The Struggle of Middle-Class Women’s Work in Pakistan

By Cecilie Mueenuddin

Towards the end of my year-long ethnographic field research in Lahore in 2017, I met a young woman over lunch in the canteen at her office. Eight months pregnant, she was determined to return to work as soon as her three months of maternity leave were finished. When I asked about her working hours, she told me that she was expected to be at the office from 9 AM to 6 PM every day. In the maddening stand-still traffic jams of rush-hour Lahore, travelling to and from the office took at least another hour. Once her maternity leave was over, she would leave her 3-month-old baby at home with a mother or mother-in-law for ten or more hours a day. When she arrived home exhausted from her office job, one would like to imagine her finally cooing over the baby that she had not seen since morning. More likely, however, she would be occupied with the unpaid domestic work of cooking, ironing, and serving her husband and in-laws, until she finally collapsed in bed around midnight — only to get up at dawn to cook for the family all over again.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance to talk to her again to see how her plans worked out. Based on dozens of interviews and conversations with similarly-placed women, as well as my own experience combining motherhood and a career, I quietly wondered whether she would be able to maintain the double shift of her job and housework. I also wondered how she would feel about leaving her baby at home for so long]. Would she, like so many other women, ultimately resign from her job to focus on caring for her family — telling herself, as women often do, that it was just “until the children are older?”

This scenario, common not only in Pakistan but around the world, shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way our lives and societies are organized today. Women around the world are encouraged to join the labor force, yet both the workplace and household work continue to be structured by patriarchal gender norms, making our attempts at “having it all” — a job and a family — complicated at best. 

In Pakistan, the World Bank has called women’s employment “an economic and social strategy,” arguing that the progress of the nation rests on educating women and getting them into the labor market. Better education and job opportunities for Pakistani women are undoubtedly a great thing. However, this distinctly neoliberal strategy for economic development — expanding the pool of exploitable labor through women — does not say anything about who will pick up the unpaid domestic work left behind by working women. Nor does it specify when all this work will be done. 

Scholars have therefore argued that the world is facing a ‘crisis of care’, in which workers are squeezed from all sides in the service of the neoliberal capitalist economy. Under such contradictory pressures of paid work and unpaid care work, something ultimately has to give. And for many middle-class women in Lahore, this often ends up being the job that they originally hoped to keep. 

The labor market participation of women in Pakistan is currently among the lowest in the world — just 25% of women are employed. In urban areas, where most of the middle class lives, the percentage of women in employment is as low as 10%. However, there seems to be a carefully growing acceptance of women taking paid employment in the Pakistani middle classes, particularly before they marry and have children. It has become quite commonplace for middle-class women to have a job before they get married — and many of these women are determined to continue in their jobs after they get married. After years of neoliberalist policies in Pakistan, with rising prices and widespread privatization of healthcare and education, more families look for an extra income to aid upward mobility. This means that some families are willing to circumvent social conventions that demand that men provide for the family, while women stay home to take care of the children, the housework, and their in-laws. But even women whose mothers-in-law and husbands support, or even encourage, them to take employment often end up quitting their jobs. 

Tahmina, a doctor I interviewed, had a grueling schedule. She worked for five years with the support of her mother-in-law,  who took care of her three children in the mornings while Tahmina worked at her clinic. In the evenings, however, it was more complicated. Tahmina described her husband as “happy about the work, but not very supporting, not at nights. He really wouldn’t sacrifice his sleep.” She was therefore forced to carry her sleeping babies with her to the maternity ward in order to do her job, leaving them with the nurses while she was managing deliveries. Because the housework was also seen as her responsibility, Tahmina had no choice but to sacrifice her sleep in order to do both. “I don’t remember sleeping for more than 2-3 hours at a time during those years,” she told me, “whether it was day or night. I remember cooking even in the middle of the nights.” She still seemed tired when I met her, as if exhaustion had been baked into her bones. 

In her book, The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild discusses the lives of women in similar situations as Tahmina, arguing that they are essentially working double shifts. The first shift is their paid job, and the second shift is the unpaid work they do at home, often continuing until midnight or beyond. For Tahmina, however, the first and second shifts seemed to blend into one interminable, non-stop shift. She ended up exhausted, reminding me of the women Hochschild describes, who spoke about sleep the way hungry people speak about food. Many times, Tahmina had wanted to quit her job, so that she could more easily manage the work at home. Her in-laws and husband wanted her to continue, however, because her income paid for the children’s schooling and they claimed her hard-earned education might otherwise “go to waste.” In the end, it was the arrival of her fourth child that convinced them to give her a break. As Hochschild points out, the main reason why women have to spend their evenings or mornings working a second shift is because their husbands presume this work does not fall under their domain. This is related to the low value placed on women’s unpaid care work and housework, which is considered emasculating for men. With this work therefore placed entirely on women’s shoulders, it is no wonder that the ILO has called unpaid care work the main barrier to women’s labor market participation. 

