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. 

Radical demands of the 1960s and lessons for our present

Picture: jamhoor

Student and worker movements took place across the world in the late 1960s. So the fact students and workers across Pakistan also came out on to the streets in the same period is not particularly remarkable. However, historian Srinath Raghavan goes so far as to say that, “the uprising in Pakistan was arguably the most successful of all the revolts in that momentous year.” Now this claim is remarkable! For Raghavan, the success of this movement can be measured by the fact that the military dictator it targeted, General Muhammad Ayub Khan, was forced to step down.

However, this essay argues that what was most remarkable about this movement is how radical its demands were. Its success can then be measured in how Pakistani workers, by 1969, believed that they had won. They believed that the factories could be taken over, land would go to the tiller and so on.

An anecdote from this time is narrated by Philip Jones in his book The Pakistan People’s Party: Rise to Power (2003), where he discusses how, during the movement, poorer people walked around the rich residential areas of Gulberg and pointed out the houses that would be theirs after the revolution. Focusing on Ayub Khan or the Pakistan People’s Party (which won the election in 1970 and then dominated this portion of Pakistani history) blunts the radical message of this time.

The people of Pakistan were not articulating demands as Pakistanis alone. They were articulating an agenda for what freedom meant. There were no spies and no enemy agents who were forcing them to believe one thing or another. They, and the recently decolonised peoples across the world, were taking on their governments, taking on American imperialism and articulating a belief in a world that was more equal. It is possible to argue that what was remarkable about the ideas in circulation in the first half of the 20th century is how open political imaginations were. This does not mean that a revolution in which workers took over the factories and maintained hold of them was ever really on the cards in Pakistan, but workers, students and activists all believed it was. Their actions, their political demands, the organisations they formed were guided by this belief. It was this belief, this faith in the inevitability of revolution that fuelled the conspicuous absence of despair. Any discussion of the labour movement in Pakistan cannot divorce itself from this very basic fact.

Why discuss the labour movement in Pakistan at all? Why does it matter that the movement of the 1960s had a radical agenda? It matters because it tells us that our political inheritance as Pakistanis was not just determined by one political party, or by a small segment of Sindh centuries ago. It tells us that as Pakistanis, we shared demands with radicals across the world. These demands were not just those of English-speaking elites, but were articulated by workers and labour leaders. For instance, an excellent account recently written by Ahmad Azhar, traces how the workers of Mughalpura were, from the interwar period onwards, independent from the pressures of nationalist elites and political parties. Their concerns as workers almost always came first, something that would not have been possible if they had not been such a strong, organised and politically important force in Lahore.

Identity and Links

Worker demands for inclusion and autonomy have been written out of Pakistan’s history, but they were there from the very beginning. Indeed, one of the main demands of workers in the late 1960s movement was to have class-based representation in the National Assembly. The qualification to have a BA is, by contrast, an elitist demand. This was a radical demand. Indeed, a look across the sorts of demands that were articulated during the later 1960s in Pakistan shows that workers and students were linking their ideas of freedom to a demand for nationalisation of industries, while also demanding the end of American imperialism. In the context of the late 1960s, these demands were seen as legitimate and workers within their neighbourhoods became considerably powerful as a result of this movement.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece about an important labour leader in Lahore whose notoriety can be measured by how strongly workers in the city reacted to his death in 1974. Abdur Rahman, described as a larger than life figure, was fascinating to me because everyone I interviewed for my PhD thesis, which focused on the labour movement in Lahore, and every story I followed in the archive to the early 1970s somehow touched on the life and murder of this iconic figure.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that his death shut the city down in a way that can only be compared in our contemporary period to the way Karachi reacted to the death of Benazir Bhutto. However, the more interesting story is perhaps not about the man Abdur Rehman himself (though that is a fascinating story in and of itself), but what the rest of the sources tell us about the time– about the 1960s and Pakistan’s early years. In the case discussing his murder, the judges of the high court talked about the power that workers had, and how all employers were wary of upsetting them.

Compare this to the contemporary period, where employers have the right to hire and fire at will. Not only did workers have this power within the context of the factory, it extended into their neighbourhoods as well, where they were able to force their neighbourhood police to be answerable to them. This is crucial because it points to the fact that increasing the power of workers can allow for institutions to become more accountable. No matter how many laws and protective legislation the country comes up with, implementation is only possible if workers themselves have the organisational strength to run and regulate them. There can be no real worker protection without a labour movement and in the late 1960s, workers believed in their right to organise and be part of a labour movement.

