Exploitation wins in Fatwa and Neo-Liberalism

Kaberi Gayen's picture

This is the fourth installment of a six-part series, orignally posted at e-BangladeshThe next episode will be posted tomorrow.

Episode - Four    

Another basic difference that the women under Islamic doctrine have to suffer from is though other religious fundamentalisms are rising worldwide, women may get the shelter of secular laws of respective countries, but the lives of Muslim women are guided primarily by religious laws. Islamic legal system regulating women-related issues, the family law (al-akhwal al-syakhsyiyyah), has remained static and immutable since its codification a thousand years ago. This same law has been used as a reference on issues like gender relations, polygamy, divorce, inheritance, women’s leadership role, etc. which, unsurprisingly, reaffirms the already patriarchal attitudes of these societies. 

However the most significant feature that has distinguished Muslim fundamentalism from others is as pointed out by Helie-Lucas (2005): “It is also a transnational political movement. This makes it different from most other religious rights that also use religion for political purposes but are more geographically located. ‘Religious’ demands made in Europe and North America to give visibility and specificity to ‘Muslims’ have all been done under the control of fundamentalists with an exclusive focus on the control of women. For an example, in France, Muslim fundamentalists demanded the end of co-educational schools, a different curriculum for girls in state schools that includes a banning of sports, music, graphic arts, biology (like Christian fundamentalists in the US, they refuse Darwinism and want creationism to be taught—at least to girls!), the ‘right to veil’ for girls under age.”

 Thus Islamic fundamentalism has a global character and imposes all Muslim women of the world to be conformed to that character. So if anybody even tries to leave her/his country to enjoy the privilege of secular law in the adopted country, the fear of death in names of ‘fatwa’ runs after them. Fatwa of persecution after Salman Rushdi, Taslima Nasrin, and Nawal el-Saadawi are only a few examples.

Women in Neo-liberalism: In the era of “the triumph of invested capital” 

Pateman’s (1988) work on The Sexual Contract suggests that capitalism is virtually a form of patriarchy. A large body of feminist literature argues that capitalism and patriarchy are, at least, highly compatible if not intertwined. Hartmann (1981: 21-22) argued that there was a ‘partnership’ between the interests of capital and the interests of patriarchy in constructing modern forms of women’s subordination. Similar perspectives that capitalism and patriarchy are indissolubly intertwined come from writers engaging with poststructuralist issues of identity and difference and arguing against establishing a hierarchy of oppression. For example, Briskin (1990) argues against conceiving them as separate systems.

 For Pateman (1988: 131), the capitalist employment contract presupposes the subordination of women in the marriage contract. In her words, “The marriage contract is not like an employment contract; rather the employment contract presupposes the marriage contract. Thus the construction of the ‘worker’ presupposes that he is a man who has a woman, a (house)-wife, to take care of his daily needs.  Consequently, capitalism is reduced to form of patriarchy.

 To substantiate her argument, Pateman cites the example of the Harvester Judgement of 1907. In this judgement, Justice Higgins of the Australian industrial arbitration court “ruled in favour of a legally guaranteed minimum wage — and defined a living wage as sufficient to keep an unskilled worker, his wife and three children in reasonable comfort” (Pateman, 1988:138). In 1918, the same Justice Higgins went on to establish a female basic wage set effectively at 54% of the male breadwinner rate and warned employers not to employ cheaper female labour in “men’s jobs.” Unions subsequently succeeded in making repeated applications for jobs to be classified as “male” (Probert, 1989: 98).  Hartmann also refers to the American example of the family wage to support her argument that there was a partnership between patriarchy and capitalism.

In Pateman’s (1988: 139) view, “the history of the labour movement leaves no doubt that the insistence on a family wage was an important strategy through which men were able to exclude women from many areas of paid work and bolster the husband’s position as master in the home”.  It was necessary because the capitalist employment contract, posed a direct threat to an aspect of the marriage contract, namely who would have control over components of female labour. Was it to be the husband or the capitalist? This would have been a particularly important issue for the rural and town households in which males had controlled the female labour of “housewifery” which, as Jackson (1992: 154-155) pointed out, involved production for both exchange and household use.

