Women Working the Land: In Conversation with Dhouha Djerbi

An agricultural worker (amila) planting peppers in Sidi Bouzid, July 2023. Photo by Dhouha Djerbi.

In this sixth installment of Meshkal’s “In Conversation” series (see previous installments here), we speak with doctoral researcher Dhouha Djerbi.

The word amilat generally refers to women agricultural workers in Tunisia who, without land of their own, are hired as farmhands. They earn lower pay than their male counterparts and are in informal and precarious positions. Many live in poverty and come from communities that were historically dispossessed from their small land holdings or communal land tenureships through the French colonial cadastral mechanism or waves of land privatization from the 1970s onwards. In April 2019, the plight of these amilat received national attention when a truck crash in Sidi Bouzid killed 12 people including several farmhands, highlighting the fact that these farmhands are normally transported to work in the backs of pickup trucks way over capacity in extremely dangerous conditions.

Dhouha Djerbi is researching the issue of women peasants in Tunisia, both those with land and farmhands without land. She is particularly interested in their visible role in social movements, and she has written critically about the limitations of NGO and union engagement on the issue thus far. Djerbi recently completed a summer of fieldwork in several regions in Tunisia where she worked as a farm worker alongside amilat and landed women farmers

Djerbi, in Grombalia, sat down for the interview via video chat on August 15, 2023.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Fadil Aliriza: Is my understanding of amilat as seasonal harvesters correct?

Dhouha Djerbi: They don’t just harvest crops; they actually do everything, from preparing the soil for planting,  weeding, planting, to harvesting they really do everything and they’re hired all year round in specific spots in Tunisia…anything that’s casual agricultural labor, they do.

The work is completely arduous, it’s monotonous. There are no adjectives in the dictionary that can describe the difficulty and the monotony of the work.

It’s a common misconception that it is mostly the women that do the harvesting, you know the ‘small hands’ narrative but actually, no, they are engaged in an array of work activities. And for the same hourly wage. It does not change based on the kind of labor they are performing.

FA: But there is a seasonal aspect to it, right?

DD: Definitely. I think the labor in terms of how they’re hired, it surges in seasons where their labor is most sought after. So if I want to harvest peppers in July in Sidi Bouzid, you would hire women. If you want to harvest some olives in the north and you run some sort of commercial enterprise, you might be incentivized to hire women…

In my study of the Amilat, What I mostly focus on is the women who work strictly for a wage. And this is a significant portion of casual, agricultural labor in the country. That should not eclipse the fact that women who work in family arrangements are also subject to abuse and exploitation that manifests in different forms. Of course, the lack of payment is already extremely problematic, but I think the fact that there is a familial obligation aspect to it,I think, adds a layer of complication in the sense that women are often too ashamed to come out and denounce exploitation or engage in collective action because the family aspect of it makes it so much more intimate and complicated.

FA: Ok, so you’re separating between what you can and can’t cover given your scope of your work because you can’t deal with everything. Exploitation on a family basis seems like a new can of worms, maybe a deeper problems of social hierarchies, patriarchy, that are not as easily solved within an analysis of the proletarianization of these women. It seems there’s like two separate trends that are going on there.

DD: I just want to specify that, in terms of my doctoral work, the issue of women agrarian workers of the landless kind, that only forms one part of my overall…research strategy. I’m interested in all peasants in different farming structures or arrangements… I’m interested in understanding how different gendered labor arrangements entail a different positioning within acts of contestation and participation in collective action. How are people positioned in these different displays of discontent based on what type of labor they perform, both productive and reproductive?

What I did this summer, I basically got a job. I went on a farm and asked if I could please work here. Due to ethical concerns, I did not receive a monetary wage. However, I am compensated in other things:access; proximity to potential research participants…And I did that in three different regions of Tunisia…

A farmer rides on a carriage after a morning of weeding in Slimane, June 2023. Photo by Dhouha Djerbi.

Some of the laborers I met are minors, some of them don’t even come from agrarian households. That was the one that surprised me the most and I think that’s a testament to how precarious living in Tunisia has become: that even somebody who resides in a mainly urban area would have to take up a job on a farm. I think 20, 30 years ago that would have been completely inconceivable.