Pakistani men’s failure to lighten a women’s burden and assume a fair share of the housework is often blamed on their long work hours and role as the primary breadwinners. This argument falls apart, however, when wage-earning women are asked to take on all the housework regardless of their working hours. As one 12-year-old girl pointed out during a classroom discussion at a Lahore school, “When men come home from work, they have the excuse that ‘We are tired,’ but when a woman tries to say that, all she gets is a scolding.” The truth is that a full day of work with the currently expected number of hours is exhausting for anyone — whether male or female — and that exhaustion is only compounded when adding cooking, dishwashing, laundry, children’s homework, and listening to gossip from a mother-in-law. Even in dual-earner households with an equitable distribution of the domestic labor, it is likely that neither parent will have much time to relax in the evening. This is because paid work continues to be structured as if all workers are men with wives at home to take care of the domestic work. 

This unpaid work is essential to maintaining the labor force. Yet, in our current capitalist economy, reproductive and domestic work are not recognized as important. As Nancy Fraser puts it, this “indicates something rotten not only in capitalism’s current, financialized form, but in capitalist society per se.” That is, the capitalist economy rests on the “super-exploitation” of women’s labor and cannot be maintained without the reproductive and domestic work that goes unrecognized within it. 

In Pakistan, the lack of recognition for domestic and care work is further evident in the meager paid leave provided to parents, as well as the lack of safe, reliable, and affordable childcare. Although Pakistani women are legally entitled to three months of maternity leave, many are lucky if they get even one – because the structure of the labor market is not currently built for workers with care duties. On the other hand, fathers usually get no parental leave at all, underscoring their distance from domestic work and childrearing. Many women also struggle to find suitable childcare if they take employment, forced to rely on the free labor of their mothers or mothers-in-law, as hired help and day care centers are considered unsafe.

Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis of care. Although the national lockdown in Pakistan only spanned a month, from April to May 2020, schools have been regularly closed or repeatedly interrupted during the pandemic. In addition, while workers in white-collar jobs were able to work remotely from home, others whose businesses were shut down have been sitting at home without employment. From the conversations I had with middle-class women in Lahore, it is clear that having both children and men at home all day has significantly increased the burden of unpaid work for women. This has translated into more cleaning and tidying, cooking several times a day, attending to the demands of husbands, while also homeschooling or finding other activities to occupy children. These experiences are concordant with findings from the rest of the world, which show that COVID-19 and the accompanying lockdowns have increased the burden of  domestic work for most women around the world, including in Pakistan.

Women who had jobs before the pandemic – many of them teachers – have had to shift to working from home, while also managing the rapidly increasing amount of housework. In India, research shows that women working from home during the pandemic have struggled to do their job more than men, as their work tends to been seen as less important than men’s work. Women have for instance been compelled to participate in housework or to home school their children during their work hours, while men have been able to work more undisturbed. Simultaneously, women in Lahore say that employers have not been particularly understanding of their increased workload and conflicting demands during the pandemic, adding significant stress to women’s lives. 

Of course, one could argue that since most middle-class families in Pakistan employ some domestic help for housework, middle-class women have significantly less housework to do than those who cannot afford such help. In fact, this tends to be the solution offered by middle-class men to the problem of who will take care of the housework if their wives are employed outside the home: “We can hire a maid for that.” However, this is not a solution to the problem of the unrecognized domestic work, nor necessarily to the workload women face. First of all, hiring maids to take care of the housework means that the problem of exploiting women’s labor through double shifts has merely been shifted to a lower class of women. Additionally, in most middle-class households in Lahore, maids only do part of the housework — the dishes, cleaning, and chopping vegetables. The women of the household therefore still do the majority of the cooking, childcare, and caring for in-laws, as well as anything else not trusted to the hired help. Like in India, many households in Lahore have also let their help go during the pandemic. While this undoubtedly increased the financial stress on lower-class women, it also compounded the pressure on middle-class women. Now, they had to do the maid’s work in addition to having their normal responsibilities increased. Particularly for women with jobs, this has underscored how incompatible the worlds of domestic and paid work appear to be – at least in their current iteration. 

The masculine nature of the workplace and labor market, combined with the unpaid and largely unrecognized domestic work at home, therefore means that many women choose to opt out of the labor market. As Pamela Stone has argued, however, this should not actually be understood as a free choice. Rather, women are pushed out of the labor market because of the inhospitable conditions they find there. As a result, they lose opportunities to become economically independent, instead becoming even more dependent on their husbands. It also means that women lose opportunities for self-realization, or a way to escape the confines of the home and the routine drudgery of household chores – important motives for middle-class women to pursue paid employment. Thus, while many choose to quit the labor market in order to save themselves from stress and exhaustion, they may in the process submit themselves to other sources of discontent at home. 

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