When Farmers Speak: A Conversation with Lama Abu Kharroub on Palestinian Women Farmers in Lebanon
It is rare to hear from them or read their stories. Whenever a seasonal incident occurs, television cameras tend to swiftly pan across their faces. And if they are given the space to speak, they are shown complaining in faint voices about problems with the crop yields. No one talks about the women farmers, whether those who are in Lebanon, in Arabic-speaking countries, and in the Global South, or those who are also refugees and day laborers. No one speaks to them so we do not know much about them. Workers of the poorest and most neglected production sector in most of the Arabic-speaking countries, and the global south more generally, are marginalized and forgotten. Their labor, which is said to feed the entire nation, does not get any attention or appreciation. In fact, farmers do not find any care, stability, or safety for doing their laborious job.
This is why the investigative research published by “The Knowledge Workshop” under the name “We want to live: experiences of Palestinian women farmers” by Lama Abu Kharroub1 is a rare and valuable opportunity to look into the conditions of Palestinian women farmers working in one of the refugee camps in Lebanon and to listen to their stories as told by them.
The investigation is based on historical research, sample statistics, and mainly testimonials of four farmers from Burj Alshamali Camp in the Tyre district in Southern Lebanon. Ra’eefa, Sabta, Hasna, and Aisha spoke frankly and at length with Lama, who also grew up in the camp to a family of farmers.
I talked to Lama about the stories she heard from farmers, and her experience in the two months spent working on this journalistic investigation. I inquired about some of the details mentioned in her article. Could the spontaneous stories of the farmers summarize years of socioeconomic studies? Did they translate feminist theories simply and directly?
This is how the interview with Lama Abukharoub – the writer of the investigation – went.
Women Farmers and the Land: Nothing Romantic Here
Lama and I shared a similar impression of – what we called – the “awareness” of women farmers. Their discourse is aware of most class, gender, and labor issues that exist in our societies along with labor relations in a patriarchal environment. This feminist awareness did not stem from written theory; it is rooted in their own lived experiences and reality. It is validated by each of their experiences of labor turned slavery, of unfair and unjustified disparities in rights and wages between men and women farmers, of the land that they farm but not live off, of a natural feminist solidarity against oppression and masculinist authoritarianism.
One of the most critical things the women farmers openly spoke about was their relationship to the land, destroying the myth of the romantic bond attributed to environmental feminist issues. In the farmers’ description of their lives and labor, there is no romance between woman and nature, or farmer and land.
“I have no relationship with the land, I don’t care. I only care about working the day to take my money” said Ra’eefa, an 88-year-old Palestinian farmer who worked in farming all her life. Her colleagues also see the land only as a source of living to support themselves and their families. One of them even considered this kind of work to be “humiliating.”
In her investigation, Lama writes that surrounding factors such as detachment from the land due to the nature of daily labor, and the injustices women farmers are subjected to, are all barriers that contradict the expectation to be in synergy with the land they are working in.
I spoke to Lama about breaking the stereotype of the romanticized relationship between women and land. She told me about a farmer to whom the land meant Palestine. “Even when the topic of land was mentioned, it was mainly about the yearning, particularly the rituals of olive harvesting where the women would cook, sing, and dance together. This means that this connection is more about the farmer’s relationship to other women and her memories of Palestine than to the land that she works in,” said Lama. She continued, “romanticizing the relationship between woman and land could have possibly worked had the farmers’ lived reality was different. Their reality uses the land to further oppress women.”
All of the farmers’ stories are riddled with oppression and injustice, whether in their relationship with the landowners, the agents, or the state – which embodies their exile. This oppression can also be found in the disparity of wages between male and female farmers, and in the lack of their basic human and labor rights.
Before the 2019 economic crisis in Lebanon, women farmers used to get between 6 and 10 thousand liras a day (4-6 US dollars at the time) compared to 20 thousand liras (12 US dollars at the time) for their male counterparts.
“Even when the woman farmer works her ass off and the man doesn't do much, they would still favor him over her. No matter what she does, she remains inferior to him”, said one of the farmers. “If you put your entire heart into your work, it still does not matter,” said another; “the men treat us as inferior just because we are women! They scream at us and boss us around.” The oldest farmer added, “the agents fear a strong woman, and they would pit others against her until she is laid-off.”
Women farmers suffer from constant anxiety as they are aware of the fragility of their situation and how easily they can be laid off. And of course, the excuses often used include the availability of cheap labor that increased with the influx of Syrian refugees, or accusing women that their labor is less than that of men.
“We work to live; we do not have any other choice. Daily laborers in particular work to survive. The detachment from the land stems from having to work. This need breaks the total solidarity among farmers in order to prioritize keeping a source of living, especially with the availability of cheap labor,” said Lama.
In addressing the farmers’ attempts to organize strikes to protest their employers’ mistreatment, Lama said, “unorganized work makes it difficult for workers to rebel against their work conditions. Women farmers have also explained the relationship with their supervisors, which is a direct individual relationship with either the landowner or the agent. If the agent is good, the women become more comfortable even with the absence of their rights. All what they are looking for is a ‘good’ employer. This is the stage we’re still operating at, reduced to slavery.”
“They treat us in this way because the land is not ours. At the end of the day, we work for them and are bound to their moods,” said a woman farmer in the investigation.
Despite all of this, the workers stand together, support each other, and do go on strikes sometimes.
“You are sick today? I will leave work and carry you on my back to take you home,” said a farmer despite knowing that by doing this she won’t get her daily wage. Another one said, “if something happens to a woman, all of us stand by her side and do not allow anyone to hurt her, especially if she’s older.” One of the women also said, “a girl was sexually harassed by an agent before, so I hit him with my slippers, and he did not say another word to her. All of us women stood up to him that day and we decided to stop working with him.”