FA: You’re bringing up this reverse urbanization almost, but not in the way you’d expect it. There’s sort of a normative understanding, maybe the reason you’re focusing on landless or at least the reason I’ve seen people focusing on the landless is that there was a time when these people were landed and integrated into a productive system and a social system that was, despite lots of problems, maybe in some ways more sustainable. I don’t want to wax poetic or have any blinders on about how beautiful life was before privatization, but there is clearly some benefits to people having the ability to be self-sustainable in subsistence farming. There are some benefits to subsistence farming in terms of you see less vulnerabilities to some of the vicissitudes of the liberalization afterwards. So I don’t know if that’s an accurate way of understanding why we’re focusing on the landless or why there’s a need to understand the phenomenon of landless workers. Correct me if I’m wrong here.

DD: It is a huge part of the puzzle. I think many of us are dead on in latching onto the legacy and the aftermath of dispossession. Because what we’re seeing now are the direct effects decades of agrarian restructuring policies that have been architected from both within the country and also outside. , as there were massive international pressures that led us to where we are today.

The question of solving patriarchal subjugation in Tunisia has never been a legislative issue and we will not get our humanity from the law.

I think you’ve touched on a really important thing, the subsistence element. And that’s truly central to the research that I do. Ultimately, by removing people’s access to the commons and by dispossessing them of their land, you remove the ability to perform vital social reproduction. Because communities are no longer in a position to perform vital social reproduction, they are forced to purchase from the market what they used to produce for themselves. Amidst these dynamics comes the pressure to engage in waged labor, be it agricultural or otherwise. The gender distribution of who gets to work in farming and who gets to work outside of farming is completely lopsided. Because agriculture has taken such a—not even secondary—but such an insignificant position in the economy, many feminists, myself included, would say that this devaluation of agricultural work corresponds with the way women’s labor is already devalued in a capitalist society.

The feminization of social reproduction is a historical processes This has been documented since the dawn of capitalism. Here, I’d recommend Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch to understand how the interplay of dispossession and destruction of the commons ghettoized women into the domestic sphere.

A farmer uses a hoe to create irrigation canals on her citrus farm while a family member keeps her company in Slimane, June 2023. Photo by Dhouha Djerbi.

The gender-disparate outcomes of dispossession are a global phenomenon but the way they manifests are mediated through locally and culturally-specific norms and that’s why it is distinct from one locale to the other. One culturally specific norm relevant to Tunisia is the unequal inheritance in land ownership and access. And that is a huge part of understanding why certain women in Tunisia are forced to engage in casual agricultural labor. Now, I say certain women in Tunisia because within Tunisia there are different local customs in terms of dividing the land. In the north, for example, it’s much more hospitable to women owning at least a little bit of land—not on equal footing, but they are included. In Sidi Bouzid, women get nothing. Nothing. Having Sat and spoken  with multiple people this past summer, they were like: ‘Well, men don’t work in agriculture at all, and it’s only women because women literally’—and I don’t like to speak in superlatives so I am quoting the person that relayed this information to me—‘women do not get anything at all.’

Let’s compare my short stay in the oasis of Chneni (Gabes). In Chneni, women have mostly stopped working on farms. You rarely see women outside of their households, except when they are involved in produce transformation and/or petty commodity production. One day, I expressed my interest in meeting women who worked on farms regularly, and my fixer told me it was quite challenging, and in Chneni, such women were almost non-existent. If there were any, it would be during the henna harvesting season, and even then, both men and women would often work together. He suggested I go to a slightly larger farm outside of Chneni if I wanted to meet such women.

So, I went, and the farmer picked me up at four in the morning. He played a role similar to a transporter, unlike in other areas where there’s usually a middleman who does the transporting. I met the women, worked alongside them, and asked about their wages. They told me they earned 20 dinars a day, which was significantly higher than the 15 dinars in Sidi Bouzid, where 3 dinars went to the transporter, leaving them with 12 dinars per day.

An agricultural worker (amila) riding at the back of a truck after a work shift in Sidi Bouzid, July 2023. Photo by Dhouha Djerbi.

