Women & Gender

A Day in the Life of a Rural Woman Worker

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

I ask my mother if the rainy season has begun. She tells me that it has not started yet and she prays to God that it is delayed until after Ramadan. It would be excruciating for the people of the village to fast during the agricultural season and in the middle of the summer heat. I repeat my mother’s prayer, hoping that God will respond and postpone the rainy season until the end of Ramadan and Eid. After each phone call, I recall my memories of the season and how I used to pray for it to be delayed, and yet surrender my senses tothe mornings after the rain when the earth smelled fresh and damp. The torrential streams would flow down from the mountains across the terraces towards the valley, leaving behind small water springs, which would keep flowing for weeks after every powerful rainfall. The bellowing of the cows and calls of the cattle resonate differently in the rainy season. Women engage in hard work. I was among the few who complained about the burden of work, while the majority of women around me acknowledged their responsibilities. They were aware that the season of work is also the season of life, and without it people and animals would perish from drought.

Women do not generally view this kind of labor as ‘work’, but as the natural labor and fate of a human connected to the earth. You can never compare your work in a private company or government agency, complaining and avoiding your responsibilities and being supervised, with the work of rural women farmers. The women are dedicated, not waiting for reward or praise. Women work in the countryside all year round, throughout the seasons, without considering themselves working women. The hegemonic perception of work only acknowledges labor as work when it is exchanged for wages. Women in general do unpaid domestic work, which is added to the responsibilities of rural women who are expected to perform another form of unpaid labor, which is agricultural work. While rural women do other acknowledged forms of labor, they end up being excluded from the social classification of the work force, as their work is expected gender role.

The yield obtained by women after the sale of the crop is a symbolic profit; they receive part of the crop to feed the family and exchange it for other needs that must be purchased. As a result, women farmers do not receive liquid capital that can be compared to the male cash wage that is retained after the sale of the crop. This allows men to independently cover the needs of the family and retain the remaining profit, in contrast to the women who in fact did most, if not all, of the work.

Art work by Jumana Al-Shami

At 4.00 or 4.30 in the morning, women light fires for a new day of struggle. I remember how there were houses whose fires were lit at three in the morning. Women begin their day in a frantic race against the sun, struggling to finish their work in the fields before the sun reaches its peak. The lucky ones were those who completed their daily work in the fields by 9.00 and returned home to take care of their endless domestic responsibilities.

The first sound I heard at dawn was the sound of my mother washing the tea kettle, since this would the first thing placed on the fire. Then the sound of a matchstick strike, ready to be buried under the carefully stacked firewood beneath the kettle. The first flames find their way into the wood and smoke emerges. I wake up tormented, longing for another hour of sleep. When I get up, my mother lists the names of the women who woke up before us. By then my mother will have conducted a thorough survey of the houses above and below and under our village. This survey and census was my mother’s way of saying that we were in fact late, and that I have no reason to accomplished having woken up at this hour. There is a list of morning chores, and no matter how fast we work through them, it is impossible to finish before the sun reaches its highest point. Unlike most homes, we were only two, there were no other females in the household.

Households that could afford to have cattle needed to rise even earlier. Tasks included milking the cows, and the preparation of fermented milk and its derivatives. The cattle stables housing the cows, sheep, goats and chickens needed to be cleaned. The morning bread had to be baked, the tea and coffee prepared. The door steps needed to be cleaned since they represent the household and are considered a symbol of whether the women are clean or negligent. On those summer nights, families often would sleep on the roofs, so there was also the task of carrying down all the sleeping blankets and mattresses indoors so that they were not eaten by the sun – a common expression meaning that the sun will damage them. This is only the case if the family has the luxury of sleeping on a mattress; many families sleep on mats and do not have foam mattresses.

In the village there are two types of farming: either families would plough the land manually or the land is ploughed with the help of a cow or donkey. In hand-ploughing, women would plough the soil with their hands and throw the grain at the same time. When cattle are used, men often lead the cow or donkey to plough the soil, while women follow and throw the grain from a sack hanging from around their waist or carry it in their left hand. This is the image that people have of rural farmers. However, this is not always the case. Families who do not have cattle and do not have the money to pay the wages of a male worker entrust the task to the women, who do all the work with their own hands. Women clean the earth from stones and the remains of drought. They turn the soil over to prepare for planting, then toss the grain. As the crop grows, women clear the soil of all weeds and cultivate the fragile soil to allow the the crop to grow safely from winds or rain floods.

On an average farming day, the woman is a worker, working at all times and on all tasks: at dawn in the house, the first half of the day in farming, at noon at home to prepare lunch and to take care of children and livestock. The afternoons are dedicated to feeding the livestock, bringing water from the basins, washing clothes, cleaning the house if there was no time to clean in the morning. When the evening falls, the women are completely consumed by chores, having to prepare for the next day’s journey: the dough to be baked in the morning, the preparation of the grains to be used the next day in the fields, and countless other chores.

