The vast majority of food is grown by women. In the Global South, women are the primary producers of basic grains such as rice, wheat, and corn. Yet women – and their children – are the most likely people to suffer from hunger in the world.
In poor countries around the globe, women have increasingly been entering salaried agricultural work, producing food for export in the agribusiness sector. But women are not offered comparable pay or jobs as their male counterparts in this sector. And of course salaried work imposes a double burden since women must continue to work in non-salaried labor in order to grow food for their families. In Spain, for instance, women workers in agribiz make 30-40% less than men.
The food crisis, in other words, is also a gender crisis. More and more of the aspects of social reproduction that were once controlled by peasants – by peasant women, specifically – are being subsumed by agribiz. As this happens, control over food production is taken out of the hands of producers and submitted to the whims of global capital.
The upshot has been a global wave of de-peasantization and migration to megacities, many of which are now directly in harm’s way as a result of climate change.
Esther Vivas offers an excellent discussion of these trends, and of the resistance organized by peasant women through organizations such as La Via Campesina, in her report “Without Women There Is No Food Sovereignty.”
Also worth checking out is my colleague Fred Kaufman’s recent book Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food. As it’s title suggests, Bet the Farm explores the financialization of food, as well as linked political consequences such as the Arab Spring.
The contradictions in the global food system are set to catalyze dramatic upheavals in the not-too-distant future. Vivas and Kaufman help us understand where these crises are coming from, and how we can challenge them.
The death of Amy Winehouse this weekend is a huge tragedy, an event that now seems clearly foretold in the lyrics of songs of hers like “Back to Black” and that therefore could have and should have been prevented.
Beyond this individual tragedy, Winehouse’s death is a reminder of how difficult it is to be a young woman today even in the most affluent countries of the world.
It’s perhaps worth reminding ourselves at a moment like this of past victories in the struggle against the stereotypical representations of femininity with which Amy Winehouse grappled. And it’s also worth reminding ourselves of Poly Styrene, who died earlier this year and who challenged these stereotypes with unparalleled force.
Here’s a quotation in remembrance of Poly Styrene from the British site Chumbawamba:
For teenage girls in the late 70s and beyond, Poly Styrene made it okay. Made it okay to be a bit freaky, to not be pretty, to be defiant and cross, to stick two fingers up at the world. All those girls – Ari, Patti, Poly (plus Raincoats, Au Pairs, Poison Girls etc) made it OK not to have to be pretty feminine model types to be in bands.That was a huge thing, and it’s gone now – the women who are touted as amazing nowadays and strong and in charge of their own careers etc bloody etc (Lady Gaga, anyone?) are all feminine, glam, model-pretty, busty sexy types. And there was a time when you didn’t have to be that. Poly and her kind opened our eyes to a world beyond our immediate horizons and imagination where suddenly things seemed possible. And if you were a slightly awkward girl stuck in suburbia this was a powerful gift. It was like someone whispering in your ear that it didn’t matter, and you should have a go at stuff and not care and be brave and it’d be all right because you were cool and you were sexy and it was okay to be a bit loud and scary sometimes. Or not. Whatever. It was all fine because it was you and people like Poly Styrene had given you some sort of seal of approval. A loving doc marten boot up the arse that pushed us out into the world ready to take on all-comers.
And here’s a video of Poly Styrene performing “Oh Bondage – Up Yours!”, a fitting tribute to Amy.
Check out this great collection of images of Egyptian women involved in the uprising. It’s a really important alternative to the male-dominated images of the uprising emanating from mainstream media sources. Egyptian women are evidently taking a leading role in challenging the Mubarak regime.
This revolutionary activism on the part of women resonates with Frantz Fanon’s pioneering but problematic analysis of the transformation of gender roles during the Algerian revolution in “Algeria Unveiled” (in his book A Dying Colonialism). Fanon argued that the veil became an important symbol of resistant Algerian identity in the context of French colonial oppression. It also served as a strategic weapon since Algerian women could transport weapons and explosives to support the resistance movement underneath their veils. When necessary, women activists doffed the veil in order to appear “European” and move freely about the colonial precincts of cities such as Algiers. This experience, Fanon argued, catalyzed a radical mutation in gender roles that spelled the end of centuries of Algerian patriarchy.
As feminist analysts have since pointed out, Fanon failed to consider both the depth of patriarchy in Algeria and the limitation of the roles accorded women in revolutionary times. After the departure of the French, the institutional revolutionary party, the FLN, quickly erased women activists from historical memory as part of a reassertion of patriarchal normalcy.
It is obviously very important to watch Egypt to see the impact on gender roles of the current uprising, and to see whether Algerian history will be replayed forty years later. Circumstances may make the denouement of this revolution significantly different. Women in the Maghreb today (and in Egypt in particular) are far more educated and more engaged in the public world than they were during the revolutions of the last century. In addition, poverty has been feminized over the last twenty years or so in ways that are likely to continue to spur women to challenge the status quo, even after this revolutionary wave recedes.