I didn’t want to discuss this directly with the women, so I asked the farmer about the wage difference. He explained that it was because there were very few women in this area doing this work, which “inflated” their wages compared to other regions. Nonetheless, even 20 dinars was a meager wage, it is nothing. They are paid predatory wages to say the least and the work is completely arduous, it’s monotonous. There are no adjectives in the dictionary that can describe the difficulty and the monotony of the work.

In terms of national variety vis-à-vis labor arrangements and the way women engage in this work, I am cautious not to paint a monolithic and homogenous picture. However, I do think it’s strategically sound to overemphasize these negative experiences… In terms of being politically engaged with this issue, the civil society and organizations that have been engaged with the amilat are very correct in highlighting the extremely poor conditions of the women and the most meager wages. To be honest, nowhere did I ever hear women are making 20 dinars a day. That completely blew my mind.

FA: Is this a corrective to your earlier work in terms of the narrative of victimization? I remember you were critiquing the victimization narrative saying: ‘No, there’s organizing going on. There are amilat who have their own rights’ – I was going to ask, it seems like you could have both, right? You can say there is victimization and at the same time you don’t have to take away agency. I actually wrote down how to phrase this problematic, because in your African Legal Studies article where you were making the case that the narrative of these workers as victims is misleading and that they have, at times, taken revolutionary positions towards self-empowerment.

But then I was thinking, there is a social hierarchy at play. And sometimes the social hierarchy does get internalized. For example, I remember in our 2019 Meshkal article, the FTDES researcher that I had talked to, Saoussan Jaadi, she had said there were a lot of amilat that were accepting lower pay because, for example, the state prioritizes social welfare to male household heads, so the amilat are basically saying: ‘We will accept this lower pay because we are benefitting indirectly from our husbands who are getting this welfare while we are not.’ So obviously this is unfair on many levels, but it’s like you’re internalizing this social hierarchy. There’s no need to blame them for internalizing it, there is a victimization going on at multiple levels, you wouldn’t call it conservative, you’d call it the reproduction of the social hierarchy in a really insidious way.

DD: Two points. First I think poor people and peasants specifically in Tunisia are forced by an array of circumstances to devise ingenious ways…of getting what they are owed, even if it involves some sort of ‘sacrificial’ practice. Unfortunately, women, are arguably socialized into accepting a lower status in the capitalist economy and because their work is not acknowledged to the same level as their male counterparts. So they’re forced to take on these so-called sacrificial positions and at the same time try to get what they’re owed in different ways.

An agricultural worker (amila) showing olives foraged after a work shift while waiting for transportation back to Sidi Bouzid city, July 2023. Photo by Dhouha Djerbi.

When I wrote the article about the victimization discourse, that was a response to civil society and NGO engagement with the question of the amilat. What I meant by that, let me just give a mise-en-scène of what’s been happening. I think for a long time the civil society and NGO approach to women agrarian workers was very limited to the legislative realm. And while I think this strategy is important as a starting point, it absolutely cannot be a standalone strategy. And what we’ve seen is that it’s been so limited in its scope and reach because it was unimaginative and limited thinking beyond the legal apparatus of the state, which has consistently failed the women of this country as many Tunisian feminists of different hues will tell you. Those who are working on equal inheritance laws, those who are working on issues of femicide will tell you that the question of solving patriarchal subjugation in Tunisia has never been a legislative issue and we will not get our humanity from the law. So I found it a bit odd that post-revolution, post-this sort of reinvigorated engagement with basic feminist topics in Tunisia, the discourse level, the reliance on the legislative aspect was so paramount. There is a reason for that I’ll get to later. Now I want to be very specific here. What I’m speaking of, this legislative remedy to the issue of the agrarian workers was specifically targeting the transportation issue.

FA: And even there, there’s been no success.

DD: Exactly. And you know, after the slew of accidents there was this massive pressure to enact Law 51 [of 2019] to enforce or have some sort of regulatory oversight over rural transportation. They got that, so that was a success for the movement. But I think the disappointment started to kick in when the transportation accidents continued and the law just didn’t do anything about it. And there is a specific campaign that I’m referring to, the Selma T3ich campaign, that was at the time the biggest, most visible engagement strategy with the amilat. So as it gained more impetus and grew wider in its scope, they did try to encompass broader areas like social security protection, regulating work, better work conditions etc. But it failed to outgrow lobbying strategies and cosmetic remedies, or what I like to call basic survival strategies for the poor. You’re delivering them survival strategies, there’s nothing transformative about it.

