
The pandemic is an add-on to an already complicated layer-cake of challenges. To start, the region already has some of the world’s worst social indicators and widest gender gaps across every sector. And any time there is a crisis (or a pandemic!), those gaps just get wider.
Let’s use violence against women to illustrate the point, because if we’re not safe — in our bodies and lives and homes — then nothing else matters, right?! Safety is the starting point.
We know that intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence against women worldwide, and that seeking support, shelter, safety from an abusive partner is difficult even in normal contexts. During the pandemic, it was practically impossible. That’s true everywhere.
In the Arab region, women are too often stripped of rights to decide about their bodies and lives. And even in so-called “normal times,” violence against women was perpetrated with impunity. We don’t even really know how prevalent it is because we shroud it in shame and blame. Women are silenced and ostracized, services are scant, legislation fails to protect women, security does not prevent or respond to cases, and society turns a blind eye.
All around the world, we were told to stay home in order to stay safe. We saw early on how naïve this messaging was in its assumption that home is safe. Yes, sure, it should be. But for too many women, it isn’t. So, locking down and staying home meant being trapped with existing abusers. Or, even worse, creating new forms of abuse. This was its own pandemic — everywhere.
The pandemic increased women’s risk of harm while also decreasing their access to healthcare, education, and economic opportunity. Children were taken out of school — but in the Arab region too many girls never returned. They were married off younger and became mothers sooner, meaning they lost the ability to control their lives and futures. The increase in girl-child marriage was a major byproduct of the pandemic — with repercussions that will be felt for generations. What’s more, the pandemic also fueled an increase in harmful practices such as female genital mutilation. And we know what that does to girls and women — for the rest of their lives.
Even prior to the pandemic, women in the Arab region were an underutilized economic force, often relegated to the informal sector and traditionally feminized work. Riskier work increased as women struggled for survival — sex for food or rent or basic needs.
Women in the Arab region perform nearly five times as much unpaid care work as men. And that burden increased as a result of the pandemic, meaning they had to do much more work in much less time. None of that has actually changed in our so-called post-pandemic lives. In every emergency I have worked in, women are the ones who know who is in need, what they need, and how to get it to them. They are the world’s social safety net. Where is their safety net?
Add to all of this bad news the context of patriarchy, the reversal on women’s rights, the backsliding on women’s freedoms. The rights, roles, responsibilities of women in the region are under threat. All of this requires urgent renegotiation, but in the face of so much insecurity, will we be able to do it?
No doubt we need a reframe — through a feminist lens. Meaning, thinking through all aspects of our multi-dimensional lives in ways that take us where we need to be — where rights, choice, voice, opportunity, and freedom are not brought into question or undone with every disaster. Where women’s leadership is the norm, not the exception. Where every intervention takes women into account — in meaningful ways. Without women, we’re destined for failure. Or another pandemic.
If we want to build stronger countries, and more robust economies and prevent future crises, we need a feminist response. Women are not an afterthought. And feminism is not an import. It is everywhere in the Arab region. There’s ample evidence for this, too. Using the experiences of this pandemic to recommit to women’s rights isn’t just good for women — it’s good for everyone.
One thing is clear: Arab women cannot continue to be sidelined. Doing so risks their rights, equality, autonomy, and the well-being of the entire region. Their voices are strong. And they are screaming loudly. Who is listening?
The point is this: for women, COVID isn’t done. We’re feeling the effects of this at home, at school, on the streets, in office, and in public office. That is worth paying attention to. This isn’t just a conversation about an incident of the past. It’s got repercussions for today as well. And it provides a playbook for tomorrow. One day, there’s going to be another crisis — and maybe this time we’ll listen to women and the whole mess will hurt a little less.