Women Coping with Pandemic

This collection of essays is designed to show the bigger picture of the COVID-19 experience as endured by women living in conflict zones in the Middle East including Lebanon,Tunisia, Syria, Palestine, Turkey, Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan, Rojava, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Whereas most information that has been circulating concentrates on the sanitary social and economic consequences in the Western world, we asked ourselves at what level of priorities the pandemic lay in existences already wrecked by war and continuous hardship. When threatened on a daily basis with bombing as in Syria or in Afghanistan, one can reflect on how bad Covid is in real terms, compared to everything else going on. As we found out, the results of the pandemic and the lockdown have ultimately been far more destructive than the disease itself. It has to be stated that these essays were written in 2020 and therefore document the first onslaught of the pandemic. For many of the places described here, little has changed, except for the worse, especially India.

Because of the pandemic, Women in War has been unable to organize live meetings and conferences- apart from various Zoom participations. This is why we conceived a book of essays, co-published in France and in French by Editions l'Harmattan and ourselves, edited by Carol Mann and Atieh Zadeh: Témoignages de résilience au féminin, la pandémie de la Méditerranée à l'océan indien.The texts appear in their original language on this website.

Since early 2020, Coronavirus has been invading our lives, increasingly encroaching onto private and public space, ultimately threatening many of our civil rights. In the West, the pandemic is held to be the worst calamity imaginable, compared to Spanish flu, plague of ancient times, world wars and more. The fact of the matter is that an uncontrolled phenomenon is totally unacceptable at a time when we can instantaneously communicate across the globe and war can be waged without any human military presence.

In the West, we need to remind ourselves that most of the fatal casualties are the elderly; our health systems, though failing, are still working, and that the vast majority of the population is not (as yet homeless). Unlike any time before,we are still able communicate, be entertained, even fed and clothed via Internet. Vaccination is free for the privileged, but beyond the reach of most of the world's population.Yet deprived of shopping, parties, and incidentally of museums and cinema, we in the West feel that the most hateful of injustices has been dealt to us. Meantime, pharmaceutical companies are making fortunes out of the pandemic as are Amazon and the like.

If technology can overcome everything, what about this scourge, barbaric in its anachronism but postmodern in a sanitised West? The pandemic has damaged the image we have of ourselves as quasi-immortal and has forced us to face that which we refuse to consider, namely death. As the French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle put it in her magnificent essay entitled Eloge du Risque:

From being obvious, omnipresent, death has now become the ultimate scandal. It is an unbearably insolent taunt at our efforts of healing, of maintaining at all costs the semblance of youth, of instantly conjuring up virtual and fantasized worlds… Oh for a pill to cancel out our woes, our greed and anguish until our illusions finally fade.

This explains the massive investments in a messianic vaccine against COVID-19 and its variants that would guarantee redemption and immortality, at least or the privileged few of the planet. For it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to look beyond our comfortable borders towards The Middle East that is both close and distant, whose inhabitants fight death on a daily basis with their bare hands. And are fully aware that such vaccines will never be available to them because of their sheer expense. For the neoliberal West is not generous, Profit über alles and the rest of the world can die.

The stories presented here are authored by young local researchers in conflict regions situated from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Their plight has been largely ignored by the Western media, particularly during the first Covid-19 wave in 2020.

The pandemic may be global, but it is experienced in a radically different way in poor countries, especially those at war. A Yazidi widow languishing in a tent suffers above all from the lack of humanitarian aid caused, she is told, by the COVID-19, since NGOs are forbidden to work and distribute vitally needed food and medication. In the Iraqi desert or in Syria one is more likely to die of starvation, sheer poverty or during childbirth, since all forms of aid have been brutally cut off for the same reason, or else monopolised by warlords as in Afghanistan. This is when we realise that Covid-19 is only a tiny risk in the midst of other dramas exacerbated by arbitrary cuts from which only the rich manage to escape.

The pandemic is not over, but we wanted to document the real levels of suffering and resilience through women's personal stories that will probably disappear, swallowed up by official history and anonymous statistics. Micro-history is invaluable to understand any major event and the trouble is that personal experiences are immediately cancelled out when the status-quo returns. Women themselves somehow "forget" and ignore their tiny acts of heroism that have allowed their loved ones and themselves to survive in war and calamity, a feature which have noted in other wars I have personally witnessed as in Bosnia, Afghanistan Lebanon and R.D. Congo. Between the lines exuding anguish and pain, the omnipresence of ongoing or latent war, we get an idea of the courage, self-empowerment and perseverance of women in this struggle against disease (and not only COVID-19)and rampant death. A strong sense of injustice emerges due to the arbitrary management of the pandemic and eroding of personal rights. Easily available statistics show clearly the extent to which education, reproductive health, safety have plummeted in these countries with girls taken out of school, married off and forced to face unprecedented levels of abuse.