Art work by Jumana Al-Shami

In the harvest season, things are similar but a little harder and more stressful. The tasks are different from those in the planting season. The madness of the race dominates families, and women work hard to complete the harvest as quickly as possible. The season begins when the ears of corns announce that they are ready for harvest. The first stage begins with the collection of the harvestable ears, while others are still green and not ready to harvest. The second stage begins with the gathering of all the ears, without exception, since the time has come for the whole harvest. The harvesters pass through the fields, picking the saplings and separating them from the stalks, then collecting them either in the palm frond baskets or in flour sacks.

Women then carry them back to the house and spread the crops on the roofs to dry. In the house and on the roofs, the ears are separated according to type. Legumes are also grown during the same season, and sometimes mulukhiyah if the soil is still wet. The produce is separated by category, and more care is given to finer ears. These will processed and selected carefully for use in the next planting season.

The process of collecting, carrying, separating and drying the ears is extensive, and the time it takes depends on the size of the land owned by the family. The third stage is the process of reaping, and this part is slightly more difficult. While collecting the ears is done standing up, reaping is done bending down.

Hands pass by, swinging sickles that cut through the crop. The feed is carefully arranged in small packs, tied together and placed on the walls of the terraces to dry where the sun is the strongest. There are hands cutting, gathering and packing, and hands that move the feed into the sun. After that there is a waiting period till the feed dries, and then another process of moving the feed in larger packs towards the house or a neighboring storage.

In the house, work is intense, women circle around like bees: the process involves the separation of the ears and drying them by flipping them under the sun until the whole ear is exposed to the burning sun. What a tragedy if it rains or storms! Families are forced to move their whole crop from the roofs as soon as possible, before they are hit by rain. While it is possible to save the crop, it is difficult to save the dry stalks, which darken, break and rot. But if the sky postpones its rainfall, the process of reaping the grains from the ears begins as soon as they are dry and the grains fall. The ears are gathered and beaten with a stick, either directly or in a sack. The beating continues until all the grains fall from the ears. Then, cleaning the grain of the remnants of the ears. The women stand facing the wind, carrying a basket full of grain with the remnants of the ears and another basket on the ground. The heavier grain drops down into the basket, while the lighter remnants of the ears are carried away with the wind. This process is repeated until the grain is completely free of any remains of the ears. The difficult aspect is that the remnants of the flying ears cause an intense itchiness; so women rush to shower after each grain reaping. Reaping is not yet over. After cleaning, the grains are placed under the sun again, in a final attempt to dry them completely for storage or use. In our villages, for example, there are two types of grain: millet, which will make the thin crusted bread known as “Lahooh”and wheat, which is mixed daily with white flour to make regular bread. Generally, the crop does not lead to self-sufficiency for families, but contributes to some of their needs. Mainly it is sufficient for the livestock feed, which is processed in conjunction with grain reaping and storage. After this whole process, women begin to move dry stalk packs on their heads from the scattered terraces towards their houses. There they are stacked in small pyramids for storage until the dry season, when they are used as feed for livestock.

Speaking of livestock and unpaid labor, women are not only working daily for the care of the land but also for the livestock. I have noticed that most women, despite being the legitimate owners of livestock by virtue of effort and care, do not have the authority or the right to decide to sell livestock. Many women wait for men to return from the cities and go to small cow-and-sheep markets to arrange sales. While the man rewards himself for an effort he did not make, women receive nothing in return. One may say that the return is ultimately for the household; but we take the initiative to say that the issue lies in the appreciation and recognition of a right!

Art work by Jumana Al-Shami

Between the two seasons women are engaged daily in bringing grass, water and wood, cattle grazing, housework, bringing supplies from distant shops, and carrying on their heads much of the above, gas cylinders, cement, soil and flour. For example, women in my village used to bring all this from far away. The situation in our village is now better than it was before, since the opening of a shop in the valley, but many women in other villages still travel long distances carrying all their families needs on their heads.

All these women are mothers of many children, or adolescents themselves who are supposed to be in school, or enjoy their time in the evenings in front of television. On Labor Day I often share a post on Facebook, to commend the women of my village and all the villages of the world who work without pay and work while others rest and take responsibility for a life that others have given up. I know that all these women may have not heard about Labor Day, and maybe they will not hear about it for many years to come, if at all. Even on that day, they cannot have a day off. They are not like us, we workers who are recognized as such. Of course they will not read my hypocritical tribute on Facebook, so: For every day that the sun shines in the fields, may you have a glorious workers’ day!

Finally, my mother tells me that she is preparing to clean the water basin from years of rain, in preparation for the upcoming rainy season. The process of cleaning basins is one of the most difficult tasks. I asked her if there were any of the male workers in the village to do the job. She replied with a shrug, “Of course it is not the male who will do the job, but the females.” She then added, “I am certain that men will take much longer than us, we will accomplish the task faster and more accurately!” She paused and said, “Of course you know that…”   Of course I do, and I am very grateful that I am the descendant of these women.



Reem Mojahed, a Yemeni writer, who lives in Czech Republic. She has published multiple articles in both Arab and Yemeni publications.

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Reem Mojahed

a Yemeni writer, who lives in Czech Republic. She has published multiple articles in both Arab and Yemeni publications.

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