Despite being terror-infested, Pakistan boasts a booming economy with thriving business, agricultural, and industrial sectors. The tax collection system in the country is in a shambles, with only 0.92% of the population paying taxes. While the way particular sectors should be properly taxed (or not) is hotly debated, this post will focus more on the country’s informal economy and the increasing share of urban women in feminine businesses, as compared to the formal, documented, male-dominated labor force.
You might be curious why this post only focuses on urban cities of Pakistan. Although there are plenty of women linked with embroidery, tailoring, and baking businesses in rural Pakistan, they do not have exposure to urban markets to sell their skills. Locally, these skills work for them as the basic sources of livelihood.
For those of us who have a list of Facebook friends consisting of people from Karachi, Lahore, Hyderabad, and other cities, we often find ourselves being asked to “like” certain pages (thanks to Zuckerberg’s masterpiece), such as a new local home-based bakery or designer wear. Among my own social circle, many girls have become bakers and designers even though they have degrees in politics, writing, engineering, finance, or business (the last of these, I agree, is relevant).
Several factors are involved in this growing trend of home-based bakers and designers. Many middle-class families still do not allow their daughters to work because most workplaces are still dominated by men. While many big companies look to hire more women for the sake of gender equality, very few of them aggressively deal with cases of workplace harassment or devise proper policies to support female employees.
Findings from extensive quantitative research done by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and Women in Informal Employment Globalizing & Organizing (WEIGO) indicate that 83% of women are part of the informal economy of South Asia. A 2012-2013 report by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics shows that a staggeringly low 21% of women are part of the workforce.
Aside from workplace harassment, wage disparity, and gender-specific job opportunities, ingrained cultural patriarchy combined with religious views on the segregation of men and women (purdah/veil) is yet another factor holding women back from participating in the workforce. From childhood, girls are confined to household chores indoctrinated by patriarchal gender roles rather than equal social participation. Most young girls are educated and then married off right after graduation—an increasing number of girls are even being sent to medical schools to attract better marriage proposals.
“It feeds into patriarchal gender roles and makes them even more entrenched. As such, instead of merely cooking for a household, the woman now feeds an entire clientele,” commented Urooj Zia, editor Laalteyn, on the idea of home-based ventures defined by gender. She further elaborated, “By literally putting a price tag on her cooking/baking/sewing skills, these businesses enforce the worth of a woman as being merely the sum of her household-management abilities, thus confining her worldview to the chaar-deevaari (four walls) once more.”
Financial security is another factor that plays into this trend of home-based bakeries and designer wear ventures. There is not much at stake financially; no big capital is required to set up a small, home-based bakery; and clothes are often outsourced to low-cost tailoring set-ups comprised of local working class, female tailors who provide services for low wages. This makes it easy for the venturing party to open a new business, move it to any new city, or simply close it down if it doesn’t yield good profits.
While some consider this trend a positive sign of women getting financial stability, it is also perpetuating a gender normative society—or rather conforming to patriarchal social norms. It’s often overlooked that before achieving economic stability, it is necessary to break the societal chains that led to dependence in the first place. Catering to gender roles will, in the long run, affect social mobility and employment choices by restricting women to the few skills of sewing and baking.
In Pakistan, it is close to impossible to be a gender bender. Although it is good to see many women gaining economic stability, from a feminist perspective, there is a lot at stake in the long run regarding this regressive but made-to-look-palatable state of affairs.