Pakistan has the lowest female labor-force participation rates in South Asia and urban areas perform especially poorly . Distinct patriarchal norms interlinked with migrant status can affect women’s autonomy and thus labor-force participation in different ways. Recently the Collective for Social Science Research conducted fieldwork for the IGC supported project ‘Women’s Agency and Mobility in the mega-city of Karachi and their Labor-Force Participation’ at three ethnically purposive sites. Many female respondents mentioned instances, relative to patriarchal norms and structures of their communities, which informed their ability to work in the city. In this blog, we attempt to present a current snapshot of some of the diversity of women’s experiences with regards to labor force participation in relation to their community norms and migrant status in Karachi.
Lyari is considered one of the oldest neighborhoods in Karachi, and pre-dominantly consists of Baloch and Katchi populations that have long assimilated here. Most young Baloch and Katchi women we interviewed preferred to work and complete their education.3 Two-thirds of younger women have at least completed Intermediate exams and nearly all aspired to hold undergraduate degrees if they didn’t already. In terms of mobility, our female Balochi respondents within Lyari did not report restrictions on mobility from patriarchal figures in the household or street harassment by strangers to the same degree as in other sites where this study was conducted. One respondent who works as a teacher noted that her community respected her a lot for her job, and that when she is walking to work, men actively move out of her way. The extent of mobility and the relative lack of restrictions described by some of the Balochi women around issues of respectability and safety, strictly in a comparative sense with other localities in Karachi, have been surprising for us to learn and are indicative of norms improving overtime, in conjunction with length of the migration period.
In terms of hindrance to employment, an issue most women noted was labor-market discrimination pertaining to ethnicity rather than gender. Nearly all of our respondents complained about rampant racism in the rest of the city against Lyari residents and its adverse effects on their employability. Being Baloch in addition to being a Lyari resident compounded the problem more so.
Baldia was selected as a site because it consists of predominantly Pashtun migrants. For women, earning was considered disgraceful and dishonorable because it implied that the household was running on the woman’s income instead of the man’s and the sense of emasculation is a major cause of disrepute for the men in the community. Despite income issues, prospects of poverty still do not seem to mobilize women or let men from their household to relent and let them work or earn. The only instances women resorted to working were in the face of extreme destitution as a result of the absence of a male patriarchal figure and bread-winner in the household, at the expense of disrepute in the community. Older women also hardly held jobs – not even cleaning jobs in households, unlike the other two sites we investigated. Similarly, in terms of education households frequently stopped their daughter’s education after primary school or once they reached puberty, and cited ‘azaad mahol’ (permissive environment), which points towards future potential constraints to labor-force participation.
Korangi was chosen due to the ethnically heterogeneous nature of the community and the prevalence of Urdu-speaking and Sindhi populations in the area.
In terms of employment, similar to Lyari, the long assimilated Urdu-speaking and Sindhi women did low-paying private school teaching jobs. If they had income issues they took up better paying, but far more demanding, company or factory jobs. Working in the nearby garment factories was commonly reported by some of the respondents. Older uneducated women usually took up work as cleaners in other households but this was not considered respectful work by them. In contrast, newer Sindhi migrant women were not allowed to work at all, especially if they were young, due to anxieties pertaining to the strangeness of the new and unfamiliar city.
There is indication that patriarchal arrangements relative to migrant status and cultural notions of respectability, determine the extent of women’s participation in the labor market. The relegation of women’s labor force participation only to certain acceptable occupations or by keeping women at home entirely, unquestioningly indicate that gender norms play a role in shaping women’s labor force participation in Pakistan. In an urban context, mobility is complicated by distinct norms pertaining to patriarchy within their communities, geographic and spatial anxieties due to migrant status, and histories of conflict within the city. Our preliminary findings suggest a differentiated employment strategy concerning women’s labor-force participation, underpinned by social-policy that is context-specific to communities within Karachi is needed.
Natasha Ansari is a Research Associate at Collective for Social Science Research.
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