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Footprints: Women in a man's world

Updated March 09, 2018

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SAIMA, who is 40 years old, works from 11 in the morning to 8pm very day. The job isn’t much: she is in charge of the cosmetics section of a high-end supermarket — but the salary is good enough and it helps her support her family.

“It is hard making ends meet, so I have to help my husband earn,” she says forthrightly. “After all, our kids have to go to school too.”

Having studied till her matric, Saima’s education was discontinued after her marriage. “They [her parents and in-laws] thought, ‘What’s the point of her studying now, her new responsibilities will be limited to housework,’” she says. But with serious financial difficulties hitting the family came the realisation that Saima could opt for work too.

“It wasn’t like I suddenly started applying, because I didn’t even know the process,” she remembers from four years ago. “A cousin of mine suggested that the shop in which he worked needed someone at the ladies’ section. Well … I got the job!” she smiles.

Like Saima, many other women step out to work because of financial problems. But the new urban women — especially from the middle socioeconomic classes — are emerging as slightly different. These women are more determined and eager to prove themselves. Most land starting jobs as salesgirls, but are their jobs even half-fulfilling? Much has been said about women from either the privileged classes or those who come from the lowest classes, but what are the motivations for work for women who come from middle-class families?

At the age of 21, Zunaira has already been working as a salesgirl for the past four years. “By the end of the day I am so beat that I just kick off my shoes and throw myself on the bed,” she says. “But I’m always aware of one thing — that along with my brother, I too can be called a breadwinner. That feeling is very powerful.”

Clad in a sober black scarf, Zunaira is busy returning products to the shelf. Many middle-class girls who are encouraged to leave their homes take care to dress down.

“My parents have always trusted me and allowed me to work outside,” she says. “I don’t want any kind of problems at work so I’m very careful of how I dress and conduct myself. Working in this shop is like being amongst family now,” she says of her one year being here. “I work with men, mostly, but they have always been respectful towards me.”

Often, it is the men passing by who pass lewd remarks or flirt, says Fatima. “Just this morning someone said to me ‘You look hot in your uniform’ and then he left. I ignored him.”

For many others, getting a job was always their prime focus. Maria, 22, says that as soon as she finished her Intermediate, she began looking for work. “Our colleges offer only textbook definitions of life,” she explains. “I was always more interested in working rather than studying, so I raced out to get a job.”

In 2017, the UN’s Gender Parity Report showed that Pakistan’s rank for economic participation and opportunity was 143, out of 144 countries. This is a huge gap indeed. A lot of the reasons women here were not included though is because their work involves caregiving and unpaid occupations such as housework, or work in the informal sector; sociocultural factors add to the reasons they do not go to work. But while at the global, regional (South Asian) and even national scale this gap is extremely wide, at the lower level there are nuances, especially in the big cities, where there is a larger and more educated middle class that has begun to let women work outside the home. More of the educated young women belonging to the middle class are taking the lead in their homes, while outside they are trying their best to work hard — not just to earn but to learn too. “I want to be able to do the best I can, even if it’s just selling a product,” says Mehek, for example.

These working women know that it is all about learning a skill. Fatima, who works in her aunt’s salon as well as in an international cosmetic brand outlet, says that even if she ceased working for someone, she could always continue working for herself, because she has the skills.

“The skills of a beautician, they will last me a lifetime,” she says. “No one can take that away from me. And I would advise other women to build up on skilled work rather than randomly look for work.”

Yet though many of the young women found behind shop counters start work with passion, most are unsure about what is to come once they get married. “I will continue work if my husband wants me to continue,” says Sunila, 22, who works as a beauty adviser in a mall. There are many others who also say the same thing. It seems that cultural barriers, particularly concerning life after marriage, still loom.

Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2018