When most working women in Pakistan return home from a long often-humiliating workday, the first thing they do is make tea. They serve it eagerly. Just the right color and texture, otherwise it could be splattered across a wall by an angry father, brother or husband. With a smile – wiping away any strains of tiredness because they are making a pitch for permission to work, almost every day. The tea is a symbol of their subservience and their domesticity – Let us work and we won’t falter on our requirement to serve. As a result, they are workhorses, both at home and at the office or factory. Falling short sometimes at both. Throw in a child, a bad marriage or an elderly parent that’s ill and everything is out of whack, but only for the working woman.
Female labor force participation in Pakistan is at 25% according to ADB’s latest data. This is well below rates for countries with similar income levels. This is also well below rates for many Muslim countries. So the social stigma against women who work that is prevalent in Pakistan cannot only be sourced from religious conservatism. Neither is education the only barrier, although it is a significant one. Only 25% of women with a university degree in Pakistan are working. The rest choose, for lack of a better expression – to marinate in the leisure of patriarchy. Standing up to it requires a gargantuan death wish and preferably motorized weaponry.
Experts that study female workforce say that lack of mobility is one of the main reasons women don’t work even when their male guardians allow them to and even when they need to, thanks to gruesome economics. Crime, violence and rampant sexual harassment on the streets are a deterrent to even begin a job search. Only 10% of women on public transportation across Pakistan are spared the routine, grope and shove and squeeze by conductors and passengers, 90% are not. Aurat Foundation found that it is even more rampant than it is reported. When bodily integrity isn’t harmed, women on public transport are ogled at and made to feel psychologically uncomfortable. Women are made to hide in the corners when they step into public space – regardless of how they dress.
Lately, Pakistan has been celebrating the rise of Sima Kamil who was appointed the President and CEO of a major commercial bank called UBL. There have been others too, Alfalah GHP Investment Management, First Women Bank, L’Oreal, Unilever Pakistan have all chosen women to lead their organizations into commercial growth. Sima Kamil made her rise not just as a woman who survived in a male-dominated industry, but also as one who had intersectionalism. As a non-Muslim, Sima faced what we term as double discrimination and disadvantage. The fact that she made it at the top defies status quo and also drives in the point that when women in Pakistan to make it a point to play the game, they often beat their male peers.
What remains tragic is that our economic policies and social policies do not reflect the disadvantages of women who have a double or even multi-pronged disadvantage – being way below the poverty line, being from a minority religious or ethnic community and also being a woman.
One of the largest employers of women with these intersectionalities is the municipalities where for instance, women sweep streets and clean parks. It would make a tremendous difference if they were the focus of inclusion campaigns – financial inclusion campaigns especially, campaigns to digitally empower them, to economically encourage them to the bank and then save, to get them to understand basic skills to expand their income portfolio and also to perhaps give them better health safeguards. These women are exposed to dust and smoke constantly.
More than 74 percent of the labor workforce in Pakistan is engaged in the informal sector according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. Out of this number domestic workers are the biggest chunk. Most of these women start off as children. It is difficult to find a story where these women have not been sexually harassed, physically beaten for minor mistakes or even denied fair wages. This is the most unregulated and undocumented part of the workforce.
Pakistan cannot turn around its economy without reducing the onslaught of violence women face – 9 in 10 women according to Thomson Reuters Foundation. The economic cost of this violence cannot be calculated accurately, but it is safe to say this country would be perhaps an economic giant by now had we treated women more like intellectual assets rather than wet wipes.
The turnaround is somewhat attempted. Punjab has Violence Against Women Centers, there are updated and stronger harassment in the workplace laws for women and there is also the occasional bone thrown to them in politics.
It’s not enough. What needs to happen is the change in mentality that gets a woman to come back from work, kick off her shoes, sit on a sofa and have tea served to her instead. That proverbial cup of tea must be brought to her for respect, for comfort and also, for an apology.