Women, Activism and Social Change: Stretching Boundaries (Routledge Research in Gender and Society)

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In December , hijab became the official dress code for women by presidential decree. Indecent or immoral dress and behavior contrary to public morality are criminalized in Article of the Criminal Code as well as in the Khartoum Public Order Act of These restrictions, and sometimes even the physical differences, are often stipulated in labor codes. In the Sudanese Labor Law of , there are two restrictions put on the type of work deemed appropriate for women. In addition, there are restrictions when it comes to the time of day that women can work.

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Women are prohibited from working between and Article 20 1. However, the profession can mediate this restriction: women working in administrative, technical, social, health, and professional work are exempted from the rule. This legal restriction has indeed negatively affected women working in the informal market selling food, such as kisra sorghum pancakes or tea in the streets or in public spaces, often at night SIHA ; Willemse How do working women negotiate legal constraints placing them under the guardianship of their husbands, imposing strict public dress and behavioral codes upon them, and upholding occupational segregation in the workplace?

The most recent literature has focused on the negative effects of Islamist policies on unskilled women in the informal labor market SIHA ; Willemse A prevailing belief is that working at night incites promiscuous behavior, as women are rendering direct service to men under the cloak of darkness.

Steel explores how educated, entrepreneurial women in Khartoum circumvent the public order police by operating in the informal labor market from within their own homes. I have chosen to focus on women of the upper and middle classes who have higher education, not only because there is little in the current literature about them, but also and more importantly because these women form part of an important recruitment base for Islamists. I have focused on married women with children because they are at the center of the countervailing pressures of motherhood and wage employment.

I rely on interviews with 33 married women in Khartoum during September—December and November I used three research assistants to conduct these interviews with a semi-structured interview guide with questions related to how women perceive and contend with restrictive laws family law, labor law, and popular order laws , how women gain access to the labor market, how they use their income, and how wage employment affects the power relationship within their households.

The interviews were conducted in Arabic, and recorded and transcribed by the research assistants. As a non-native speaker of Arabic, I received assistance in translating written transcripts into English. We have used head covering as a proxy for ideological outlook, including: Niqab, which in the Sudanese context is associated with Salafism, a Wahhabi approach to Islam distinct from Sudanese Islamism. Hijab either with the Sudanese traditional tobe or abaya , which the Islamists have been advocating as proper Islamic attire; and.

In fact, all the women in the sample regard the fact that women must seek the permission of husbands in order to work for pay as unjust and against Islam. Where is it stated in religion that men can deny women the right to work? One informant, aged 29, who studied to become a secretary, was denied the opportunity to work by her husband, and her family agreed to that state of affairs on her behalf and in advance when contracting the marriage:.

I have not decided to be housewife, but my husband before marriage put a condition in the marriage contract that I should not work. My family and I accepted the condition. My husband and family forced me to be a housewife. Their argument is that housework is a full-time job and my husband would provide all needed expenses. If I decide to work or go out I need his permission Interview, When I was a student I had plans to work, but marriage constrained me as my husband refuses the idea of me working.


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He thinks that the house and childcare are great responsibilities that cannot be coordinated with work outside. I tried several times, but he insists on refusing me.

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Finally, I got depressed and I gave up. I need his permission for work; I cannot force it on him Interview, While some husbands might not be opposed to the idea of women working for pay in general, the type of profession is important in making the decision whether or not to give their wives permission. While labor law prohibits women from hazardous professions, husbands are concerned that certain types of work will put their wives at risk of sexual harassment or that interaction with men at the workplace will encourage immoral behavior. In the words of one of the housewives, aged 27, who once aspired to be a TV announcer when studying media at the University of Khartoum:.

My husband does not approve of me working as a TV announcer. He does not like this work because women and girls experience harassment there; it is not a good work environment. This was a convincing argument for me and I agreed. Many people say that and it is known that it is not a good working environment for women in our society … So I did not choose to be a house wife, he refused the idea that I can work Interview, These legal restrictions have broad support among my interviewees and are not seen as discriminatory, but rather protection. However, when it comes to the fear of sexual harassment, the trend in my interview material suggests a strong class dimension.

This is likely due to the fact that the risk of sexual harassment for working women, because of gender mixing in the workplace, especially at night, is associated with unskilled female workers, particularly those in the informal labor market such as coffee and tea sellers.

Politics, Gender, and Concepts

In the context of the market, gender mixing and especially the act of rendering direct service to men is seen as inappropriate and as carrying with it an increased risk of sexual harassment. However, for these women, working in a bank alongside men and rendering service to men would not represent the same risk. A university lecturer puts it like this:.

A female secretary provides direct services to male managers, and people accept that. But when it comes to certain jobs like working in the market or as waiters or at fuel stations, people think it is unacceptable Interview, While majorities of all categories of women interviewed for this study find it unjust and discriminatory that men have the power to deny their constitutional right to work, they nonetheless embrace occupational segregation embedded within the Islamist understanding of complementarity.

In their view, keeping women from entering into certain professions is a form of protection, not discrimination.