I think the legislative disappointment jolted certain civil society actors into a completely radical approach. Here I’m specifically referring to the FTDES’ recent engagement strategy with the amilat. It’s a twofold strategy.

FA: What we heard in 2019 was that they were trying to unionize some of these workers to demand better wages. I don’t know if that’s still the strategy.

DD: It’s part of a multiyear effort. The most recent one is a two-fold effort. The first is a comprehensive study of the amilat in Tunis. To date, it’s the best resource on the issue. It has, most importantly, up-to-date statistics, which in a relatively data poor country like Tunisia is very important, and I personally am very grateful for that. And second, they support, whether logistically or [through] other means, helping the women coordinate collective action campaigns and engage in protest activity and not trying to shield that but letting it run its course, letting women protest and also helping them with banners, helping them with locating their protest activities in a way that brings them more visibility, covering the events on social media. These are not unimportant I  think that it’s  vital that they embrace revolutionary anger that a lot of these women had. And for me any other strategy that does not do that is destined to fail.

FA: Just to clarify, can we say that FTDES is doing the most serious work in this field? Because I remember in your intervention on a Zoom webinar I had watched, after the road crash in 2019 there were events by NGOs on the issue of amilat where they sometimes wouldn’t have any amilat present, or they would have some but they wouldn’t let them speak. And if they even let them speak, they would ignore their demands for land control and ownership and management and instead say: ‘Ok, we’re not going to talk about that, we’re just going to talk about transportation’.

DD: The most serious civil society coverage? Yes I would phrase it like that…

Civil society organizations all over the world rely on international aid in different ways. And I’m sure you know they are beholden to their benefactors’ visions for social and political change… One of the matters in which funding can threaten the legitimacy of such organizations and dilute their missions is the way it affects –  what people who work seriously on this topic call – ‘downward accountability’, or, the extent that civil society actors  is accountable to the poor and marginalized that they represent or claim to represent. There’s a fundamental mismatch between funders’ vision and expectations and what the people want.

FA: We don’t have to point our fingers at any one NGO. There’s a systematic problem.

DD: Exactly. A lot of the funding and the conditionality can serve as disincentives for challenging existing structures and limiting projects to unimaginative confines. Not unlike what happened with the legislative lobbying…vis-à-vis the amilat. The lack of any class oriented, political education between the exploitative, exploitee really brings this home. And I think any revolutionary aspirations become automatically subsumed to social actions that target superficial remedies. Like: ‘Can we get these women better transportation?’ ‘Can they die less?’ ‘Can some of them have some sort of social protection.’ So I think broadly that is the issue.

FA: Those issues are important. You want to stop the bleeding. If there was less dying on the roads that would be a good thing.

DD: I’m not saying that was so misguided that you only focus on transportation. That was the most urgent thing, and I think that definitely merited the heightened scrutiny. But it should grow a bit more than that, and I think the FTDES did that beautifully. Now if you look at their study, their engagement strategy and speak with Madame Hayat Attar, who is the chief responsible person for this dossier right now, she has a phenomenal understanding of how to “solve the issue.” She says we need agrarian restructuring.

FA: So she gets the root issue. It’s good to know there are some good things coming out of FTDES’ work. Is there a problem of leaving the issue to NGOs? Do you feel like there are other methods or tools or organizational capacities that would lead to something better? Ok, you’re identifying the root problem as land reform. Land ownership, a national strategy of what land should be used for, how it’s divided, how water is used, these are all important factors, tributaries that have the effect that they are producing this extreme level of exploitation for a particular group of people within Tunisia especially.

But aside from that, the bigger question is how to solve this? Do you see any progress? Do you see people who are in this, amilat who are self-organizing? Do you see anything since 2019 in terms of awareness, in terms political literacy, in terms of the way they speak of themselves, in terms of their rights, in terms of their ability or willingness or capacity to imagine organizing, or capacity to imagine a different way of being integrated into this economic system?

