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Reviewed by:
  • Militant Women of a Fragile Nation
  • Rola el-Husseini (bio)
Militant Women of a Fragile Nation, by Malek Abisaab. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010. 300 pages. $45.

I read Malek Abisaab's Militant Women of a Fragile Nation with great pleasure. His nuanced discussion of the role of women in labor movements is an understudied area of Lebanese history. Abisaab uses archival research and the analysis of labor-activist memoirs, complemented by interviews with 44 former employees, to present us with a case study of the "Régie," [End Page 176] the national tobacco company.

Abisaab rejects the cultural approach, which emphasizes a crude causality of kinship, religion, ethnicity, and gender in studying labor history and argues that "workingwomen lived through multiple experiences of class, sect, and gender, and that these categories were neither constantly nor inherently in contradiction with each other" (p. xxii). He also maintains that "neither class nor gender constitutes an independent or exclusive source of group identity" (p. xxiii).

He begins with a history of women and 19th century Lebanese industrial development and the rise of the silk industry. The decline of this industry after the Great Depression led to the rise of tobacco manufacturing. By 1935, women constituted 45% of the Régie's labor force. They joined "out of need, rural poverty, unfulfilled ambitions or adventure" (p. 32), and their activism started not because of class consciousness, "unionism or affiliation with socialist parties" (p. 18) but because of the fear of mechanization. They waged "labor and hunger protests" and combined "these protests with the greater anticolonial struggle" while demanding "fairer labor laws and regulations" (p. 33).

The author discusses the divergent goals of elite women and of working women. The elite aimed to challenge their seclusion and segregation, an issue of limited importance to lower class women who had always been part of the public sphere. Their main fears were "for the stability of their waged labor and the loss of safety in employment" (p. 55).

Abisaab also examines the faint acknowledgment of women's contributions to the labor movement despite the fact that some were wounded or killed in confrontations with police. Working women engaged in the national liberation struggle; however, independence brought "a hegemonic coalition that embraced solely the rich Lebanese and their families and sects" (p. 68). At first, women tried to get their demands approved through the court system and when that failed they sought other routes. This gradual radicalization projected an "empowering image of the industrial working woman" (p. 88).

Abisaab notes that between 1954 and 1987 more than 40% of the Régie's workers were women (p. 94), with Maronite women making up the bulk of the total female working force in 1954. Maronite workers composed a major group at the Régie, which "runs counter to the dominant popular and scholarly perception of the Maronites as a privileged 'class'" (p. 114). By 1969, Shi'ite women had become the most numerous. Between 1954 and 1969 the age of the working women increased "which contributed to the stability of the Régie's social character" (p. 97). These women and their male coworkers belonged to a cluster of families and shared regional and socioeconomic backgrounds, which helped them adapt to life in Beirut "and carried political implications for their militancy" (p. 114).

In 1981, women were 41% of the workforce, and the number of married women increased by 15%. Régie workers had acquired full medical coverage for their families and financial aid for the education of children; women were therefore reluctant to leave work after marriage. In addition, the social and psychological benefits women acquired from work "encouraged them to preserve their jobs" and empowered them. Hence, industrial labor allowed women to become more assertive in challenging male authority.

The strikes of 1963 and 1965 "heralded a new journey for tobacco women from legal claims to militancy" (p. 176). Women distrusted the company union and "were aware of their distinct needs as women" (p. 177). Their main demands were equal minimum [End Page 177] wage; and equivalent annual paid vacation, holiday breaks, and other perks given to men. "Gendered consciousness did not...


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