As we saw when we received the texts that poured in following the call for contributions, men and women do not have the same approach to the Covid-19 situation and especially the lockdown. Enforced cohabitation has strengthened traditional modes of patriarchal domination even in supposedly progressive environments, whilst exacerbating domestic violence. Women, as usual are at the forefront of care but subjected to constant criticism by men confined to the home by the quarantine, for the first time in their lives. Social regression has accentuated the dysphoric nature of interpersonal relations between the sexes more than ever before, especially as the pandemic has only strengthened authoritarian and reactionary regimes. The current pandemic is as much political and economic as it is sanitary.

Through twenty personal stories, research essays and interviews, this book looks at women's experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic in countries where war, poverty and male domination are dominant. 19 authors are female and one masculine: a Pakistani engineering graduate, Saad Sultan who, coming from an ultra-patriachal society, was able to recognize not just its systemic inequality but the true value of the women in his family, leading him to a novel feminist approach to life.

We meet women who are taking their destiny into their own hands and challenging male authority in sometimes minuscule but decisive ways. The lockdown they endure is very much like a state of siege. There are similarities and differences in their experiences from one country to another. It's not necessarily a question of history and culture, but above all one of social class and life conditions: for instance, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia are comparably devout and conservative but the women's experiences are completely different. Likewise, young female academics from Turkey and Iran face identical problems. There is no equality in front of the epidemic, COVID-19 does not affect poor and rich, young and old, women and men in the same way.

The first part of the book opens with country contributions in alphabetical order. Starting in Afghanistan, we move on to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, then to India and Iran, followed by the desperation of Yazidi women in Iraqi Kurdistan. From the plight of refugees in Lebanon, we discover the social networking campaign for women in Libya, before turning to Pakistan, Palestine, Rojava and finally Syria, Turkey and Tunisia. Women from different social backgrounds tell us about the increase in domestic violence, now a global problem, and the burning injustices. But they also tell us about their resilience, their inventive solutions to help their families and friends survive fear, constant anxiety and the constant upheaval in their daily lives.

From Afghanistan, the young researcher Shahlla Matin observes the dizzying increase in violence and the oppression of women suffering the wrath of confined men, but also shares with us her mother's relief that the pandemic has kept the family at home all day instead of exposing them to the daily attacks in Kabul! Fatma and Safiah Otain, academics, tell of their lives at home in Saudi Arabia, particularly their experience of Ramadan bereft of any festivities and prayers at big mosque, when each man has become, as Fatma says, the imam of his own home. Rachel Haddad observes the women of Dubai in their double confinement through the compulsory abaya and the quarantine, inventing virtual escape through social media.

Rutuja Deshmukh's deeply personal account of the Indian government's complete inability to deal with the sudden misery of tens of thousands of workers and domestic staff who were sent back overnight, whilst recalling memories of starvation in her own family. Today, the ongoing spread of COVID on the sub-continent is tragically coherent with Rutuja's description of the criminal unpreparedness of Modi's government when faced with such giant pandemic. Rosa Qaidi's interviews of Yazidi refugees in Iraq reveal litanies of pain and anguish that are superimposed upon the vivid memory of the genocide of 2014.

Novelist Salma Kojok takes us to Lebanon, with the story of a young servant from Abidjan who works for a cantankerous boss: her already difficult life is made even more solitary by the pandemic. Marwa Ahmad of Doshisha University in Kyoto interviewed Syrian refugees in Lebanon, whose precarious status made only more vulnerable to injustice during the pandemic, something which is the case for all refugees, including those in Libya, Rojava and Iraq. Marwa Ahmad emphasises the conciliatory strategies developed by mothers acting as mediators between irascible fathers and children, exasperated by confinement, a problem noted by many of our authors. Mizgin Hessen, herself an illiterate refugee from Rojava, laments the loss of schooling for her daughters and possibilities of income caused by the consequences of the pandemic (rather than the disease itself, which is generally invisible in most of these texts) combined with the constant threat of Turkish bombing. Unlike much of the West, sporadic or non-existent electricity in these countries is far more problematic than coronavirus. Ineffective and often non-existent online education is threatening the future of a whole generation of children, and this is made even worse by state censorship which has further curtailed internet access as in Iran.

