January 2008

Over 100 years ago a movement among women factory workers turned Lebanese society on its head. The amiyaa (factory girl) became a bi-word for independence, militancy and the struggle for change. The roots of this movement lay in the rise of silk industry and the development of capitalism.

Sericulture, raising silkworms to produce thread, had long been part of the lives of peasants in the region. There was an ancient cottage industry of silkworm breeding and many peasants mastered the art of teasing thread out of cocoons and combining them to produce thread.

But it was the modernisation of the industry that was to profoundly alter social relations in Lebanon. On the heals of the first global economic boom (1850-1890) the silk merchants of Lyon and Marseilles sought out new sources of raw thread. Lebanon, then a province of the Ottoman empire, proved to be ideal. The rise in silk manufacture drew the region into the orbit of French capitalism.

Between 1836 and 1857 silk’s share in the exports from Beirut port hovered around 22 percent, by 1873 it accounted for 82.5 percent of all exports. The value of the silk also rose. Researcher Akram Khater notes: “While in the 1840s the price of 1 oka (1.228 kilograms) [of raw silk] hovered around 12 piastres, by 1857 French merchants were paying 45 piastres per oka, and those prices persisted through the 1870s.”

On the back of this trade a new urban class of traders, money lenders and merchants began to settle in Beirut, while in the villages a peasant family could gain some financial independence from their feudal masters by raising silk cocoons. These cocoons would be transported by donkey or mule to processing centres or directly to the port.

The rise of the loom, homespun industries and a new class of manufacturers profoundly altered class relations under the feudal system. Feudal lords found themselves in debt to silk merchants while their former peasants became independent artisans. Capitalism replaced the hoe with the loom, and the corvee (free work for the lords) gave way to wage labour.

The drive towards industry drew in European manufacturers. In 1836 the Portalis Enterprise build the first modern silk spinning mill in the region in the village of Btater. The handsome profits made by the French firm tempted others, including English and Lebanese capital, to copy their success. But it was the collapse of feudalism in many parts of Lebanon and a blight that destroyed the French silk crop in 1865 that was to herald the fundamental changes for the native industries.

Capital chased lower wages and higher productivity in the search for bigger returns on investment. The new workers in Lebanon were prepared to work longer hours and pay was low. In 1851 women were paid 1 piastre for 12-15 hour day. In comparison French women spinners received 4 piastres (French men received 8.8 piastres). French silk workers also had a long tradition of struggle, with revolts in 1744 and 1786, and general strikes in 1853, 1863 and 1867. It was tempting for factory owners to relocated to areas where there was “better labour relations.”

At first the main source of workers were the orphanages that sprung up following the civil war, then factory owners turned to the villages to supply them with labour. But this left the owners at the whim of the village chiefs who often drove hard a bargain for their daughters’ labour (the elders also kept their wages). Factory owners solved the problem by employing village girls directly, and in the process created the first native working class.

It would be wrong to create an image of rural bliss before the arrival of factories, a woman’s place was low in social rank in a society that was itself highly stratified. But the idea of women staying at home was unheard of among peasants. Women would work the fields alongside men, only upper class women would be veiled or hidden in a harem. From field to workbench was not a great leap for peasant women, but for the first time factory work brought together women from different villages in common work (and into contact with men outside their families).

Textile workers represented the most downtrodden and exploited workers, most silk workers in the new factories were girls and young women under eighteen years of age, many were children. The girls, usually unmarried, often lived in dormitories near the mills. The factory work was arduous and dangerous, and long hours and heavy work took its toll on their health. Hundreds of girls would be crammed into workshops stooped over boiling pans unravelling silk cocoons or feeding the spinning machines.

In the 1890s over twelve thousand unmarried women and girls – over 23 percent of the total population of women of working age – were working outside their villages in 149 modern factories. By 1914 there were 120,000 textile workers in Syria and Lebanon. With French machines, however, came French traditions. As early as 1840, Antoine Portalis, chief shareholder of Portalis Enterprise, dismissed four French women reelers working as instructors in the Btater factory because they were discovered to be “disseminating subversive ideas.”

Factory girls proved adept in learning the skills of class struggle and developed novel tactics to divide employers. Khater writes, “Some women, after promising to work for one factory owner, would at the last minute threaten to go to a competitor’s factory if wages were not raised.” Often women in different factories would conspire in this tactic, creating tensions among the owners who often accused each other trying to steal their rival’s workers. Another common tactic was to lower the quality of silk produced as a bargaining chip to improve work conditions (the so-called Italian strike tactic). By the 1890s women were resorting openly to strikes. This growing militancy was to quadruple their wages in a generation, achieving parity with French women workers.

