Yusra is a 23-year-old college graduate from the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad with a decent job in a marketing firm. She’s open to an ‘arranged marriage’ and her parents have been in touch with a rishtay wali aunty to seek suitable marriage proposals for her, but due to a strange impasse there’s been no progress.
“I want to work after marriage. And I don’t just mean any work, I want to have a career in marketing and I want the boy’s family to categorically state that they will support me while I work,” she explains.
“But the rishtay wali aunty says that if I make such demands, then I will either be rejected or I will be chosen by a na-kaara boy who can’t hold down a job and wants the wife to support him.”
I ask her if that’s the worst thing in the world? Men often singlehandedly support families; why does she think she won’t be able to?
“You are right. Men are often the single breadwinners, but in those cases women are taking care of the children and doing the housework. If I am unable to negotiate the right to work during these rishta meetings, you think I can confirm whether this man is going to be making daal and changing diapers?”
In a sense, what Yusra is alluding to is a much contested slogan from Aurat March 2018: khud khana garam karlo. A basic appeal to men — and women who heavily rely on underpaid domestic workers — to share the load in domestic responsibilities.
Learn more: Why I made the sign 'Khud khana garam karlo'
Additionally, if Yusra was to single-handedly support her husband and his family, they would have to contend with the gender wage gap — it’s no secret that women are paid less than men for the same jobs, and that they have fewer opportunities for promotions.
Yusra’s rishtay wali aunty insists that the only way forward is to not bring up career aspirations during rishta meetings. She says these things sort themselves out after marriage.
“I disagree. I have seen all my degree-holding female cousins leaving their careers, one by one, because they couldn’t juggle childcare and domestic responsibilities with their jobs,” she says.
“And the worst part is, these husbands haughtily say ‘We didn’t stop our wives from working, they chose to quit because they understand family values’”.
“Why don’t working men ever take a moment to understand ‘family values’ and change a diaper once in a while,” she asks.
Yusra has a point. According to the last Pakistan Time Use Survey, married women working outside the house and married women not working outside the home spend the same amount of time in unpaid domestic labour: an average of 30 hours a week — meaning that whether the wife is working or not, men’s contribution to domestic duties remains the same: negligible.
The married woman who works outside simply sacrifices her leisure time in order to hold down the professional and personal fort.
If Yusra is to get married, then her balancing act of career with domestic work will be typical in Pakistani culture. What is perhaps atypical about Yusra is her expressed desire to work.
“Women working outside their homes often describe their jobs as a majboori. They exhibit a sense of resentment at the men who have failed to provide for them,” says Dr Nida Kirmani, a sociology professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, whose recent work focuses on feminism in Lyari, Karachi.
Other academics agree with her.
“Most married women in the emerging middle-class outrightly express that they don’t want to work,” says Dr Ammara Maqsood, author of The New Pakistani Middle Class whose current work focuses on love, intimacy and conjugal life.
“Women who work out of necessity worry about their children and housework being neglected. Much of women’s attitude to work has to do with men’s behaviour towards childcare and domestic labour,” she says.
Shaista works as a salesperson at a local clothing store in Lahore. She has a Bachelor of Commerce degree and every day she is on the verge of quitting her job. “Till a few years ago, I had a desire to work,” she says. “Now it’s all gone.”
She explains that her “in-laws love her income but hate her job.”
When I bring up the term ‘working mother’, Shazia scoffs at me. “Being a wife, daughter-in-law and a mother is already a job; on top of that I need to work outside the house as well? That’s TWO jobs!” she says.
“When I get home from the shop, I find that no one has fed my children or looked at their homework, and then I have to prepare tomorrow’s meals and iron my husband’s clothes for the next day.”
Data from the latest Economic and Social Wellbeing of Women Survey in Punjab shows that a married woman spends twice the amount of her time (20 per cent) doing unpaid domestic work as compared to a never married woman (9.3pc), but also that a married woman is more likely to work outside her home given that she has more financial responsibilities on her.
Then, there is the notion of respectability attached — or shall we say, detached — from women working outside the house.
“If I mention quitting, they tell me that I can’t live on their money and that life isn’t free; but on days when I have to work late because of an Eid or seasonal sale, my in-laws remind me that only certain kinds of women work after maghrib,” says Shaista.
A wall chalking in Garhi Shahu, a neighbourhood in Lahore, drives home Shaista’s point. It reads:
Gunahgar auratein kon hoti hain?
— tang kaprey pehnney wali
— ghar ko tarjeeh na deney wali
— ghair mehram mardon say dosti karney wali
Essentially, the second point states that women who don’t value their home above all else are sinful. This idea doesn’t just exist between men, it also extends to women.