The contribution of Libyan activists Ahlam Ben Taboon and Asma Khalifa describes their initiatives to launch a Facebook campaign, where they gave women a voice. Although the campaign was initially intended to raise awareness about COVID-19, the activists received a multitude of stories from women readers who expressed themselves as never before, highlighting both their distress and their inventiveness.

This is what we find in Palestine, described by journalist Reem Abd Ulhamid. Here we meet forthright women who set up unprecedented survival strategies for their communities. Psychologist Frida Ben Attia offers us a moving comparison between the impossibility, in Tunisia, of mourning for mothers who lose their children to drowning during clandestine crossings of the Mediterranean and those whose relatives die of the coronavirus and are buried anonymously, far away.

In countries already ravaged by war, the various forms of precariousness and injustice, especially gendered ones, are amplified by containment and the clumsily mediated fear of contagion, as we note in Maria Alabdeh's article, which addresses the deteriorating situation of women in Syria, who have been suffering continuous war and massive displacement for nearly a decade. Their survival is challenged almost daily by insecurity and a chaotic management of the pandemic.

Almost all of our authors spoke of the impossible juggling of their private and professional lives, lamenting the now permanent presence of exasperated men at home.

Bilge Duruturk in Turkey and Khadijeh Keshavarz in Iran deal with the same subject, namely the problems experienced by young university women with young children trying to pursue their research and teaching from their confined homes. In both cases, despite their education and awareness of feminist thinking, they are subject themselves to a strict patriarchal model. They experience guilt at their inability of performing all the tasks expected from them in the professional fields and especially regarding their children. These researchers note the contrast between the respect they receive at work and the total lack of recognition at home.

In the second part of the book, entitled EXILES the political refugees and exiles describe their life during the pandemic as they navigate between notions of here and elsewhere as dislocated homes. Huma Saeed lives in Italy, and the lockdown compels her to think back to her native Afghanistan. She compares it to the compulsory confinement of women under the Taliban and their heroic efforts to secretly continue their education and schooling. Remembering her own family's struggles has helped Huma achieve some form of serenity in the present lockdown in Italy.

The young painter Malak Mattar, originally from the Gaza Strip, to whom we owe the beautiful visuals of this site (as well as the cover illustration of the book), at the time of writing, lived in Istanbul, and describes herself as a double refugee, navigating between Istanbul, her difficult financial and social life under confinement, and Gaza, where she worries about her family threatened by both the bombings and the pandemic. However, in Spring 2021, she decided to go and spend Ramadan in Gaza and since then has been stuck in a frightful war and its aftermath.

Through interviews with Syrian women living in Austria, Sabine Bauer-Amin explains at length how difficult it is for these women to live in confinement "here" in Austria, where they are stigmatised and singled out as carriers of the disease, and their anxiety regarding their families "over there" in Syria, their country of origin.

Old age and isolationduring the confinement are the subject addressed by Mahdokht Karampour, who lives in Paris but is in daily contact with her septuagenarian mother in Tehran. She talks about her mother's creative loneliness, but stresses her patience and perseverance to keep her spirits up and preserve norms, including the Now Ruz party shared online. Together they have created map of her mother's confinement within her own space, a truly fascinating exercise in mapping one's life in restricted circumstances.

The book concludes with a poignant contribution by sociologist Betül Yarar from Ankara, who analyzes the concept of 'home' in the context of internal and external exile for a political dissident, and draws parallels between her experience as an activist in her home country of Turkey and her daily life in confined Germany, where she and her young son are refugees.

We wanted to give a voice to those who are inevitably silenced and invisibilized in societies ravaged by war, permanent economic crisis and this interminable pandemic, which have created truly interlocking confinements. From country to country, the experience of women at this troubled time will be remembered as a very particular sequence in their lives, somewhere between siege and a postmodern war embedded in the neo-liberal economy fought from a deep rift between rich and poor, while threatening the most deprived everywhere in the world. As in all armed conflicts, women are the ones writing the micro-history of survival carried by mothers and daughters, obsessed with the well-being of their loved ones. Of course, they suffer, but they have revealed their resilience and inventiveness in very difficult circumstances.

Yet these women are resolutely on the side of life, like Rutuja's grandmother who cut a guava into thin slices spreading them on a plate to create the illusion of abundance, or Shahlla's mother, who is relieved by the lockdown because her children are not at risk of being killed in a Taliban attack in Kabul on their way to work. We have much to learn from them during this difficult time and enough to meditate about for a long time afterwards.

NOTE: this site is open-ended, we will gladly consider any texts about women's experiences during the COVID experiences in conflict zones. Contact us at info@womeninwar.org

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