Gender division of labour in Syrian cotton fields

The two sets of photos show two different tasks for cotton agriculture in the Euphrates Project, a public irrigation scheme in Syria. These two tasks are emblematic of gender division which exists in agricultural work in this region and more generally in Syria: in the first set of photos (1a and 1b), a crew of several women is seeding cotton in March 2010; in the second one (photos 2a and 2b), a man is irrigating the same culture on his own in another field in July 2010.


(Fotos 1a and 1b)


(Fotos 2a and 2b)


 In addition to these tasks, for cotton, women generally hoe and pick, always in crews. Most of the time, apart from irrigation, men are also in charge of mechanical work (ex. gr. ploughing) and transport. Nevertheless, this division is not absolute and men can, on some rare occasions, participate in women tasks and in return a few women irrigate or drive tractors. Differences between seeding and irrigation are technical. On photos 1a and 1b, each woman is walking along a furrow and putting seeds in land every few meters. On photos 2a and 2b, the man is opening and closing makeshift gates in order to direct water
towards the furrows he wants to irrigate. Both of these tasks are tiring. Workers have to cover their bodies to protect it from the sun. Both are manual tasks and women and men can wear their back out as they seed or irrigate. Nevertheless, intensity of effort and muscles mobilized are different. Women are seeding without any stop for around two hours before taking a pause
and a cup of tea. When they put seeds in land, they have to incline their body and then do one or two steps to the next seeding point. For irrigation, opening and closing ground doors last about only two minutes every ten minutes. But the weight of mud clumps renders the work exhausting and the irrigator uses his limb muscles more than as the women when seeding. The male worker can irrigate one hectare per day but women have to be five to ten for seeding the same hectare in the same time.
These two tasks reflect gender inequalities in agricultural work. In 2010, a female worker earned 150 Syrian Pounds for a seeding day while a male worker got 500 Syrian Pounds for the irrigation of one hectare. Moreover, a male worker sells his labour force by himself while women work for a man who leads his crew. The latter negotiates with landowners and employs women by the way of his extended family members. On the ground, the male worker is alone or with the landowner who pays him. On the contrary, the crew leader stays alongside female workers and tells them how to work and how to organise themselves. At the end of the pause, he addresses the women crew leader (who generally is the oldest or the best of the crew) and she gives the example to the others in returning without word to the field.

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