As Dr Maqsood explains, in urban middle class settings, “Women themselves don’t think that working outside the home is respectable.”
These notions of respectability are reinforced for married women inside the home by the husband and in-laws, and outside the home by persistent harassment and moral policing.
Another obstacle to employment that women face in urban areas is mobility, which is closely intertwined with respectability and safety. In rural areas, mobility, in a warped way, is less of an issue since women will only work close to their homes.
Dr Kate Vyborny, a Lahore-based development economist who looks at gender, points out, “Married women in rural areas are more likely to work than married women in urban areas since women feel safer in rural areas, as long as they are in their neighbourhoods. Migration to urban areas quells their mobility and heightens fears of security.”
If women really want to work and it’s childcare and domestic responsibilities that are standing in their way, can’t they simply delay, or even forgo, getting married? This is easier said than done.
Getting married is the socially mandated thing to do. Within Pakistan’s socio-economic structure, a woman’s long-term economic well-being depends on marriage.
Dr Kirmani points out that if you want to be part of Pakistani society, you have no option but to get married.
“It’s not just about money and financial dependence,” she says. “There are many other things at play; one of them is women’s perceived sexuality. Even if you can financially support yourself, in an average middle-class neighbourhood, rarely do people rent a house out to single women because a woman whose sexuality is not protected by a man is considered dangerous or morally suspect.”
She says while there are “exceptional women across classes that manage to escape the system, opting not to marry is only a reality for upper-middle-class women.” And even for them, it’s complicated.
Tayabba, a 30-something woman working in Islamabad’s non-profit sector, lives ‘alone’ with another single female roommate.
Last year, after a minor altercation with a neighbour who insisted that she contribute to a neighbourhood fund in which Tayabba was least interested, her landlady received a call.
Tayyaba was informed that neighbours believe she may be running a brothel, and that if she doesn’t ‘mend her ways’, the police will be asked to raid her house.
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In many ways, Tayyaba is ‘privileged’ but it seems that no one is privileged enough to escape the need for male protection.
(At this point, many readers, mostly men, may be thinking, “It’s not women alone who face marriage pressure. Men face it too.” Here’s a quick stat for you from the Pakistan Health and Demographic Survey: 35pc of women between the ages of 15-49 have never been married, compared to a whopping 49pc of men.)
Most importantly, women want to get married and start families.
“Marriage is a huge aspect of women’s daily lives. To be able to socially access the world, you need to get married. You are perceived as a child until you are married. It’s a ticket to adulthood,” says Sabahat Zakariya, a journalist writing a book about single women in Pakistan. She explains that marriage is a norm and people like to fit in.
“There is very little offered to women as an alternative to marriage,” says Zakariya. In fact, if ever women express a desire to stay unmarried, they are threatened with stories of old, unmarried aunts who died alone, after spending a life shuffling between the mercy of brothers and male relatives.
Besides, there are a myriad of other reasons to marry: love, companionship, Sunnah.
“It’s the only way to legitimise your relationship,” says Fizzah Sajjad, an urban planner who looks at women’s mobility. “It’s a natural consequence of our socialisation and exposure to the marriage-obsessed media.”
Additionally, data shows that the most common reason for throwing acid on a woman is a woman refusing a marriage proposal, followed by a woman being suspected of adultery, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s most recent report.
Similarly, almost 50pc of the thousands of kidnappings in Punjab occur because “men wanted to compel the abducted women for marriage”. In essence, a rejection of the institution of marriage leads to violence.
Given that marriage is not an option but an inevitability for women in Pakistan, what can be done to provide women with the choice of working?
But before we get to that, perhaps we should consider why we encourage women to work outside the home.
Under the current system, women are looking after households and children and men are earning. Can’t it go on like this?
There are several reasons the system must alter.
One of the reasons the system must change is that economic empowerment gives women bargaining power within their marriages. Some of this power is linked to domestic violence.
According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2017-18, 34pc of women have faced physical, sexual or emotional violence from their husbands.
“If we don’t work towards increasing women’s economic options, we are limiting their choices,” explains Dr Maqsood. “A lack of options forces women to stay dependent on abusive marriages.”
But economic empowerment is not as simple as women going out and coming back charged with confidence.
Fauzia Viqar, chairperson for the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, explains that a woman’s income gives her bargaining power in a marriage if it’s above a certain cap; the cap varies across socio-economic classes.
So, the fight isn’t just to get women working outside the home, but to ensure that they are earning decent wages while receiving support from their families, and this holds true across socio-economic classes.
