March issue 2009

By | Life Style | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

“I don’t want to just sit at home, making myself new clothes and grooming myself, keeping up with the latest fashion. I have a mind, I want to use it.”

Wearing black pants and a smart striped button-down shirt, Rizwana confidently explains her reason to come to work at Eskay’s beauty salon. Every morning she takes the bus from Landhi, where she resides with her parents and six brothers, to the high-end salon in Defence. She joined a pharmaceutical company after completing her BSc., and in hopes of pursuing her MSc., she switched to a job that would allow her more time to study. Rizwana has been working at the salon for over 10 years now and was promoted from receptionist to manager soon after she joined. She is satisfied with her job and proud of working hard.

Many women like Rizwana have chosen to work, compelled either by the desire to put their education to use and earn a sense of independence in an otherwise patriarch-driven society, or due to economic pressure. Many more women have stepped into employment than in the past. Just two decades ago, women officially comprised only 13% of the labour force in the country (1990): yet to anyone participating in the everyday activities of the urban world’s consumer and service industries, the change is now evident.

Most women are engaged in informal sector work. Generally, they are from low- income groups, and contribute towards a family, which they must raise simultaneously; or are still in the process of completing their education. Whatever the case, they are working round the clock. They are dedicated to deliver skilled service at work and at home. And this is where the indefatigable striving of Pakistan’s working women has transcended perfunctory utilitarianism and provided the fairer sex with the desire to achieve rather than just get by: women belonging to more progressive — if lower-class — households share a sense of pride and comfort in possessing a career of their own, like their husbands, brothers or fathers.

Hafsa works at McDonalds. She holds a BA in mass communication from the University of Karachi. She exhibits a bold and engaging confidence when asked if she has any qualms about working in a public place such as this. She declares, “This [working] is nothing to shy away from; in fact, I think the mentality of people needs to be changed. If I work, that does not mean that I have a bad character, but they automatically assume that. This is very normal in our society, a lot of women go though it.”

Similarly, a saleswoman at a departmental store, Sana, says she took up the job more for the sake of interest and for personal growth than any other reason. “I’m doing this because I’m very interested in marketing and I feel that we should all try different things and try to gain experience at different places.”

The salary range for the service industry sector is approximately Rs 6,000 to Rs 10,000. A large portion of the income is apportioned to school fees — whether for the earner’s own educaton or for her children or siblings — personal and medical expenses. A prevalent problem for those who do not work for multinationals is transport. Commuting exhausts a considerable amount of time for the ladies and the unruly management of the bus routes and stops, and male passengers neglecting the segregation of seating within the public buses is a common cause of irritation and anxiety. At the workplace, strong policies against discrimination and harassment are usually found only at the foreign franchises.

Also worth acknowledging is that the opening of fast food franchises and cafés in the country have prompted a considerable number of women to come forward and work in a more public domain, rather than working in beauty salons, undergarment stores strictly for ladies, as nurses and attendants at hospitals or as cleaning staff, be it at a residence or an airport.

But life can be tough indeed for the working woman. Fouzia, a house maid, struggles in a tough and emotionally taxing situation for the sake of earning an livelihood. “My husband and I moved to Karachi in search of employment. We have a nine-month-old son whom we have left behind with my mother. This is the first time I’ve ever worked and the first time I’ve ever seen Karachi. I really miss my son, but times are hard and we need the money. Both of us are working — my husband works in an office and I have a day job cleaning one house.”

The trend of both partners working to support their family is increasing. Fizza, a graduate and a young mother of two, has been working as a beautician at a posh salon for nearly 10 years. Her husband works in the property sector. With her youngest just starting school, she leaves the children with her mother-in-law during the day.

We tend to always refuse to believe that Pakistan is at any time ready for a progressive change. Men still snigger at how bad driving is a dead giveaway that a woman must be at the wheel. A young woman walking through a bazaar will still catch strains of cheap songs in her wake. Men at the bus stop will still leer at the woman who is trying to catch a bus. But consider the women we meet everyday, cleaning your kitchen, blow-drying your hair, helping you find the product you are searching for at the supermarket, making a receipt for your phone bill, giving you driving lessons, welcoming you to your favourite lunch hangout and assuring you good service at your table. They are out there, working shoulder-to-shoulder with the men, who are accepting them as colleagues and supervisors too.

In 2005, the Mahbubul Haq Human Development Centre reported that women contribute towards 28% of the total labour force, three-fourths of which comprises the informal sector. The change is certainly gradual and there is much room for improvement. Despite the steep road, it is heartening to see the women workforce — both young and old — casting off the conventional limitations placed upon them and reaching out towards more freedom and security to make a place for themselves in today’s Pakistan.

They offer service with a smile. A smile of confidence and faith in themselves to keep going forward. These women have struggled to rise above their constraints, and wrest the best they can from life.