This past weekend, the NY Times published a video report by Adam Ellick, which delved into the growing number of lower-class women in Karachi entering Pakistan’s service industry. In the accompanying article, he wrote, “The women are pressed into the work force not by nascent feminism but by inflation, which has spiked to 12.7 percent from 1.4 percent in the past seven years. As a result, one salary — the man’s salary — can no longer feed a family.”
In the last five years, the female employment at fast food chain KFC has risen 125 percent. KFC Pakistan CEO Rafiq Rangoonwala told Ellick, “It’s not just the economic need, but need of the nation. Otherwise, Pakistan will never progress. We’ll always remain a third-world country because 15 percent of the people cannot feed 85 percent of the population.”
The story is interesting because of its commentary on women’s foray into the workplace, how employment leads to economic empowerment, and how this subsequent independence is considered a threat to the gender status quo. It is the age old power struggle. In the case of these Pakistani women in the service industry, they have faced constant resistance from “harassing customers and disapproving male relatives,” as well as much more conservative traditional and religious values. One woman told Ellick that her brother’s biggest stance is, “Our sisters don’t leave the house, God forbid they get ahead of us, or that they earn so much that we don’t have any importance…”
These women are therefore walking a thin line between earning a living and challenging societal norms, facing constant opposition from men who are threatened by this growth and continuing to view them as objects. Ellick noted that some KFC female employees were reluctant to smile for fear that male customers would think they “were easy,” while other men may label female workers as prostitutes or worse. Such perceptions are damaging, resulting in broken engagements and numerous safety concerns. In fact, one customer was so taken by a female worker’s smile, noted Ellick, that “he followed her out the door and tried to force her into his car.”
This issue is certainly present in this society, but it’s also a universal problem. How many times have we all heard, read, or seen stories of rape or assault in which the victim has been blamed for her clothing choice, her profession, or the way she looked overall? How many times have we heard the phrase, “She was asking for it?” In the case of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and the rape allegations in Sweden, he shockingly considers himself a victim of “revolutionary feminism,” even noting that one of the women was wearing a “revealing pink cashmere sweater.” No words, [though check out this great piece over at New Wave Feminism, "The Handy Guide to Not Raping People in Seven Easy Steps."]
If you’ve been watching the Pakistani news over the past few weeks, then you also heard that very statement uttered by police officers and Sharmila Farooqi (see Sana Saleem’s brilliant open letter here), after a young woman in Karachi was gang raped. Rather than siding with the victim and protecting her privacy, Farooqi revealed her identity and proceeded to malign her character based on irrelevant details, causing the girl to withdraw the case.
Such attitudes are infuriating and ignorant, and further perpetuate the cycle of gender-based violence and discrimination. In television shows like Mad Men, set in an advertising agency in the 1960s, the evolution of women in the work place in the U.S. is continuously illustrated and is a reminder of how universal these issues are. In Pakistan, as Ellick noted, employers are reluctant to hire this growing generation of lower class women because of the subsequent investment, though supermarket chain Makro currently spends $8000/month on offering free transit services for its female workers, “to protect them from harassment and to help persuade them take jobs where they may face hostility.” As a result, Makro’s female employment has quadrupled since 2006.
Other employers are reluctant to hire women because of the high turnover rate, particularly given the expectation that many stop working after they get married. Again, a familiar scenario, not that different to the evolution of workplaces in the West or even among women working in higher-end jobs in Pakistan (though obviously the cultural and religious nuances add more layers to this situation). It is a constant struggle and debate about entrenched gender roles and how, as women become more economically empowered, the status quo begins to shift. Therefore, it is important to note the intrinsic link between economics and feminism (via empowerment).
Zeenat Hisam, a senior researcher at the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research told the NY Times, “We’re a society in transition. Men in Pakistan haven’t changed, and they’re not changing as fast as our women. Men want to keep their power in their hand.” The question of course remains, is how to reconcile these differences in order to preserve such modes of empowerment without endangering these women’s safety – at home and in the work place.