Sorry this is a too broad question, but I keep trying to formulate it in a way that you can answer without it being too much or impossible to answer. So since 2019 can you identify anything or see anything? Maybe in your last field work, have you seen anything that’s like a sign of hope?

DD: That was a very compounded question

FA: I know, I’m sorry. It’s terrible.

DD: No worries. Let me start from the first one which is something that I wanted to touch on. Can NGOs be a vehicle for emancipation? No. What is that quote? “The revolution will not be NGOized.” I’m a firm believer in that. My personal take is that NGOs offer an alternative platform to engage in civil society activism that is symptomatic of a weak state. NGOs in the case of Tunis and the amilat are symptomatic of not only – I shouldn’t say a weak state – a state that is actively victimizing its feminized agrarian work force.

In this instance, to be honest there are way too many NGOs working on this and the efforts are way too splintered, not at all focused. And initially I thought that that’s because there’s a syndical void. I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute. The way that these women have zero way to organize as a coherent labor group is extremely problematic. And I think a lot of the NGO strategies, especially the immediate, post-revolution one has been treating these women not as a labor group but as poor women, rural women. They NGO speak them to death, and frankly because NGOs don’t do labor activism, they don’t organize workers. Who does that? Unions. So in Tunisia – you’re familiar with the syndical landscape I’m sure.

FA: A little bit, and I also read your commentary on this in the Agrarian South Network’s [March – April 2022 Research Bulletin].

DD: Perfect.

FA: I’ll link both of your articles [so readers can find more].

DD: So I don’t have too much to add beyond that except the fact that the recent development after me publishing the article is that the UGTT, due to the culmination of very embarrassing pressure that was put on it by workers and civil society, was jolted into doing some sort of action. Because the way that the UGTT has engaged with this issue has been nothing short of embarrassing. There is a historical reason for this and the UGTT has, as I explained in my brief, been a union with a history of not only gender-blind organizing but also a very urban-centric vision for workers rights. And I would say that the latter far outweighs the former in the sense that the UGTT has historically rallied behind another massively feminized workforce: textile workers. And the UGTT was so quick to absorbing them into their ranks, but if I’m being quite honest…basically when the economy started to be opened, when structural adjustment started to really hit, there was a massive gulping of women into the ranks of factory workers. There was coordinated, organized, women-steered collective action of mostly women that were working in these factories and living and working in terrible conditions.

When they were organizing, these women were not unionized. When the UGTT saw the energy, saw the potential for new ranks in their base, they absorbed them. And now, actually, women factory workers are massively unionized in the country and there is a history to that.

FA: I did a little bit of reporting on the textile workers, but I remember FTDES numbers were only like 10% of textile workers were unionized, and maybe there was a change after the multifiber agreement [lapsed] in 2005 and the subsequent assault on textile industry in general that it went down.

DD: I’m not familiar with the latest numbers, but at the height of the structural adjustment program – I have the numbers right in front of me. In the 80s, 55% of factory workers were women were under the banner of the UGTT. That’s huge.

FA: Just a guess is that probably went down from the 2000s onwards.

DD: For a good reason, the UGTT sort of lost its prowess… In any case they are much higher than that of women agrarian workers who until recently did not have any avenue to be members of the UGTT. So what happened is that the UGTT was forced—let me be very clear—was forced to some sort of symbolic action and that symbolic action at some point was in the form of literally symbolic membership cards.

FA: This is after the 2019 road crash?

DD: This is two, three years ago, after the crash. What’s even more recent, these symbolic membership cards transformed into full-fledged unionization. The first locale to do it, the first town to do it was Jebiniana. That’s wonderful, but if you ask anybody who is familiar with how the UGTT has been dealing with the issue of the amilat, [they] will tell you that it’s sort of lacking in any substantial desire to truly ameliorate the conditions of the workers or really have them in the ranks of the union.

