In a recent study, I found that, contra to expectations, women’s capacities to organize in the public sector of Misr Weaving and Spinning Company of Mahalla (an industrial city north of Cairo) were enhanced much more in the strike wave of the 2000s than the previous wave of strikes in 1980s. Women workers initiated the strikes, mobilized other workers to join, and took leadership positions. This happened in spite of the fact that the company had become more gender segregated and the factory regime remained very despotic. By the 2000s, all 5000 women in the company (out of the total of 24,000) were segregated in clothing departments. How did women workers in despotic and segregated departments play leading roles in the strikes?
I show that changes in the textile industry and the reorganization of work gave women structural power that they utilized by developing working-class consciousness to fight for their rights as workers. As the exports of clothing grew from the 1990s and as women were segregated in those departments, they were empowered because they understood the importance of their departments to the company. These changes led to solidarities that cut across gender lines.
Women’s Leading Roles in Mahalla
At the outset of the first strike in 2006, women workers famously chanted, “Here are the Women! Where are the men?” This chant sealed Mahalla women workers’ reputation for activism and bravery across Egypt. Throughout the 2006-2008 strike wave, women in large numbers organized their departments, took leadership positions, and encouraged male workers to join.
This is contrasted with their meager role in the 1980s strike wave – a time, somewhat counterintuitively, when the company had less gender segregation. In the protests of the 1980s, male labor activists demanded the transfer of women workers from traditionally “male” sectors. But in the 2000s they supported women organizing and leadership.
It is notable that the strikes that started in the company in 2006 led to an unprecedented wave of labor unrest in Egypt. They culminated in the 2008 mini-uprising in Mahalla city when workers and residents tore down Mubarak posters in the main square of the city for the first time in a rehearsal of the Egyptian uprising of 2011. Women workers in Mahalla led the struggle that built up to the Egyptian uprising of 2011.
Neoliberal Restructuring and Women’s Capacity
Scholars have shown that neoliberal transformations and the relocation of export-led industries to the Global South has increased exploitative working conditions for women who are hired by firms as cheap and “docile” labor.
Indeed, as neoliberalism spurs on job insecurity and weakens labor rights, we expect women workers to be especially vulnerable as employers are able to cut costs and alienate women from male workers who want to maintain their privileged positions. Despite this structural disadvantage, women have mobilized in these export-led industries.
While some scholars argue that gender practices and factors external to the labor process, such as labor market opportunities and women’s communal background (for example, whether married or single), shape shop floor politics, my research shows that industrial characteristics and reorganization of work impact women’s capacities to mobilize exactly because it could empower them vis-à-vis their employers. Thus, though neoliberalism has generally led to a decline in workers’ structural power, women workers under certain conditions could still gain leverage from withdrawing their labor power.
Since the 1990s and the adoption of structural adjustments, the Egyptian textile industry has been transformed. While the ratio of clothing to textile exports in the 1980s was 1%, it became 86% in 2006. In addition, women’s share of the textile sector in Egypt doubled between 1998 and 2006 from 15% to 30%, and women comprised the majority of workers in clothing.
To take advantage of cheap and “docile” female labor, employers in Mahalla had by the 2000s also segregated the majority of female workers in the clothing departments. But while some machines in the traditionally male-dominated textile and spinning departments were standing idle, the export of clothing was rising. Clothing was now one of the most productive departments in the company.
Structural Empowerment and Cross-Gender Solidarity
These industrial transformations led to unintended consequences that empowered women workers in three ways. First, relative to the 1980s, women were now aware of the value of their export sectors. Second, by the 2000s, women occupied all the production positions in the company and worked on the skilled machines, gaining workplace status. Higher workplace status also meant higher capacities to organize. Third, working in the segregated departments, meant that women could take advantage of close networks and a shared identity that has been found crucial for organizing, especially among marginalized groups, such as women. Women also did not have to compete with male workers, and could, thus, more easily develop leadership positions.
Despite dominant traditional gender norms in Mahalla, men threw their support behind female-led organizing. The same structural changes that empowered women pushed men to come to grips with the growing importance of the clothing sector. Men were keen on encouraging women to participate, join meetings with employers, and speak to the media. They understood that the success of the strike depended on women’s participation in the clothing departments.
Capitalist restructuring provides important insight into the enhanced collective agency among women workers. In fighting for their rights, women were able to take advantage of their structural power and, as a result, developed working-class consciousness. Though employers engaged in shop floor practices to subordinate women, those didn’t always work. As Mahalla shows, women sometimes turn such practices to their advantage. Surely, labor market segregation is not necessarily good for women’s structural power as workers. But given the specific circumstances in Mahalla it created conditions under which women were at the forefront of working-class formation.
Nada Matta is an assistant professor in the Departments of Global Studies and Sociology at Drexel University.