Women farmers get no paid leave days, even for sickness or monthly periods. Additionally, some of them are sexually harassed so systematically that they have to leave their work or go work in another land with another group of workers and a new agent. The forms of feudal slavery did not change in this field; what changed is the availability of besides the tools and arsenal used to dismantle any movement of resistance or change.
A Never-Ending Nakba
“Strikingly enough, agricultural labor, which was the work of the first refugees in Burj Alshamali camp, continued with the same work conditions for daily laborers, who are regarded as the worst and cheapest labor. There are no developments in laws and no workers’ rights. Occasionally, the wage changes a bit, and only according to currency exchange rates. Ra’eefa for instance was born in Palestine; she was then displaced to Lebanon because of the Israeli occupation. She worked all her life, for more than 70 years, in the same conditions!” Lama exclaimed.
It is a continuous Nakba (catastrophe) that keeps following Palestinian refugee women. The Nakba is ongoing in the political sphere, not only as displacement but as a disastrous reality that mimicks all forms of the Nakba in the new land to which they moved and worked. Class relations and agricultural feudalism are preserved and enshrined through the law, according to the women farmers’ stories and told experiences.
This is the same unjust reality that authoritarian capitalist states try to adopt in countries with marginalized laborers. Hence, the slogan “we want to live” is a common cry from the farmers of the Global South. All of the above leads to the deformation of the relationship between the farmers and the land and their detachment from it rather than a tight relationship that would reflect positively on the surrounding natural, work, and communal environment.
Lama noticed that the farmers do not wish for their daughters to work in farming. “This work does not get passed on: everyone works hard so they do not have to do it for longer or pass it on to their children. It is for the unlucky ones who could not find other work opportunities,” said Lama.
During our conversation, Lama and I were overwhelmed with despair that intensified whenever we dug deeper into the topic or remembered something one of the four farmers said. However, as Lama pointed out, there was a glimpse of hope in that black tunnel.
“It is indeed a reality ruled by oppression but on the bright side, the women farmers are well aware of their unjust situation and abhorrent conditions. They know very well how bad their positions are, but they still resist. Attempts of strikes give us a glimpse of hope that women laborers stand together in solidarity and take collective action, even if symbolic. This “feminist awareness” that they practice every day – even if they do not necessarily call it that – reaffirms the fact that as long as there is oppression, there will always be resistance, organized or not, in all forms.”
Does that mean that we can dream of change? And how can we reach these different groups of laborers in a serious way? I asked Lama, to which she responded: “there must be a comprehensive labor movement which is difficult in Lebanon because this class is divided, and the system structurally helps in expanding the gap between workers in various sectors and workplaces. A feminist labor struggle is possible and on the long run, with hard work, it can lead to change.” What about the role of the sector’s non-governmental organizations? The writer said “it might help make the situation better for certain groups for a certain period of time. But it won’t achieve the total change we are hoping for.”
About the writer and the difficult dream of documentation
Lama was born and raised in Burj Alshamali camp, which is dominated by agricultural labor. Her father and brother both worked in farming, and most people around her in the camp do daily labor. Her socio-political awareness was first shaped in university when she read Marxist and feminist theories. She said she started relating what she was reading to where she came from, and then everything became clear and connected. She explained, “the first time I read The Communist Manifesto and heard about Marxism, it was very clear to me that I already knew this concept without knowing its name.”
So, where did the idea of the journalistic investigation with women farmers come from? And how did it go with them? Were there any difficulties in communication or opening up?
I always believed that I needed to talk about the place I come from and the people whose history is tied to mine. Coming up with the topic came from learning feminist theory and realizing how much control patriarchal systems have over our lives. My curiosity led me to speak to the women farmers – my neighbors whose complaints I used to listen to at home. I had always wanted to ask them certain questions. The fact that they already knew me made it easier and more comfortable during the interview. After publishing, they were really happy that their names were written in “history books” as one of them said, and that they wrote their own history!
Exactly! This takes us to the importance of documenting the lived experiences of women workers. There is a crucial need yet a great shortage of it, right?
The aim was to historicize the situation of women farmers in the camp although documentation in this sector is difficult and gets little attention. One of the farmers died shortly after the investigation and we were very affected by it. I thought about how I managed to tell her story before she passed away. We need to document a lot of stories other than agricultural ones too, for instance documenting the Palestinian Nakba, or the Lebanese civil war and all their other experiences as Palestinian women. The first generation that was forced out of Palestine has now aged and when they die, their stories will die with them. This is terrible for oral history. Documenting their experiences is the only thing that makes me feel that I may be doing something useful. Telling the stories of the people, your people, and also caring about them.
Were there some experiences of academic documentation that were useful to your work?
The issue here is who is doing the documentation? Documentation that stems from within a place is very different than a situation where the researcher is external to the place and the people they are interviewing. For the references, there are a lot of studies, but they are neither detailed nor specific besides the outdated statistics, in addition to the lack of documentation directly from those affected by the issue. Research and books are not enough, particularly on the topic of refugee farmers.
Where and how do we start in your opinion?
There are not many methods to achieve this. But it is important to provide opportunities like the one by “The Knowledge Workshop.” However, no one is interested in this topic, even publications and institutions that are concerned with Palestinian affairs. No one cares about documenting the experiences of marginalized groups whose voices and stories usually go unheard.
Are you going to continue this work and the documentation project in general?
I am constantly looking for platforms that would provide such opportunities and can support this kind of work.
- 1. A Palestinian journalist living in Lebanon