I actually had this very discussion with an activist engaged with the amilat and what we ended up agreeing on is basically that sure, in this moment in time we can’t fault the UGTT too much for establishing these unions for women—they are basically subsidiaries of the UGTT – as a first step. It counts for something. But understanding that this issue requires a massive amount of work including land restructuring, restructuring the entire agrarian economy as well as how Tunisia is situated in the international political economy as well. So it’s not just a labor issue, it’s also where the crops are going and what sort of dictates are forcing people to produce what and to what market.

And we were like so, what is this UGTT action really about? And I think it’s just a form of pandering that’s aimed at absorbing the mounting anger and frustration of the workers and to be able to finally say, or absolve themselves from the responsibility of being like: ‘Well what more can we do?’ I don’t know how to conclude this specific UGTT chapter… it’s just a blend of disappointment, embarrassment on their part to be a union of such legacy and history and to have the organizational capacities that they do and not be able to lend support to these workers is shameful. It’s shameful. And it’s also just tactically not a smart move at all.

FA: It seems like UGTT has the capacity for being revolutionary but it’s rare the occasions when UGTT has acted as a revolutionary organization and it seems like the majority of times it’s been a tool of cooptation rather than of revolution.

DD: It’s a bureaucratic organization. It’s not a radical workers’ movement. When I say it’s disappointing and shameful, that comes with the understanding what can we expect? But I think out of all the actors that we’ve spoken about so far, the one that really is in a strategic position to do something about it is the UGTT.

Your other questions I think pertain to what are the aspirations of the amilat that I’ve encountered in my personal experience?

FA: Aspirations but also do you feel there is a political literacy there that’s growing or potential?

DD: Two answer that question I have two anecdotes. The first one is from a fellaha [farmer]. She has less than a hectare of land and it dovetails really nicely with the second anecdote about one of the amilat I managed to meet. When I first started my fieldwork this summer, my first day was in Slimane with a small woman farmer. She lived in her father’s house. She’s unmarried. She works on her land adjacent to her father’s house. It’s a relatively well-sized plot of four point something hectares of land divided between her and her sisters, and she has her plot of land and a stable where she has a couple of cows and goats.

My first day we go to the stable. I’m working with her, and we go in. She opens the doors of the stable. It’s four in the morning. And we walk in, and immediately one of her cows started to have the most explosive diarrhea I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I was taken aback; for her, this is natural: ‘four in the morning, my cow is having diarrhea.’ It was really violent. I look around the stable and it’s mounds upon mounds of liquid cow excrement. And not only do I ask her about ‘Is that normal what the cow is experiencing?’ but I did sort of try to, in the least judgmental way possible, to inquire about the –let’s call it­­ – less than pristine state of the stable.

She takes me by the hand to a pile of cow shit. And she says ‘I want you to look at this.’ And I say: ‘Ok I’m looking.’ And she gives me the most comprehensive lecture about the state of the Tunisian agrarian sector all based on the color, consistency, and volume of this cow excrement. She was like: ‘Well, because of the fodder prices, I’m forced to feed my cows only fresh cut grass, and fresh cut grass gives the cows diarrhea, and because of the climate crisis’— though she didn’t quite use the term ‘climate crisis’ (that’s my interpretation)—‘because of the terrible heat that we’re experiencing it is upsetting the cow’s digestive system…’ And she was able to connect the grain and the Russia war. And I was like: ‘You got that from this?’ It completely blew my mind.

A farmer milking a cow in Slimane, June 2023. Photo by Dhouha Djerbi.

FA: You should open the book with that.

DD: Oh that is the first page of my doctoral dissertation 100 percent. And to have that as the first day of my doctoral field work is honestly so special. From a pile of shit, she gives me the most lucid diagnosis not only Tunisia’s economy but the world. And she was able to very elegantly situate herself in these dynamics, both local and global, like: ‘Well because of all of this, and I’m living alone and I can’t afford for anyone to help me, and I am forced to let these piles of waste accumulate and ultimately I will one day muster enough courage and determination to get them all out.’

We ended up doing that together, so it was very a rewarding experience to help her with all of that.

I think there is this misunderstanding, maybe [from] discourse from the 60s that…still lingers to this day, that peasants and small producers are very ignorant of what’s happening around them, and [that] they’re so engrossed in their farming that they really do not care or do not have any desire or willingness or ability to be literate about what’s happening around them. That’s absolutely not true. Multiple interactions with different farmers and workers were a testament to the contrary.

