Here’s a piece I wrote for the All Things Pakistan blog on the appointment of a media ombudsman for one of Pakistan’s newest media networks. For the article in it’s entirety (with comments, links and pictures) as well as links to the orinigal NYT piece follow the link.
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.