Years ago, a dear family friend (now departed) was regaling me with tales of Partition. One in particular stood out. When the Hindu and Sikh families left Lahore, the handful of teachers who remained at Kinnaird College were summoned by the principal and told to knock on all the doors of the Muslim matriculate girls and convince their fathers to let them enrol in college. There were barely a dozen students left at Kinnaird and the College was precariously close to being shut down. This ‘on-ground activation’ worked; the students’ seats were filled and the College survived and thrived.
Seventy years on, it occurs to me that not much has changed. While we have inched forward, there haven’t been any great strides. The percentage of women working in Pakistan is a paltry 28% and that includes the hordes of nannies, maids and cooks. Not to mention sales girls and fast-food servers. There are those who do a job because they have to and those who seek a career because they want to.
The most popular careers choices for women are still teaching and medicine. Both rank highly on the respectability scale. One is a half-day job (which it really isn’t) and involves interaction with children. The latter is more time-consuming and involves sick people. Other acceptable jobs are working in a beauty salon (you only interact with other women), banking (impersonal and ensconced behind a barrier) – and the media industry. The last ranks high on the aspiration scale for quick fame and fortune. Doesn’t always end well.
The percentage of women working in Pakistan is a paltry 28% and that includes the hordes of nannies, maids and cooks. Not to mention sales girls and fast-food servers.
Where are the lawyers and engineers, the scientists, entrepreneurs and investment bankers? First let’s pause and rewind to the job seekers and the careers carvers. The 28% is largely made up of the former. The rest – confident, educated worldly-wise career women (many of whom read and write for Aurora) are a miniscule percentage.
Conventional wisdom still states that women work either because they have to (therefore must be pitied) or because they selfishly want a life of their own. Not one popular drama in the last decade has had a heroine who works. Out of all the activist social media pages, not one encourages more women in the workplace. And it’s premature to question why there aren’t enough women in hard hats when there are so few women drawing a paycheque in the first place. How do we ‘lean-in’ when we are so far away?
The feminist movements of the 70s and 80s are gathering dust. Articles on rising divorce rates are always accompanied by comments citing the increase in women working as a reason. In conservative circles there is the constant rumble of the ‘role of women’ and the extent of freedom that should be accorded. The niche ‘militant’ feminism that focuses on a girl’s right to drink chai at a dhaba or a court’s controversy with a red-stained sanitary napkin installation is living in a one percent bubble far removed from the average middle-class girl. The one who risks harassment on public buses and in the office, who is discouraged from reaching for any semblance of independence or self-actualisation.
If we want more women in the workplace and making more confident career choices, then we need to build a movement not behind dhabas, but behind everyday heroes. Not everyone can identify with the female truck driver or the super fast runner. Not everyone can be an Oscar winner. But there can be more than one Maheen Rahman, Musharraf Hai, Hibah Rahmani and Nargis Mavalvala. Every girl can aspire to become an investment banker, a scientist or an engineer.
We need to push for better and more equitable representation of women on TV, in print and social media. Let’s talk about how a girl’s brain is as good as a boy’s. That she can think and do. That it’s perfectly alright to work simply because it makes you happy and financially stable. That a man need not fear his wife’s income. That parents and in-laws can be just as comfortable with a girl’s nine to six routine. And one day they might even be proud of her. That if you become a teacher it should be because you really want to teach not because you have no other choice, become a doctor because it’s a life choice. That there are other choices and opportunities and you can be whatever you want to be. That jobs are given to the best qualified candidate and not on the basis of family commitments. Talk to them while they are in school, when they are still open to ideas.
Maybe instead of waxing lyrical at a laptop I should be out there, talking about all that could be, to both boys and girls. Maybe you should too.
Time to start knocking on doors.
Rashna Abdi is the Executive Creative Director at IAL Saatchi & Saatchi. @rsabdi