Pakistan’s Working Women: Unsung Heroes of the Service Sector

Posted on January 2, 2011
Filed Under >Faris Islam, Economy & Development, Society, Women
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Faris Islam

For too long, the Pakistani workforce – and most aspects of the public sphere in the country – have been male dominated. For those lower economic strata women daring to venture outside the house for work, employment has either been as domestic servants or hidden from the public eye in women-only workshops and businesses. That is now beginning to change.

A recent video and article by The New York Times suggests there are slow signs of change on this front, with more women leaving the confines of their house and taking on highly visible jobs in the service sector, as waitresses, shopkeepers and saleswomen. With inflation continuing to soar throughout the country, these women fight a daily battle against pressures at home, dangers on their commute, aggressive and harassing customers and even unwilling employers as they struggle to feed and provide for their families.

Often, the working class woman in Pakistan faces danger and discrimination from the outset with the decision to work. One woman highlighted in the piece, and now working as a cashier for a multinational fast-food chain, details how after she started working, her brother “confiscated her uniform, slapped her across the face and threatened to break her legs” if she continued to work. Rabia had little choice, however, as the family’s growing bills – including for her daughter’s schooling – could not be met on their current income. Choking back tears, the father of another worker spoke about his feeling that he had ‘failed’ as a father, feeling he could not provide “an easy life” for his daughter.

Rafiq Rangoonwala, the CEO of KFC Pakistan says this is not unusual, as he has heard about father’s threatening to disown their daughters and fiancés breaking off engagements to women who have begun working outside their home. Rangoonwala speaks from experience, with KFC pioneering along with other companies like McDonald’s and Makro to support female employment and tackle the stereotypes and discrimination these women face. Other businesses have been less forthcoming however, with businesses such as the popular coffee chain Espresso choosing not to hire women. When asked why, Espresso’s owner Kamil Aziz responded to the report that “we felt we had to provide them with separate changing rooms, separate lockers, separate bathrooms” and that they had a higher turnover rate than male employees.

Beyond the perils of the commute and employers still mired in prejudices, customer interactions can be perilous as well. Facing primarily male customers day in and day out, harassment is sadly commonplace. Indeed, asking his female employees about their reluctance to smile, Rangoonwala discovered a sad truth, as they told him “if we smile the male customers might think we are easy.” Fauzia, a KFC employee can vouch for this, as last year a customer followed her as she was leaving her shift and tried abducting her. Able to escape, Fauzia was not deterred, and showed her strength and determination by returning to work and telling the reporter that “the best thing about my job is my smile.”

At the end of the day, the issue of women’s employment is one that goes beyond short-term profits and accommodations: it is instead an issue of societal transformation. In an era of corporate malfeasance, the example of corporate social responsibility and desire for a more equitable and prosperous Pakistan serves as examples all companies should follow. For these women, leaving their houses and going to work every day presents a myriad of problems, yet their determination, as well as economic need see them returning to work day after day, with a polite smile and courteous service for all.

Indeed, it is through their courage that these trailblazers set the path for future generations of working Pakistani women to follow.

Also see at ATP: Indecent Proposal (2006); Meet Saira Amin; PAF Sword of Honor Winner (2006); Being Woman in Pakistan (2007); Few Things bint-hawwa has to Bear (2007); Celebrating the Lives of Pakistani Women (2008); Women at Work (2008); No Women Allowed (2009); Mother’s Day in Pakistan (2009); Working Women: Baji, aadmi aye hain (2010); Mai Jori Takes a Stand (2010); Shazia’s Death: A Call for Introspection (2010), and more.

17 responses to “Pakistan’s Working Women: Unsung Heroes of the Service Sector”

  1. SHR says:

    Hats off to NYTs insight. I strongly believe that these are the realities of our society and as long as we continue to ignore them under false or genuine disguise of patriotism, we will continue to suffer. These great souls, working women in service sector, are the true face of Pakistan who continue to work hard for their families and contributing in development process while obeying all sorts of rules and values.

  2. ali b says:

    The NYT always highlights negative things about Pakistan.
    But in any cast the new Malls that have sprung up and fast food chains like Mcdonalds, KFC and retail outlets like Macro have done a wonderful job by hiring women which must have decreased the financial hardship to some extent.Some organizations like Espresso are giving lame excuses and are being cheap by not investing in building women washrooms or not providing them transport, they make good money and can well afford to invest in providing facilities for women.
    The media should play its part in educating men of the country that there is no harm in letting women work.

  3. Imrana says:

    This is a good trend not only for women but also in the education of men. the Pakistani man has no idea how to treat or deal with a woman. For example, they all jeer and stare when they are with a woman. This is because they are not used to being around women. They need to learn the skills of basic decency.

  4. ShahidnUSA says:

    No more free lunches for women!

    My both elder sisters worked in Pakistan and dealt with the situations.
    I do not remember them complaining and were quite able to kick anyones butt.

    I do remember when I needed to borrow thousands of dollars, she gave me from her own hard earned money and not from her husbands account. Of course I returned every penny but I will never forget that help in need.

    Even today she gives me ride to the airport and drives better than I do.
    And always ready to give me advise, thats another thing that I listen very little of it…oops :)

    Warning: I know this is Internet and I do not LIE.

  5. Naheed says:

    Thank you for highlighting this issue. This one change – more women in the workforce – will change Pakistan more profoundly and for the better than everything else.

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