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Mia Arawi 08 Mar 2023

Historical Snapshot: The Hidden Role Of Women In Lebanon’s Labor Struggles

Accounts of women in Lebanon’s history are often relegated to the background, in favor of universalizing tales of the “popular” and heroic mythologies of the men in power. But women in Lebanon have played an active and prominent role in the struggles that have shaped the country today, such as this story of women’s participation in working class struggles on the eve of independence.

From 1940 to 1946, workers at Lebanon’s main tobacco consortium, Regie, had been agitating for fairer working conditions and higher pay. Women workers at Regie played an active and militant role in this struggle, coming to be known as “dare devils” and “wild women.” Regie, backed by the Ministry of Interior, Saeb Salam, cracked down on the strike, and described the women as “unruly” and “irrational” in response.

In the face of scabs, and other attempts to break the strike, the women of Regie’s Mar Mikhael depot stood strong, forming a strike committee, fighting against police crackdowns, and blocking roads and trucks with their bodies. This led to armed confrontations with the police, leaving many with permanent disabilities.

Notably, the women participating in the movement would forgo nationalist symbols, and refuse to be assimilated into the national bourgeois narratives that were emerging post-independence. Women were in contact with the unions and leftist movements and parties of the time, but often worked independently, in the form of feminist collectives. Still they had close cooperation with parties such as the Lebanese Communist Party, and eventually increased their membership within it.

Others pointed out that the combination of militant activism and domestic work, left little time for engagement in regular “politics,” and made it hard to be an active part of any party or organization. Women used to be employed semi-regularly in the Regie, ranging from 3 to 9 months, forcing them to return to their villages of origin and do the work necessary there. This experience as temporary workers, with lower compensation and rights compared to both male and full time workers, fueled the rising radicalism within their working bodies..

The result of this strike was mixed, as women were not eventually represented on the negotiating table. This meant that their demands for permanent hiring and higher wages to match those of their male counterparts were dismissed. The labor law that would come after these strikes, on 23 September 1946, would fail to include definitive support for women’s labor issues. However, this experience provided tangible learning moments for working women, and would go on to shape and influence their subsequent struggles in the following decades.

Sources & Further Reading

“Unruly” Factory Women in Lebanon