08 mars 2012

Tilling the Earth: Tales of Women’s Struggle in South Lebanon

An elderly woman harvests olives in the southern Lebanese town of al-Jebbein.
 (Photo: Hassan Bahsoun)
Published Thursday, March 8, 2012
We make for the coastal plain from Zahrani to Naqoura, where citrus and banana groves adjoin fields of vegetables and grain, in search of female farmers in South Lebanon.
We head off early, hoping to meet peasant women of the kind whose strong features and fortitude grandmothers speak of when telling tales from their childhood.
“A girl has work to do at her parents’ house from the moment she opens her eyes,” as 75-year-old Hajjeh Um Mahmoud used to reminisce. From a young age, Um Mahmoud became a surrogate mother and housewife, taking care of her siblings and managing the household in the absence of her mother, who leaves at dawn for the fields – returning at dusk to prepare food for her family before nightfall.
After a long wait, no villagers arrived, but rather a flock of women ranging in age from teenage to elderly. The younger women try to hide their features out of modesty, their faces tired and outer layers of clothing caked in dust. A man walks in front of them and leads them to their working place for the day. The foreman is Lebanese but the farm laborers are Syrian women, among thousands who followed relatives who came to work in the agricultural sector in Lebanon.
When asked about Lebanese women who farm, he asserts that they are “extinct” in this region. Agriculture now depends on foreign workers, male or female, who have lower wages and no social security. Lebanese rural women, he explains, have “quit the old ways of life and have either chosen education and jobs or become housewives.”
Women had been allowed to work in the fields when there was a need for them to do so, he says, before hiring foreign workers became the trend. More importantly, this way, a woman “is not considered a worker but as helping her family.”
We continue our tour in search of female Lebanese farmers. Things are not very different in the Abbassieh and Deir Qanoun al-Nahr plains. The “invasion” of Syrian and Palestinian workers forces us to request assistance on where we might find local labor.
Curiously, some elderly local women who used to work on the land in their youth, now – if their children can afford it – have foreign domestic workers to help in their homes too.
An old man directs us to Janata, Dibal, Bafleh, and Arzoun, small villages whose few residents specialize in the cultivation of tobacco, which is not suited to hired labor. We head for Srifa, where most women tobacco farmers are said to be found.
Tobacco-growing is founded on the backs of women in Srifa throughout all its stages. Fatima Barakat, 49, is considered one of the most productive female farmers in the area. Every season, she produces hundreds of kilograms of tobacco with the help of her husband. But that is not all. She is also a mother to six children and a housewife, with a new home she moved into three years ago.
Despite the change in lifestyles, Barakat’s life evokes those grandmothers’ tales. Since the age of eight, she used to hall kitchen utensils and clothes from her parent’s house to the water spring in order to wash them, and haul drinking water back. She used to run the house and take care of her siblings for her mother, who spent her time in the fields. She divided her time between that and her school, which she gave up after fifth grade. Her marriage at the age of 20 did not turn her into a housewife, but increased her workload. She had to divide her time between her family’s house, her husband’s, and both families’ tobacco fields.
Barakat’s body resists collapse until she guarantees the future of her children who still depend on her. Her neighbor Ilham, 56, grew up working between her family’s home and their fields until she was widowed at the age of 22. She is a mother of three. The children are now grown up and independent. But she still has to struggle to earn a living, working as a cleaner at a local school and clinics as well as tending to her crop.
When her long working days is over, Ilham gets little credit for her struggle as a woman. “Why do you do that?” she would be disapprovingly asked, implying that women used to work in the past driven by the need to assist their families. “The only suitable work then was agriculture. When there was no financial need, female farmers disappeared,” says Ilham.

Listed in CEDAW
Ilham and Fatima both complain, spontaneously, about the lack of appreciation for their struggles. But such complaints have not translated into action to form a union or cooperative to uphold their rights.
When their colleague, Alya Najdi, decided to seek recognition for the role of female farmers in Srifa by nominating one of them for a seat on the local municipal council two years ago, she was she was met with the disapproving question: “Why? Are there no men in the village?”
Among the problems faced by women tobacco growers is difficulty in obtaining production licenses. The records of growers who deliver crops to the warehouse at Srifa, show that few registered license-holders are women, and most of these are widows, orphans, or others who inherited licenses from their families. These are no mere registration documents, but enable the holders to deliver and receive payment for their crops.Yet they are mostly monopolized by men.
Female farmers are unaware that as rural women, they have rights under the 14th article of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW, given “the significant roles they play in the economic survival of their families.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
on Al-Akhbar.

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