All categories of working women interviewed except one interviewee see advantages with the male breadwinner model. The advantage of the Islamist vision of economic empowerment, the way they see it, lies in the fact that they are by law entitled to keep their wage income for themselves. Customarily, women could work only if there was an economic need for them to do so. The Islamist vision of economic empowerment, catering to its support base in the middle and upper classes, opened up a space for the increasing number of women with higher education in the country to work for self-realization, rather than doing so to address economic need.

In fact, being a working woman is presented as an Islamic ideal. A psychologist, aged 38, says:. Work develops the person and leads to progress Interview, A business woman argues:. Yes, for sure women should have equal payment with men. Nowadays, women work more than men when they work in institutions, if you go to an office you will find a woman is sitting in there, but the man is moving around, drinking coffee or chatting outside the office, so they shouldn't be given less than men Interview, While some explicitly link this ideal to religion, others present it as the social norm.

Thematic Issues

I should not give anything in return. Except for one interviewee, the working women reported that their husbands are in fact unaware of how much they earn. A pharmacist, aged 36 says:. All categories of women interviewed express that if they contribute to the household, it is their choice and not their obligation to do so. Beyond contributing to household expenses, the women interviewed reported spending their income in the following ways: Personal expenditures, typically such as mobile scratch cards and transportation costs to and from work.

If a woman does not wear nice clothes in public, it reflects badly on the husband, not on the woman. Household items that the husband regards as unnecessary, such as decorative pillows for the living room or nice clothes for the children.

On their self-realization and personal ambition. To give money to the family mother, father, or siblings. While the husband is obliged to spend on the wife, it is not his responsibility to provide for her parents. Saving for economic hardship through, for example, buying gold hard currency or land that later can be sold in times of need. Three of the ways that women interviewed for this study spend their wage income are forms of economic investments.

These are investing in higher education, gold or land, or by giving gifts to their families. Education will secure a better job with better pay, while a house can be built on the land that these women own. By giving money gifts to family they make sure that they will be well received if they have no other choice but to move back into the family home. This suggests that being in control of their income, something which is stipulated in the Muslim Family Law, can enable working women in Sudan to make economic choices independently of their husbands and thereby give them capacity for strategic forms of economic agency in their own lives.

However, even if working for pay can improve their fallback position, in the Sudanese context they have limited access to divorce. There is a clear expectation in the literature that women who earn wages have higher bargaining power in the household, including power leading to more egalitarian domestic arrangements. Many assume that women with resources will use the threat of exit from the marriage as a way to gain more power within marriage.

This finding travels across the different categories of women interviewed for this study. However, wives who contribute to their household economy in a significant way seem to have husbands who are encouraging them to work for pay. Therefore, the dynamic foreseen by scholars such as Okin and Iversen and Rosenbluth about the relationship between economic empowerment, gender bargaining, and a more egalitarian marriage does not play out among my interviewees.

Women with greater financial power are still not able to bargain for less patriarchal marriages or what Kabeer refers to as exercising transformative agency.

Theory and Methodology

In the relatively modest sample, there were only two examples where the husband would make modest contributions to domestic tasks, either by doing some cooking or helping out with the children. Typically, the women in my sample have fought for the permission to work against the wishes of their husbands, and are adamant not to give their husbands any reason to doubt that they can perform their domestic tasks even if they also work for pay. A lecturer, aged 40 and married with three children, says:.

I faced and still face a lot of pressure from my husband about my work. When I married him I was working and he offered me to stay home …, but I refused that offer which caused a lot of arguments between us, and he was so adamant that I should stay home. Interview, The private sphere is also where women display their feminine identity through doing housework and looking after the family, which again is considered their primary role.

It is only after this primary role has been successfully performed that women can work for pay. It seems that the Sudanese legal framework is contradictory in granting women the equal right to work in the Constitution, yet also granting husbands with the authority to veto their opportunity to work in the Muslim Family Law of Using data from the World Bank's Women, Business, and the Law datasets from and , Htun, Jensenius, and Nunez in this Special Issue find that restrictions on women's agency in family law serve as by far the strongest predictor of female labor force participation when compared to discrimination in wage work and parental leave.

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Interestingly, women of different political—ideological standpoint interviewed for this study see constraints as well as advantages within the Muslim Family Law, under which a husband can legally divorce talaq his wife outside the court without stating any reason, women have unequal inheritance rights, and a separate matrimonial property regime. It is important to note that my sample of interviews is small and from a specific and privileged class position in Khartoum. Only 28 percent of Sudanese women have entered the formal labor force, and only a minority is from a privileged class position where there is economic room for women to spend their income in ways other than boosting the household economy.

Even a restrictive legal framework can enable working women in Sudan to make independent economic choices and thereby give them capacity for strategic forms of agency in their own lives. Women living in contexts that many would call restrictive or oppressive see advantages of the status quo. However, it has created some economic independence from the husbands and has created a sense of accomplishment and self-realization among women in certain demographic groups. Ironically, by giving elite women some limited freedoms, the Islamist government may have helped dilute their opposition and bought some time for the stability of the regime.

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