Crucial to the labour movement’s organisational strength in the 1960s was also its strong links with students and other groups. Abdur Rehman was present at study circles also attended by students across Lahore’s universities. Part of what made him so powerful was that the labour movements of the late 1960s were supported by students and activists across Lahore. As these groups met regularly with workers, they all got to know and support one another. This support was not just expressed through messages of solidarity, but through concrete political action.

For instance, 1969 in Kot Lakhpat saw several ‘labour camps’ take place where students, lawyers, politicians (both men and women) came to support workers’ strikes for days at a time. This was what labour politics meant. To meet people, to know one another, to show solidarity.

When we are told in Pakistan that politics is not the business of students, we are confusing following party lines with politics. Ideological nit-picking is definitely not the business of students, but building community, getting to know the people you live with and their demands is an essential part of education. Something that this chapter of Pakistan’s history makes clear. You cannot, in other words, have a strong labour movement that does not have links with a strong student movement, women’s movement, and so on.

Indeed, in the 1960s in Pakistan, intelligence reports refer to prominent women like Tahira Mazhar Ali and Begum Shamim Ashraf Malik, but there is also evidence that other women leaders and worker labour leaders were central in this time period. Last year, I spent some time in the Punjab Police (Special Branch) Archives and found several mentions of women leaders in areas like Bahawalpur, who addressed worker gatherings and were clearly important enough to be noted down (by name) by intelligence officials. However, beyond this source, the trail of historical evidence that could have uncovered who they were runs cold.

The point I am making here, however, is that the fact that women were involved in the labour movement is an important part of understanding how working class women were central in the struggle in a way that even progressive historians often tend to miss.

The work of scholars like Cynthia Enloe (amongst others) alerts us to the fact that what we consider to be serious or worthy of being the proper subject of history, is often a result of our own bias. We tend not to look in the right places. We tend to not ask the right questions. I spent so much time during my fieldwork days interviewing men, talking to men and just accepting it when their wives said they did not know much. The ways in which we think are crafted from years of socialisation. What do we consider worthy of knowing? We are taught this answer through our school curriculums, through what we hear our parents talk about and the behaviours we observe. It would not be an exaggeration to state that Pakistanis are taught to disregard radical politics as being antithetical to who we are. One of the crucial lessons of the 1960s and its many histories is that demands for gender equality and a more welfare-oriented state are very much part of our intellectual inheritance as Pakistanis.

Internationalism of Pakistani Workers

International links were important to workers and students in the late 1960s. These were expressed through shows of solidarity. For instance, the death of Patrice Lumumba and the Vietnam War saw student protests take place across Pakistani universities. They were, even then, very clear on the fact that they supported demands for freedom across the newly decolonised world. These global ideals sat alongside expressions of the local demands, so these same students were demanding better hostel and classroom conditions, even while they were attending anti-Vietnam war protests. One of my favourite anecdotes from this time period was narrated by Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, who had invited a group of Vietnamese women who had been fighting against the American army to speak to a gathering of workers in Lahore. The women came to the front of the gathering. They seemed soft spoken and diminutive, so when they spoke and sat down the workers did not quite know how to react. Tahira then went to the front and yelled, “These women fought the Americans! They took down six foot tall Americans who were attacking the Vietnamese!” and suddenly the crowd got to its feet. Cheers and applause reverberated through the hall. This incident meant conveyed to me was a sense of how the world outside Pakistan and outside the factory managed to enter the world of labour in ways that are not entirely visible to us.

Who knew that workers in Lahore actually met a group of Vietnamese guerrilla fighters? The networks between students, activists and labour meant that demands and meanings were constantly circulating, deepening the world of politics and possibilities.

The radical promise of the late 1960s did not deliver. The reasons for why the dreams of revolution were not fulfilled merit analysis and debate. However, it is essential to begin by noting and commemorating the fact that indeed these dreams existed. The demands of radicals of the time are a part of the political history of Pakistan. Centring the importance of workers and the demand for social and economic equality is the only way to truly commemorate the struggles of those who, in the late 1960s, thought a better, more equal future for Pakistan was possible.

 Anushay Malik is a visiting faculty member  of History and Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University.