SIDON, Lebanon: In her greenhouse Sukna Kharouby takes aim, spraying her vegetables with pesticide to protect them against insects and diseases.
These vegetables provide her only source of income, so Kharouby toils daily for their well-being, ignoring the exhaustion she feels at the end of a 10-hour workday. Mohana Saghir also works 10-hour days, but not in a greenhouse. Instead she slaves over a fire baking bread.
“We struggling women were born in this land only to toil,” she says.
But Hamda Yahya feels differently. She too works hard, as a farmer whose family works the land, but she finds an outlet beyond her work through her hobby – painting.
Nawal Zibawi talks about women’s repression. She is a seamstress, her profession for some 42 years.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, these southern ladies reflect on their lives, work and what it’s like to be a woman today.
Kharouby, the vegetable grower, says she does not mind the exhaustion of her work, but she points out that in general “women are treated unjustly and must struggle to receive education in order to reach a high social status.”
Kharouby’s greenhouse is in the southern village of Sarafand in the Zahrani district.
“I started working in agriculture after the FAO provided me with a greenhouse shortly after Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon,” she explains.
“I never went to school. I cannot read or write. However, I am able to calculate my profits and losses. Life has taught me so.
“I am doing a job that men should do. Southern women endure exhaustion and make sacrifices in order to make a living,” she continues, making some recommendations: “The state should help women by making them knowledgeable and providing them with advice and training. Women should have the same status as men. Women must be educated.
“I regret not going to school. I feel happy when I see children going to school, but this was my fate.”
Saghir lights her ancient wood-burning oven, known locally as a tabouna, to bake her bread, which she sells to earn a living.
She has been working for six years at her bakery in the village of Abul alAswad so that she can afford the needs of her four children.
“I work for 10 hours every day. I make local bread and mankousheh. I sit in front of fire, which is uncomfortable but for me it’s better than confronting poverty,” the baker explains, before speaking of her own regrets and her dreams for her children.
“I would love to have been educated, and I never expected that one day I would find myself here, but life is cruel. I accepted to do this hard job so that I can afford to educate my children. Yes, I should educate my children so they graduate. Their education will relieve my suffering.”
On the subject of International Women’s Day, Saghir says it “means nothing for me.”
While she looks forward to better days ahead, for now she says: “I only see miserable women in this world; they are inferior to men, although they have the same capacities.”
“A woman has to get educated to face the difficulties of life,” she concludes.
Yahya likes nature, land and agriculture. She works hard every day, and then alleviates her suffering through painting. Now in her 50s, the mother of eight says she left school when she was in grade nine.
“We have a small piece of land near the house [in Adshit]. We plant it with saplings and tobacco. All the family members work on the land,” she explains, adding: “I like the land. I’m very attached to it.”
As a child, Yahya discovered that she liked to draw: “The first painting I made was about the land and farming. I combined my work in the land and my hobby, painting. When I’m tired of the land I draw and paint.”
Yahya’s husband was not always supportive of her hobby, but now he even buys the materials she needs.
Claiming that “Islam has liberated women from slavery,” Yahya says: “I tell women on their day [International Women’s Day] that they have to learn. Whether [they learn] to make tobacco or to cultivate the land or pursue education, it’s not a problem that they work with men as long as they keep their honor.”
Surrounded by spools of thread in an array of colors, Zibawi sits before her sewing machine in a small room in Sidon. “Women are of great value in our society – they make up half of it,” she says.
Zibawi never earned a degree, but over her four decades in the sewing business, she has become a skilled professional. “I can now sew with my eyes closed,” she says.
On the occasion of Women’s Day, the aging lady has a powerful message: “I say to women on their day that unity brings power. Let’s unite to confront injustice and to raise our voice to relieve the suffering of women.”