Sarah, a 31-year-old mother of two is married to an industrialist. “On the face of it, he encouraged me to work, but as soon as I got comfortable in a job, he complained about how I was not being experimental with dinner anymore. When I explained that my job was taking up time, he hit me, and so I quit,” she says.
“But no, I’ve never considered leaving him, because what will I do? I’ve never worked for longer than three months in my life. Besides, my parents will never let me forget that I couldn’t keep a happy marriage.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Ayesha is a 35-year-old mother of two, married to a drug-addicted daily wage labourer. She cleans houses for a living.
“The days I go to work, he beats me because he thinks I’m sleeping with other men; if I don’t work, he beats me because on those days there are no leftovers from begums’ houses and no food to eat,” she says.
Ayesha also hasn’t considered leaving him, because while she says she could probably make the rent herself, how could a woman live alone? “Aisay nahi hota,” she says.
Viqar explains that as women’s ages and incomes increase, they are likely to gain more bargaining power through economic empowerment.
Another reason the system must alter is because according to Viqar, “Currently, only 26pc of women are participating in the paid workforce. Imagine what could happen to the gross domestic product of Pakistan if this was doubled?”
Dr Vyborny adds that “There has been a growth in investment in women’s education, and if these women were transitioning into the official labour force then we would reap the full benefits of that investment. By making it easier for women to work outside their homes, you would unleash value and growth for the entire country’s economy”.
Currently, Viqar says, the state is losing 30pc of its GDP because of non-inclusive economic policies.
So what is the way forward?
If traditional gender roles are intertwined with economic systems that make it difficult for women to manage their domestic responsibilities and have a fulfilling job, then how do we move past tradition?
Dr Kirmani says that we need to reconsider what we are offering women. “If the work is alienating and exploitative, if it has no promise of upward mobility and if it is coupled with huge amounts of domestic work and the risk of losing your respectability by stepping out, then why should women be eager to work?” she asks.
According to Dr Vyborny’s Female Labor Force Participation in Asia: Pakistan Country Study for the Asian Development Bank, about a quarter of surveyed women say that they would like to work if they could find “suitable” jobs.
Apart from security and mobility, what makes a job suitable?
Let’s break it down in the most personal way possible. What do the women around you, specifically married women, spend a majority of their time doing? Chances are your answer is childcare and unpaid domestic labour.
So, simply put, if men begin to participate in domestic responsibilities, women would find it easier to work outside the homes.
In higher income classes, anecdotal evidence suggests that men are beginning to share the load.
Ahmed, a 35-year-old LUMS graduate, recently quit his job. His wife is financially supporting the household while he has become the primary caretaker of their daughter; everything from potty training to hair styling is his domain.
He recently accompanied his daughter to a field trip with her pre-nursery class. He was the only father present. All other children were accompanied by mothers. This sub-section of society, however, is small, and such fathers are few and far between.
Chairperson Viqar suggests that solutions to childcare don’t have to cost an arm and a leg, or even our value system.
“Imagine 10 women working together outside the home, hiring a couple of women to collectively look after their children while they work. The state can and should provide this kind of basic child care,” she says.
It’s also important that women look to each other for support.
Forty-something Amber has a fancy job at a multinational company in Karachi. In a hiring advert the company recently made, a pregnant Amber praised the company’s maternity leave policy and childcare benefits. But all is not well in her life. Last week, Amber had to let go of Kirat, her maid, because Kirat is five months pregnant.
At this point in our conversation, I paused for a moment, waiting for the irony to sink in.
When it didn’t, I asked her why she praises her corporation for extending maternity and childcare benefits to her, while she herself is choosing not to do the same?
“Well, they are a corporation. They can afford it. For me, it will be a choice paying my monthly car installments or helping the maid,” she says. In this case, even a woman who fully understands the worth of maternity and childcare benefits is incapable, financially and morally, of extending them forward.
If we are to be generous with Amber, we could say that the state is partially responsible. “There is no talk about social welfare for families and mothers because it’s all been privatised. Only the most privileged are able to access childcare services,” says Dr Kirmani.
It also brings us back to the problem of men not stepping up to the plate and sharing domestic work.
“Instead of looking to husbands, we look to underprivileged women for help. And we don’t think of them as fully human, we don’t consider their lives as important as our lives,” says Dr Kirmani.
It’s been a year since the plea for all household members to partake in housework, khud khana garam karlo, went viral. And while this year’s Aurat March is sure to tug at new vital yet sensitive pressure points, we have to consider what shifts in attitudes and policies we have been able to make since last year.
Names, except those of experts, have been changed.
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