There is much cacophony around 54-year-old Ghulam Shabbir’s stall. But he is neither selling fabric nor pakoras: his stall is lined with bangles. Circle- and hexagon-shaped bangles, tied in bundles with a jute string, line the shelves at the stall, along with stainless steel karras (bracelets), rings, pendants, threads for prayers and other jewellery items.

But Shabbir is just a seller here.

“These bangles are designed by the women at my home,” he says. A resident of Choorri Paarra neighbourhood in Hyderabad, until recently he was trapped in a kiln for almost 40 years. He now sells bangles at Baba Mukki Shah’s shrine which is situated inside the crumbling remains of Kacha Qila — a fort built by Mian Ghulam Shah Kalhora, who laid the foundation of modern-day Hyderabad in the late 1760s, and gave the city the name it has today.

Despite the poor working conditions and the danger of exploitation, glass bangle-making in Hyderabad is also empowering women who work in the industry from home

Choorri Paarra is located on the outskirts of the city. And as the name suggests, is home to many home-based bangle workers. The area is defined by makeshift factories and work stations where men are engaged in bangle-making. The neighbourhood of Choorri Paarra branches into narrow congested lanes where children are playing.

Like the women in Shabbir’s family, Hoor Bano is another who seems to have found herself while making bangles. It is evening in Choorri Paarra. And as I enter her quarters, I notice it is a small space with a low ceiling. The room is dimly lit and the only beam of light entering it is through the iron grilled window. A metal plate is laid on the ground with flames which light up Hoor Bano’s face and flash on her thick glasses. She wipes her sweaty face with a chador as she hurries to finish the last batch of bangles she is working on.

Mother of three boys, Hoor Bano is one of the estimated 12 million home-based women workers who contribute to Pakistan’s informal economy, according to HomeNet Pakistan, a network of organisations working for the recognition and labour rights of home-based workers.

Home-based workers are defined as ‘own-account workers’ who produce goods and services in their homes for remuneration, as per Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WEIGO), a global network focused on securing livelihoods for the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy. They are further divided into two main categories: self-employed and sub-contracted home-based workers.

The bangle industry employs sub-contracted home-based workers who are provided with raw materials by the middle man or contractor and paid per piece.

Being a widow, Hoor Bano is content to earn a living through bangle work. She works on aligning bangles, known as sadai. Her earnings have enabled her to enrol her children in a private school. “No one has facilitated women the way the bangle industry in Hyderabad has,” she says. “We are able to work from home which is convenient for a single parent like me.” Marching down the stairs to get some grocery items, Hoor Bano scolds her youngest 10-year-old child for skipping Quran classes, emphasising on the importance of Quranic education.

Rimsha and Sana aim to complete 40 sets for the day in Hyderabad | Photo by the writer
Rimsha and Sana aim to complete 40 sets for the day in Hyderabad | Photo by the writer

Home-based workers, however, are not concentrated in one area of the city. Many of them reside in different units of Latifabad, a township in the southern suburb of Hyderabad city. Parveen, a resident of Khwaja Colony in Latifabad, started making bangles when initially her daughter had brought bangles from the neighbourhood for sadai. “We will get five rupees for aligning each torra [set]of bangles,” Bisma had told her mother. A torra consists of 300-350 bangles.

“I don’t have to rely on my husband for household expenses, he doesn’t give me money regularly,” says Parveen. Women such as Parveen are able to assume the role of breadwinners through work, even if it’s from home. “Since I started working, I am in a much better position to take household decisions,” she says.

According to sociologist Naila Kabeer, financially independent women have the agency and empowerment to exercise choice and challenge power relations. Saba Irshad, 25, and the eldest among four sisters, started off with bangle work and eventually joined the Choorri Workers Association and became aware of her rights. House rent pending for four months and father without a permanent job were among the reasons that prompted Saba to take charge of things. She became a door-to-door saleswoman, selling detergent, defying the odds by stepping outside the house — something that her father disapproved of.

“I told my father, I can support the family even though I am a girl. Despite his resistance, I toured Pakistan on a three-month work trip for my company, bringing 50,000 rupees home,” says Saba, shedding tears of joy. Working at home and outside has boosted Saba’s confidence and self-esteem and convinced her father that girls are not meant to be confined inside the house, they can do wonders.