However, the potential conflict of “interests” between men and capitalists over the control of female labour or the issue of the early antagonism between capitalism and patriarchy has been addressed by Walby (1990). For her, the tension between capitalism and patriarchy was largely resolved when patriarchy moved from a private to a public form, in which cheap, sex-segregated, and casual female labour could be exploited by capitalists. In Walby’s words, “The main basis of the tension between capitalism and patriarchy is over the exploitation of women’s labour. On the one hand, capitalists have interest in the recruitment and exploitation of female labour, which is cheaper than that of men because of patriarchal structures. On the other hand, there is a resistance to this by that patriarchal strategy which seeks to maintain the exploitation of women in the household… An alternative patriarchal strategy developed of allowing women into paid employment, but segregating them from men and paying them less.” (p. 185)

She sums it up, as we move from private to public labour, “women are no longer restricted to the domestic hearth but have the whole society in which to roam and be exploited” (p. 201). Walby suggests that this compromise particularly suits modem-day capitalism which requires a flexible work force (p. 199).  Sex-segregation, low female wages, and devalorisation of non-market work are examples of a basic complementarity between patriarchy and capitalism that has made patriarchy quite resistant to change (Folbre and Hartmann, 1989: 93).

Even a critic like Johnson (1996) who dismisses both the notion of Pateman’s “capitalism is virtually a form of patriarchy” and those who stress the compatibility of the two systems, agree to the fact that we currently live in a very gendered capitalist society, which is due to the fact that men of various classes, mobilised to ensure that pre-existing patriarchal conditions, continued to exist and interact with capitalist relations. She also agrees with the fact that most capitalists are male due to the pre-existing patriarchal property relations that restricted women’s ability to own wealth in their own right.  

The family wage may no longer exist but higher wages for male-dominated jobs do. In the neo-liberalism era, when maximisation of interest on invested capital is the main motto, why will a capitalist settle at all for cheap female labour, when he could have had cheap male labour as well? This question is particularly relevant when the money is freely roaming, crossing the boarders and cheap male labour is readily obtainable from developing countries? Why settle for the flexibility of casual and part-time female labour if anybody can exploit a potential army of casual, part-time male labour as well? How will female and male workers fare as capitalism requires an increasingly flexible work force? Will women tend to be marginalised in the growing part-time sector? Are we seeing, in Pateman’s (1988) terms, a renegotiation of the relationship between the patriarchal and capitalist contracts and will women still come out as second best? Will substantial sections of male trade unionists still try to negotiate an employment contract that favours male workers, or will the increased female influence in trade unions result in fairer decisions being made? How will the employers (still predominantly male) respond? Most of these questions are raised by Johnson (1996) and in my view these are the questions around which the future women’s job is hanging on.

These concerns are also manifested in the resolution of the Socialist International Women on “Women and the Globalisation of the World Economy”, held in Rome in 1997. For them, the rise of neo-liberalism and the free market philosophy which see society, both domestic and international, primarily as a market, where everyone is both a producer and a consumer, pose a direct threat to equality and social justice. Neo-liberalism increasingly threatens women’s hard won rights, particularly the right to education, to gainful employment and to health services. Neo-liberalism likewise results in the weakening of people’s democratic gains as states continue to give political concessions in the pursuit of more foreign investment.

Today globalisation is being led by a few hundred transnational corporations, which have economies larger than many national economies. Not subject to national regulation, these increasingly important transnational corporations disregard human and labour rights and the environment in their quest for higher profits. Increasingly, they are shaping global work, finance, consumption and culture. Rarely do women play any role in their decision making, but often women are their victims following the historical disadvantageous positions both in human and social capital.

In Africa, women produce around 80 per cent of the food and constitute more than half of small-scale farmers and provide about three-quarters of the workforce in food production and processing. But women still lack access to land. Without secure land ownership rights, they are unable to obtain credit and support for production.

In Algeria and in countries where there are wars, violence and extremism of many sorts, women are the primary victims of atrocities. The very heavy economic consequences lead to unacceptable levels of distress and poverty. Structural adjustment imposed on certain countries by international institutions (IMF etc), the harsh transition to an ‘unregulated’ market economy instead of a ‘social’ market economy add to their disastrous effects to the situation.

In Asia and Latin America the dominance of neo-liberal policies has led to the burgeoning of an informal sector, where flexible working practices are largely unprotected by labour and health regulations. In many developing countries, where there is an acute shortage of gainful employment opportunities, millions of women opt for migrant work, particularly in areas that make them more vulnerable to emotional, psychological, physical and sexual violence. While these women significantly help their countries’ economies, they are not only blamed for the social costs of migration but are also largely left unprotected.

Deregulation and privatisation may increase efficiency in the production of goods and services, but also increase the risk of poverty. In much of the developed world, structural unemployment affects women in particular and they constitute the majority of low-paid, temporary and part-time workers and the long-term unemployed. For women in the former centrally planned economies, the transition to market economies has had a disproportionately negative impact on them, in terms of conditions of life and of higher rate and longer-term unemployment. Institutions of the social state are now under attack in this new economic philosophy and in many countries, have been swept away by market ideology. The cutting of government subsidies and social welfare provisions has hit women the hardest, making it more difficult for them to escape poverty.                                       

To be continued

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