KARACHI, Pakistan – Dinner at Rabia Sultana’s house is now served over a cold silence. Her family has not spoken to her since May, when Sultana, 21, swapped her home life for a cashier’s job at McDonald’s.
Her conservative brother berated her for damaging the family’s honour by taking a job in which she interacts with men – and especially one that requires her to shed her burqa in favour of a short-sleeved McDonald’s uniform.
Then he confiscated her uniform, slapped her across the face and threatened to break her legs if he saw her outside the home.
Her family may be outraged, but they are also in need. Rabia Sultana donates her $100 monthly salary to supplement the household budget for expenses that the men in her family can no longer pay for, including school fees for her younger sisters.
Sultana is part of a small but growing generation of lower-class young women here who are entering service-sector jobs to support their families, and, by extension, pitting their religious and cultural traditions against economic desperation.
The women are pressed into the work force not by nascent feminism but by soaring inflation, which has spiked to 12.7 percent from 1.4 percent in the past seven years. As a result, one salary – the man’s salary – can no longer feed a family.
“It’s not just the economic need, but need of the nation,” said Rafiq Rangoonwala, the chief executive officer of KFC Pakistan, who has challenged his managers to double the number of women in his work force by 2011. “Otherwise, Pakistan will never progress. We’ll always remain a third-world country because 15 percent of the people cannot feed 85 percent of the population.” Female employment at KFC, formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, in Pakistan has risen 125 percent in the past five years.
Several chains like McDonald’s and the supermarket behemoth Makro, where the number of women has quadrupled since 2006, have introduced free transit services for female employees to safeguard them from harassment and to lure them into an overtly hostile workplace.
“We’re a society in transition,” said Zeenat Hisam, a senior researcher at the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research. “Men in Pakistan haven’t changed, and they’re not changing as fast as our women. Men want to keep their power in their hand. The majority of the people here believe in the traditional interpretation of Islam, and they get very upset because religious leaders tell them it’s not proper for women to go out, and to work and to serve strange men.”
More than 100 young women who recently entered service jobs told of continual harassment.
At work, some women spend more time deflecting abuse from customers than serving them. On the way home, they are heckled in buses and condemned by neighbours. It is so common for brothers to confiscate their uniforms that McDonald’s provides women with three sets.
“If I leave this job, everything would be OK at home,” Sultana said. “But then there’d be a huge impact on our house. I want to make something of myself, and for my sisters, who are at home and don’t know anything about the outside world.”
Pakistan ranks 133 out of 134 countries, according to the 2010 Global Gender Gap Report’s list of women’s economic participation.
Some women, like Saima, 22, are forced to lead secret lives to earn $175 a month. Her father’s shopkeeper salary does not cover the family’s expenses. Without a university degree, the only job Saima could find was at a call centre of a major restaurant’s delivery department. But she impressed the manger so much that he offered her a higher-paying waitress job at a branch near her home.
She reluctantly agreed, but pleaded for a branch two hours away so she would not be spotted by family members and neighbours.
“I’ve completely changed myself here,” she said in the corner booth of her restaurant before her co-workers arrived. “But honestly, I’m not happy with what I’m doing.”
The women interviewed said they had to battle stereotypes that suggested that women who work were sexually promiscuous. Sometimes men misinterpret simple acts of customer service, like a smile. Fauzia, who works as a cashier at KFC, said that in 2009 a customer was so taken with her smile that he followed her out the door and tried to force her into his car before she escaped.
But many women see benefits along with the hazards.
Most women said that they had never left the house before taking a job. Many spent the first five months missing buses and getting lost. When they first arrived at work, they stuttered nervously in the presence of men.
Now, they know better.