FA: Can I pause you for a second – when I ask about political literacy, I ask that having just read a couple of Che’s diaries [which stress peasant education accompanying national liberation]. And I’m thinking in the sense that I know that farmers know a lot more than the urban bourgeois think they do; in fact they probably know more than the urban bourgeois know themselves on a wide range of issues, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into [explicit class consciousness or theoretical awareness]. And also there is an issue of actual literacy that affects rural areas more than urban areas, although a lot of learning in Tunisia is aural learning. The radio is a big part of how people are learning. So I didn’t mean it in the sense of farmers don’t have political knowledge.

DD: Unfortunately no, not that I’ve seen… Do they read radical literature at bed at night? I don’t think so, because a lot of the ones that I speak to have little to no formal education at all. So I would guess based on the details of their formal education that some of them don’t know how to read. A lot of these women are also old.

To go back to the [second] anecdote: when I went to Sidi Bouzid, I spent a couple of days working on the farm with a group of eight to 12 women agrarian workers. And as part of my research methodology, I tried to not overwhelm people with questions. I wanted people to come to me rather than me asking them very direct questions. Also because this was sort of the pilot study. I didn’t really have the time to establish the sort of trust bonds that are necessary to engage.

One day we were riding back on the truck and the women asked me: ‘Oh this is all for your book?’ I had told them I’m writing a book. I was like: ‘Yeah, thank you so much for welcoming me here.’ They were like: ‘How we can help you with your work?’ I was like: ‘Nothing, really. By letting me exist in your space, that’s already more than enough.’ And then one of them, actually two of them started to berate me. They were like: ‘Oh, you need to ask us about our work conditions. Why didn’t you ask how much money we were getting paid every day? What is wrong with you?’ It was not playful, it was not a joke. It was a confrontation, and it really kind of took me back to reality a little bit and gave me a wakeup call from a lot of the overly academic direction I had taken this research in.

FA: They’re telling you how to do your job.

DD: Exactly and they are completely right. ‘The first thing that you should have asked us is how much we were getting paid and we are astonished that you did not.’

FA: But you know, it’s better that it came from them that way.

DD: Of course. 100 percent. And I do still think there is some importance to my initial strategy. But I think to be in that situation and in that truck, that’s not something I’m keen on repeating.

So there is a consciousness. Not a radical or revolutionary education per se, but there is a consciousness and a sort of demanding to be recognized that I found to be relevant in all of the sites that I visited this summer.

FA: I love the anecdotes. I’m so excited to read it when you put it all together in a cohesive way. Because this sounds so fascinating.

I have two last questions. My first is what power do you think amilat have? If we want to think of change not as ‘Let’s have the UGTT get involved to save these women’, we’d also like to see what power do these women have themselves for saving themselves or driving the bigger strategy of let’s have agrarian reform. Can agrarian reform come from them? Do they have the power of withholding their labor to the point where they would force the hand of agrobusiness for example? Is there this power that they have that is untapped currently?

DD: That’s something that I think about constantly. I don’t have an immediate answer to that. I always think in aspirational and revolutionary ways. I would like to say that if every single amila in Tunisia went on strike tomorrow, they would bring the country to a halt. And to see that would be honestly the revolutionary moment of the decade. To the extent that that is feasible? That is a completely different discussion, and it requires a massive mobilization on a national level and   vehicle that is not an NGO and that is not the UGTT, something I don’t think exists in Tunisia unfortunately for that to be a coordinated movement stretching from the groves of the north to the oases of the south. I don’t think we have at the moment the infrastructure to have such a coordinated national-level movement.

Do I think that they have the power to do that? theoretically I believe so. And I think the threat of strike is actually something that if you go back to FTDES documentation of protest actions that the amilat did, if you read their signs, they have levied the threat of a strike. So it’s not something that they haven’t thought about. We’re talking about working conditions for workers working in the most horrific conditions, that is the most profound testament to their will and power as workers: to completely withdraw their labor. So I think it is something that they flirt with.

I am cautious though because you have to consider that the opportunity cost of withdrawing your labor is massive. I mean these women are carrying entire households.

