SOCIETY: WOMEN BREAKING STEREOTYPES

Published September 5, 2021
Clockwise from top: Assembling electrical cicuit boards, filling petrol at a pump, assisting in a small electrical workshop, women can do anything when given the opportunity
Clockwise from top: Assembling electrical cicuit boards, filling petrol at a pump, assisting in a small electrical workshop, women can do anything when given the opportunity

The increased participation of women in the labour force can significantly impact an economy. It helps reduce income inequality, alleviate poverty and boost girls’ education — everything that a country like ours stands in need of. Whereas girls in Pakistan usually shine in academics compared to their male counterparts, the dilemma of our society is that a majority of women take a back seat after completing their education. This results in low numbers of women participating in Pakistan’s workforce in comparison to other countries in the region. It also signifies a major loss of productivity and a hindrance for women’s empowerment.

Data reveals that women’s participation in the workforce in rural areas is high (62 percent), because women carry out the bulk of the work in the open fields, braving the harsh sun and summer heat. In urban areas, however, gender-based divide is a great hindrance to women’s progress in a number of professions and fields of work that are still perceived as men’s domain and where women’s entry is not encouraged by society.

In some cases, however, there are encouraging signs of change. Once urban areas saw women limited to the field of education and healthcare services. But some 20 years ago, when an international food chain hired women in their restaurant serving and management staff, it helped pave the way for women to venture into various fields like the hospitality industry and food delivery services, taxi driving and many others.

Recently, the energy supplier company K-Electric (KE) has begun to make efforts to bring more women into the workforce through its diversity and inclusion programme. Under this programme, KE has appointed ‘Roshni bajis’ in various localities of Karachi, including Malir, Lyari, Surjani Town and Korangi. Women who are part of this initiative visit households to teach families about the safe use of electricity inside their premises.

The women selected for this programme are taught various skills from safety awareness and self-defence, to riding motorcycles and being trained as electricians under the supervision of Hunar Foundation, over a period of five months.

It is heartening to see instances of women in urban areas entering sectors that are considered to be the domain of men

Listening to the stories of a few of the Roshni bajis is inspiring. “My husband also has a job but he always discouraged me to do the same and did not give me my due rights,” says Afshan Parveen. “I always dreamt of providing education to my children so that they could fulfill all their dreams. This prompted me to look for livelihood opportunities. When I came to know about the Roshni baji initiative, I applied and got selected. I managed to convince my husband that the extra income will help make

ends meet, without putting any more burden on him. My earnings have increased and I am happy to bear my children’s educational expenses and fulfill their demands.”

Having a job has broadened Afshan’s horizon more than in financial terms. It has boosted her self-worth while also giving her freedom of mobility. “This program gave me confidence,” Afshan says. “I have learned how to ride a motorcycle and now I can maintain my Scooty myself [with the training I have received]. The convenience of having my own transport gives me freedom.”

Afshan asks her supervisors to assign her visits to far-flung areas, not just localities close to home. “My companions who don’t have their own conveyance can visit houses in close proximity.” She says that most of the households welcome them but initially it was difficult for people to believe that the women were working as KE staff members. Slowly and gradually, however, acceptance for them has grown. It is easy for them to interact with the women of the households they visit and guide them about the safety measures they should take for the protection of their family.

Women who take up work that defies gender stereotypes will stand out in our society as we get used to see such change. At a petrol station, I spotted two young women working as fuelling agents. Like KE, Pakistan State Oil (PSO) has launched a unique initiative by hiring women for filling petrol at the company’s various fuel stations located in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Things have come a long way for her since she began working. At times, during her visit to some houses, she also carries out necessary electric work. She excitedly informs me that, being a trained electrician, she has now acquired a contract to conduct electric work of a few under-construction buildings in Malir.

Abeer Almas, who also works as a Roshni baji, holds an MA in economics. Her husband lost his job during the Covid pandemic and she was struggling to make ends meet. On the insistence of a friend, she applied for this opportunity and got selected. When she started her job, her children’s school fees and house rent were outstanding. The job helped her overcome her financial crisis and now things are better at her home. Abeer also has her own YouTube channel, on which she teaches various safety measures related to electricity usage.

KE has also appointed few female meter readers in Karachi. Two of the tradition-breaking women working as meter readers in Lyari are Farzana Kauser and Shahida Karim. Initially, it was difficult to convince the Lyari residents that female meter readers were really part of KE. Farzana too was reluctant and thought of quitting, but the company encouraged her to stick around.

Women who take up work that defies gender stereotypes will stand out in our society as we get used to see such change. At a petrol station, I spotted two young women working as fuelling agents. Like KE, Pakistan State Oil (PSO) has launched a unique initiative by hiring women for filling petrol at the company’s various fuel stations located in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Tehmina and Sapna are two sisters who work at the PSO pump on Khayaban-i-Ittehad in Karachi’s Defence area. Tehmeena is a college graduate, whereas Sapna has done her FSc. Like Afshan, Sapna rides a motorcycle but the sisters commute to work by bus — their mother does not allow Sapna to drive too far from her area of residence. At home, they faced resistance from their brother when they decided to start work at the pump but their parents supported them wholeheartedly.

Initially, Tehmeena tells me, it was awkward to work in a place crowded by men. “But my colleagues supported me and that gave me confidence,” she says. “The environment at our workplace is exemplary.”

Instead, it is the customers who can make her feel uncomfortable. Some of the customers taunt them and sneer at them, saying they are in the wrong profession.

In Keamari, Khadija Saleem works as a vessel planner for the Regional Operations Centre at Hutchison Ports Pakistan, the country’s first deep-water container terminal. Her work involves planning, executing and monitoring the vessel operations during the port rotation. She is also responsible for inter-departmental coordination, reporting and billing. She, too, was reminded of being in the wrong place when she began her career.

“As I was the only female in my department,” she says “I had to hear stuff like: ‘This field is for men only’. But my boss and colleagues never let me think about such gender discrimination. They always encouraged me to give my best. So, it will not be a lie to say that these challenges have become my strength.”

Similar to the two sisters working as fuelling agents, Khadija acknowledges she is where she is with the help of her family as her biggest support. “My parents always stood by my every decision,” she says. “They trusted me and let me achieve my goals and fulfill my dreams.

“I wanted to make my career in any emerging field,” she says. “After my intermediate, my teachers and family suggested that I go for the field of supply chain, as it has a broad scope. When I researched about it, I found it interesting. I am really satisfied with my [career] decision.”

Khadija shares some courageous advice for women who are pursuing dreams that are not conventionally ‘suitable’ for them: “Never ever let anyone or anything limit your goals. And yes, never let your gender define your goals. Men and women both can conquer the world.”

In a country where preferential treatment is given to a son over a daughter and where women have to face many barriers to carve a path for themselves in a male-dominated society, the efforts of a few courageous women give hope for a better future for the next generation of women.

The writer tweets @KhurramZiaKhan

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 5th, 2021

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