The women also earned a reputation for hard-headed independence. “Are you going to behave like a factory girl?” mothers would chide their daughters, while men would be taunted by their neighbours because their daughters were “factory girls who they could not control.” The authorities at the time blamed “European vagrants and agitators” for this new found militancy. Reports circulated of mysterious French agitators wandering around the villages preaching class struggle. Whether these rumours are true or not underscore the growing fear that the former docile workers were beginning to realise the value of their labour and the power of industrial action.

Meanwhile church, mosque and state mourned the “corruption of the daughters of the village.”

The growing financial independence of wage labour transformed the lives of women. At the height of the silk boom their earnings accounted for a third of disposable income. They could raise their own dowries, educate their children, emigrate or go into business (women, for example, had a monopoly on the overcoat trade in Alleppo). The rate of marriage breakdowns rose as women used their financial independence to break free from unhappy relationships. Many saved their wages, emigrated and became pedlars in the lucrative New York and Boston markets, while others fed the growing demand for luxuries like coffee and sugar.

Their work also shaped how they saw their role in society. American social workers in the 1880s and 1890s were shocked to discover that newly emigrated Lebanese and Syrian women had no concept of their role “in the home.” Often, the official reports noted, the women would look bemused when asked why they did not keep house while the men went out to work.

This militancy, self-confidence and independence created a moral panic and a new right-wing moralism. The moralists wanted to define a new role for women as home keeper – the so-called “modern woman”. Although this idea originally emerged out of the western middle classes, it soon found Lebanese willing to preach it with all the zeal of new converts. Girls were to be taught to become “queens of the house” and look after their husbands and children. They should not work in factories, go on strike, have financial independence or sexual liberty. These moral campaigners found a ready pool of supporters among the middle classes of Beirut (and other cities).

Through the pulpits and magazines these moralists called for “family values” and “tradition”. An article in one US-based magazine, Al-Huda, defined good and bad women thus: “The good woman is one who attends to her duties and helps her mother, and as a bride makes her husband happy and her house a paradise. The bad woman is a disease of civilisation who spends her earnings on herself, wears corsets, feathers in her hat and makeup.”

Another magazine produced a plan for these women to follow in order to learn how to keep home, including what to teach their children and how to cater for the needs of their husbands. Another scorned women for such trivial pursuits such as “reading romance novels and attending parties” when they should be paying more attention to “meaningful” pursuits such as cooking and washing the children. Although this morality emerged from the middle classes, it was the working class who had to conform – middle class households had servants to perform this tedious daily tasks.

Khater writes on the influence of the Arab-American press in this campaign back home: “Using clinical terms, they [the moralists] identified women’s work as the ‘disease’ that was ‘infecting’ the communal body and simultaneously destroying ‘traditional honour’ and ‘modern morality’. In a singular turn of phrase, then, these authors collapsed women’s economic independence with sexual freedom and defied both as detrimental… Like the Anglo-Saxon bourgeois moralists who surrounded them, the [Lebanese] authors sought then to universalise the ’true’ gender identity that derived from middle class history and sensibilities.”

These attempts to force women into the home did not go unchallenged. Women rights campaigner Julia Dimashqiya wrote in the Beirut-based New Woman magazine that a young woman “must enter society through the wide door of work,” while Dawud Naqash (one the few men to support equality) chided men for trying to drive working women into the “idleness of the house.” New girls schools were also set up to teach this morality, leading one equality campaigner, Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, to complain in Minerva magazine that “the purpose behind educating a girl should not be limited to teaching them how to be a wife unless we teach the boy in school how to become a husband.”

Underscoring all the debates lay the factory girl as the antithesis of a dutiful daughter or wife. And their militancy was infectious. In 1913 women tobacco workers in Beirut struck for, and won, 15 months wages for 12 months work, improvement in working conditions, paid holidays, and better health provisions – an exceptional victory even by modern standards. The struggle for equality became tangled with the struggle of working women for change.

The struggles of factory girls hold many lessons for women today, the most important being that women must return to their real traditional roles: leading the struggle for change.

Khater, Akram Fouad: Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870-1920. University of California Press. “House” to “Goddess of the House”: Gender, Class, and Silk in 19th-Century Mount Lebanon International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Aug., 1996)
Quataert, Donald: Textile Workers in the Ottoman Empire, 1650-1922. Binghamton University, State University of New York