But even at a symbolic level there is power to those slogans that were raised during the protests and there is an awareness that they have the right to engage in strike and I think even if it just forms one element of their overall repertoire of contention, even if it’s just at a symbolic level, I think there is importance to that. But to have a coordinated movement, if that happens in my lifetime, I would die a very happy woman.

FA: So there is an untapped a potential for rebalancing the relationship with big agrobusiness and reshaping agriculture from these women? They have that power?

DD: Alone no. It has to be a coordinated movement among peasants themselves and I think this bifurcation between landless peasants and landowning peasants is an impediment to any revolutionary project that would happen in the Tunisian countryside or elsewhere.

Do they have power? I would like to say yes. Look at the MST movement in Brazil for example, the landless farm workers in Brazil. We have examples of existing, recent movements of a similar character to the one that we have in Tunisia. The only immediate difference between the MST for example and the amilat is the MST is not a predominantly feminized movement. Is that a factor? I think so.

FA: And historically there are other examples. Many 20th century revolutions were essentially peasant revolutions.

DD: Just to have a revolution that’s only led by women landless agrarian workers? No, it has to be part of a more comprehensive and coordinated revolutionary strategy amongst peasants in general, regardless of the differentiation of land access and ownership and gender. And it has to be a cooperation that is attuned to the ways in which women are subjugated to multiple levels of exploitation. So I think in addition to what I hope to be a radical opportunity for any revolutionary movement, there also needs to be a feminist and anti-patriarchal learning that coheres with that project.

FA: Very open-ended question: for your coming fieldwork, what are you looking for?

DD: I’m looking forward to not working in 50 degree weather.

FA: I know my god, are there even going to be any peasants in Tunisia in 20 years? It’s so hot.

DD: I’m very much looking forward to finishing my next two legs of my fieldwork. Four months in the winter and four months in the spring. And it’s not out of cowardice that I don’t want to work during the summer. I think I might have ended up in the hospital had I continued, it was so dangerous…I was in Sidi Bouzid during the peak of the summer and it was terrible, we were working on a rented land plot, which was very common in Sidi Bouzid, these rental arrangements.

FA: And the landlords are all absentee?

DD: In Sidi Bouzid, the ownership of land isn’t always clear-cut. Many plots are rented out for commercial purposes, typically on three to five-year leases. It’s a prevalent arrangement in the region.

During my stay, the farmer who hosted me wasn’t initially aware that I was an outsider, because my access was negotiated with the transporter.  I decided to be upfront about my identity because I was adamant on not doing any ‘covert ethnography’. But also because I knew he would eventually find out. My work pace and appearance clearly set me apart. However, my disclosure had a terrible consequence. He started addressing me as ‘doctor’ throughout my stay and even offered me mineral water, unlike the other women, some of whom, had to drink from the undrinkable well.

What was interesting is that he actually turned out to be one of the “nicer” farmers because he would provide breakfast for his workers in the morning. And on the day he found that I was “interning” on his farm, he got the women their breakfast and he got me my separate, slightly nicer breakfast and asked me if I wanted to eat it separately or with the other women. And he said that in front of everyone, giving me a completely different plate of food. I feel that It really ruined the type of immersive fieldwork I wanted to carry out in Sidi Bouzid.

In light of this, I’m looking forward to a more autonomous fieldwork strategy. Not relying on my fixers who were landowning farmers in most of the cases because access mediated through them can set a completely different tone for my stay at the different field sites.

FA: What questions are you trying to answer?

DD: The question that I’m trying to answer is my doctoral question, how are women peasants positioned in acts of mobilizations in agrarian Tunisia? And I am hoping that trying to understand the interplay between gendered labor arrangements and how the different ways in which peasants engage in contentious activity can illuminate or give me some preliminary ideas about why that is.

I’m looking forward to answering my dissertation question, I’m looking forward to knowing farmers on a more intimate level. I’m looking forward to bettering my farming skills, becoming a better worker, improving my agility, improving my ability to work in harsh conditions. I think that’s so important. And I’m hoping for deeper conversations with the people that make my research feasible and the people I owe my research to.


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