The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is one of the most vulnerable in the world when it comes to the effects of climate change. It suffers from desertification, water scarcity, high levels of pollution, and a lack of preparedness that are only exacerbated by poor resource management, conflict, and corruption.
At the same time, the region has the largest gender gap worldwide. Women have not enjoyed equal citizenship yet and continue to be subjugated to various forms of violence. With mounting socio-economic and political crises as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, advances made towards the liberation of women and the attainment of their rights across the region are either slowing down, halting, or in some cases, even being reversed.
The challenges faced by the region cannot be overcome without taking a critical look at how our globalized socio-economic system is run. To do so, ecofeminism provides an intersectional and cross-cutting perspective which can enable activists to formulate holistic demands that can deliver a just and sustainable future in the MENA region and beyond.
The Codependency of Capitalism and Patriarchy
Patriarchal societies have existed well before capitalism. However, since its emergence, capitalism has fully embraced patriarchal structures and incorporated them within its very own foundations. Patriarchy has also leached onto capitalism to advance its dominance in a new world order that values consumerism and profit above all else.
From an ecofeminist point of view, the exploitation of women and the environment and the violence exerted against them are not biproducts of this codependent system but rather a precondition to its functionality. The hierarchies that “capitalist patriarchy” has set are used to determine the values and statuses of everything within our socio-economic system, deliberately placing money, men, and hypermasculinity at the top of the pyramid.
Exploiting Free Labor and the Bodies that Perform it
Patriarchy and capitalism joined forces to determine what is considered productive and “valuable” and what is not. The unpaid care labor performed by women is a central example of this. Estimated at 10.8 trillion US Dollars per year - according to Oxfam’s “Time to Care” report - this unpaid care labor that sustains and reproduces workers and keeps the capitalist economy’s wheel turning is yet to be recognized and valuated. The way that unpaid care work is organized not only limits the opportunities of women and contributes to their forced domesticity, but it also keeps women subjugated to the economic control of men who earn money for the labor that they perform within the capitalist system.
As a free service provided to sustain the system, unpaid care work also subsidizes the low wages of all workers, exempting the private sectors and the state from covering care costs or providing care services. It also contributes to racial oppression within the region as privileged women enter the labor market and outsource the unpaid labor that was assigned to them to women from other racial backgrounds under exploitative conditions akin to slavery.
Another integral part of capitalist patriarchy is the policing, objectification, and exploitation of women’s bodies. Whether through controlling reproductive rights or commodifying femininity, capitalist patriarchy ensures that women are not in full ownership of their own bodies and urges consumerist behaviors that serve the interests of both men and “the market”, while continuing to tailor products, services and even medications as per the needs of the bodies of men.
Women’s bodies that are unable procreate and reproduce workers or are unable to please the sexuality of men are treated viciously in many countries in the MENA region. Queer or trans women face physical and psychological violence, women with certain disabilities undergo forced sterilization, and post-menopausal or infertile women are treated with contempt and marginalization.
The sexual violence and exploitation that women and girls face in war and conflict showcases how their bodies are also used to advance militarized interests, interests that are driven by power, dominance, and control over (natural) resources. The UN states that “it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict”. Women and girls are used as weapons of war as they get raped, traded, and enslaved to humiliate and disempower the enemy’s men. Instead of getting the support needed for healing, the patriarchy stigmatizes women and girls for these horrors that they have endured.
Green vs. Masculine
The past century has had catastrophic effects on the environment. In the quest for profit accumulation and “economic growth”, natural resources are being depleted, natural habitats destructed, and the loss of biodiversity completely disregarded. There’s been a sharp increase in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters across the region and the commons have been polluted, eradicated, and privatized.
Patriarchy has played a vital role in this environmental degradation in support of capitalism through the diminution of the value of what is stereotypically perceived as feminine (i.e., compassion, gentleness, empathy, humility). While also increasing the value of what is stereotypically perceived as masculine (i.e., aggression, dominance, independence, assertiveness). In doing so, traits that are essential for connecting with nature, caring for it, and living in harmony with its diverse species were disassociated from leadership and came to be a threat to modern-day masculinity.
Despite the countless movements and campaigns that call for changing the system and increasing the use of eco-friendly practices, men – whether in leadership positions or not – are refraining from embracing the environmental movement at the rates that women are. On a macro-level, rich men in power have little to no interest in truly addressing the climate catastrophe we are facing. They still lead with capitalist patriarchal values, prioritizing socio-economic control and dominance. While on a micro-level, studies show that men are prone to stick with environmentally damaging habits. They recycle less, litter more and leave a larger carbon footprint when compared to women across the globe.
Towards Dethroning Capitalist Patriarchy
Ecofeminists have been shedding light on all these connections for decades. They have adopted the environmental cause not only because women and girls will be the most negatively affected by climate change, but because women cannot be truly liberated without the shedding of all hierarchal dynamics that view women and nature as objects to be owned, controlled, and exploited.
It is now clearer than ever that the devastation of the environment and the oppression of women are both rooted in masculinist mentality that is driven by economic and personal gain. With the acute social disparities and the increasing effects of climate change across the region, we must immediately shift our gears towards a greener economy that prioritizes wellbeing and the eradication of injustice.
But more importantly, we must call for a social awakening that dares to envisage a future that goes beyond all the hierarchies that were instilled by capitalist patriarchy and to reimagine a socio-economic order in which respect, solidarity, coexistence, and care are the cornerstones.