The two ends of a bangles are joined through a process known as Jurrai | File photo
The two ends of a bangles are joined through a process known as Jurrai | File photo

Mother of two kids and a home-based bangle worker, Shaista felt suffocated because of the restrictions imposed on her by her conservative in-laws. “Marriage for me meant losing my independence. My interaction with other bangle workers and union leaders made me realise that I can make choices for myself,” she says confidently. Her own struggle compelled her to become a social worker who now advocates for the rights of home-based workers and educating women on how they can control their income and negotiate wages with the contractor.

The hot and humid weather in Hyderabad is ideal for bangle production, making it the centre of bangle-making industry in the country. Whereas Firozabad in the state of Uttar Pradesh continues to be the bangle hub of India, three glass bangle factories were set up in Hyderabad after Partition by Haji Farid, Shafeeq Sahab and Bashir Uddin Khan.

“I have relatives working in Firozabad’s bangle industry,” says Safar Ali, 70, an artisan involved in the process of murraai (the process of carving intricate designs on bangles).

Behind the making of glittery and shiny bangles, are the dexterous hands of men, women and children. Each bangle, which eventually adorns the hand of a woman, passes through 60 artisan hands and goes through 39 different processes before reaching the market.

Intricate designs are made by hand | File photo
Intricate designs are made by hand | File photo

“Mainly Qureshis, Siddiquis and Khans are part of the bangle industry who migrated from India,” explains Insha Siddiqui, 45, general secretary of Hyderabad Glass Bangles Dealers’ Association.

But recent changes have seen women overtaking men in terms of becoming bangle entrepreneurs. Some of it is because family situations — divorce or being widowed — and some because women have slowly taken over jobs and functions that were traditionally considered to be carried out by men.

Commenting on financial independence, Dr Severine Minot, PhD in Sociology from York University, points out that earning alone doesn’t incur economic empowerment. “Rather it comes with earning and spending income independently so that it makes a home-based worker feel competent and worthy.”

Hair neatly braided, 18-year-old Rimsha explains how her income from bangle work assists in living a better life: “I buy clothes, jewellery and cosmetics from the money I earn. I also spend it on self-grooming which makes me feel good about myself.”

Many bangle makers such as Nasreen are also able to support their spouses in difficult times. Weak eyesight makes her husband Saleem miserable. He has been jobless for almost two months now. He is unable to continue his work as a painter since it requires precision. Nasreen aims to set up a vegetable cart for him from the money she will acquire through bangle work by the end of this month.

On the flip side, there’s also a risk of exploitation of these women by their husbands, brothers, parents or in-laws. Shabana’s sole reason to work was to secure a bright future for her only son. “My husband took my work as a facility for him to become a drug addict, which eventually took his life,” says the gloomy widow with her eyes cast low.

No one realises what hard work goes into making this simple-looking jewellery | Photo by the writer
No one realises what hard work goes into making this simple-looking jewellery | Photo by the writer

A deeper concern is raised by Shakeela, a union leader of the Choorri Workers Association. She says that, at the macro level, home-based women workers are exploited by contractors or middlemen because there are no fixed rates for the sadai and jurrai (joining) processes these women carry out. Since, there’s no check and balance on the contractors, in some areas women get only seven or eight rupees for one torra of sadai. Often, these piece-rate workers (they get paid per set) don’t know if the price per torra has been increased by factory owners, as this is an easy way out for greedy contractors to earn a few more bucks. This is not true for all contractors, however. Javed has worked as a contractor in the industry for 25 years. He argues that home-based women workers are not producing quality work anymore.

Before the Sindh Home-Based Workers Bill was passed on May 10 last year in the Sindh Assembly, home-based workers were not even recognised as workers. “Every registered home-based worker will be entitled to all those social, medical and maternity benefits, compensation, marriage and death grants envisaged in all labour laws, including the Sindh Industrial Relations Act, 2013, and Sindh Terms of Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 2016,” reads the recently passed law.

Currently, the state has no statistical data available regarding the number of home-based workers in the country. “Home-based women workers will be empowered in the real sense once they get their due rights as per the new law, which will take some time,” says Zehra Khan, general secretary of Home-Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) and who played a crucial role in drafting the policy.

Implementing this bill should not take as many years as it took to formulate and pass it. Karamat Ali, Executive Director Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) shares his concern that, in Pakistan, there are a lot of good policies on paper, but implementing them with sincerity and urgency is the real deal.

Meanwhile, as the sun sets in Hyderabad, Hoor Bano puts the bangles that she has aligned in a corner and waits for the contractor to come and collect them.

The writer is a freelancer

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 2nd, 2019