A New Generation of Pakistani Women is Changing the Face of the Workforce
Saadia Zahidi on an Unlikely Prestige Job in Islamabad
One chilly winter morning in 2015 in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, I made my way to a local McDonald’s to meet with its female staff. Passing through the metal detectors, I joked to the local branch manager that I had gone from the country with the most expensive Big Macs in the world—Switzerland—to the country with the most protected Big Macs in the world, given the extreme security at all Western-owned companies in Pakistan. The manager, Amir, gave me an overview of McDonald’s patient experiment in engaging female staff, something previously unheard of in customer-facing service roles in the food business. He then led me to a private room where a large group of young female staff members were sitting on neon-colored furniture, surrounded by walls covered in large photos of children’s faces. Although all of them wore identical dark uniforms and black veils (dupattas), Saadia, a natural leader, stood out immediately. She seemed nearly as keen to ensure that I felt comfortable asking questions as I felt to ensure that they felt comfortable answering them.
Saadia is 23 years old and lives in the Chakklala neighborhood of Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s nearby twin city. Chakklala used to be a rural area, but today it holds the main airport serving the two cities, an army and air force base, and several residential “housing schemes.” As it rapidly urbanized, it became home to families like Saadia’s who have made the transition in just one generation from a rural or semirural lifestyle to an urban one as the landscape around them changed. Her big extended family lives together in a typical mohalla—uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents all living together in the same house or in houses adjacent to each other. Meals are often eaten together, social life revolves around the extended family, and celebrations and sorrows are shared. Child care, elder care, household chores, and errands outside the home are also shared, as is income, often indirectly, across the family members. And older generations are intimately involved in all the decisions of the younger ones—whether to study, what to study, whether to work, where to work, who to marry, and when to marry. Saadia is the youngest of her siblings—one of three sisters and a brother, who is her parents’ safety net. In her family, as in many others across Pakistan, girls are often considered temporary members of a family because they will one day join their husband’s family. So parents often invest less in their daughters than in their sons. Boys become prized children, while girls are considered a burden; thus, boys often receive the lion’s share of their parents’ investment in education, with the expectations of a higher return compared to girls.
Saadia’s parents made their choices a little differently. Although they invested less in the girls than in the one boy, they invested in them nonetheless. Saadia and her sisters are truly first-generation education revolutionaries. Their mother received no education at all, as their grandfather didn’t believe girls should be educated. Their father, on the other hand, served, before retiring, as the vice principal of a coeducational homeopathic medical college, preparing students for practicing the traditional medicine that is still favored by many low-income families over Western medicine.
I assumed that it was Saadia’s father, an educator, who chose to educate his girls, but Saadia credits her education to the insistence of her mother, who didn’t want her daughters to suffer the same injustice she did. “My mother was never permitted to study, but she always supported us and always motivated us to study,” Saadia explained. One of her sisters studied to become a nurse while the other became a schoolteacher, but both stopped working after their arranged marriages. Her brother is a medical doctor, lives at his parents’ home with his wife and children, and gives his entire income to his parents, who head the household.
Saadia herself got a bachelor’s of commerce from the Rawalpindi College of Commerce. A degree was change enough between her mother’s generation and hers. With her elder sisters having carved out the path to the workplace already, the act of working was not revolutionary for Saadia, even though it was still somewhat new for women in the family. But then Saadia deviated from tradition even further. A friend of hers had started working at McDonald’s and invited her to join the company. She told her mother that McDonald’s is “such a safe and nice place to work, especially for girls,” and that she wanted to join her friend there. Her mother’s first question was about the uniform; she was familiar with the Westernized version of the local shalwar kameez that most McDonald’s service staff wear. Saadia suggested that she would wear the hijab with the uniform. Satisfied, Saadia’s mother went to persuade her father and succeeded. “To this day, he hasn’t questioned me about my job,” said Saadia.
In Pakistan, McDonald’s is middle-class food; one meal costs much more than most families have for their weekly food budget. Saadia’s own family would only rarely be able to afford eating there. So working in McDonald’s holds very different connotations in Pakistan than it does in the United States and Europe. But working at McDonald’s does have a specific stigma for young women in Pakistan, where traditionally women have rarely held roles in the service industry that require face-to-face contact with customers. Nearly all waiters, shopkeepers, bank tellers, and taxi drivers are men. The idea of their daughters serving customers—including male customers—in a mixed-gender work environment is usually the first concern of Pakistani parents, according to Amir, the branch manager. They are less concerned about the actual or perceived risks of such work and usually more concerned about the judgment from their extended families and others in their community. Saadia confirmed this, exclaiming: “Oh my God, so-called uncles and aunts were the main problem. They still are.”
But after having seen her success and obvious devotion to her work, her parents, Saadia said, “feel not good but not too bad. Actually, they still have an issue about the uniform—trousers and a relatively short shirt. Otherwise, they don’t have any problem.” Saadia’s “short shirt” goes down to the middle of her thigh but is still less modest—shorter and more fitted—than the traditional shalwar kameez. Her brother’s support has helped—he has been a strong advocate, supporting her choice of work, her uniform, and her ambitions. And as for her aunts and uncles? “I’m used to it now. I don’t care what they think or say,” Saadia declared.
Saadia admitted that she started the part-time job just to “have some fun” and to mitigate the boredom she felt from being at home after her degree. But after joining, she said, “I really liked it and decided to make it a career.” As she demonstrated her intelligence, skills, and ability to work hard, she was promoted three times in the two and a half years she had worked there. She went from a part-time crew position to a full-time crew member, then was promoted to crew trainer, and finally became a manager.
Meritocracy and clear pathways in the workplace are relatively new in Pakistan, where ways of working are traditionally shaped by nepotism and favoritism. For young women like Saadia, seeing their efforts rewarded in the workplace, just as they were in school and university, can be eye-opening and thrilling and lead them to become even more motivated to work. The independent income is an almost unexpected bonus. I asked Saadia how she spends her earnings and whether she saves. She gives 30 percent of her income to her parents, she said, and the rest she spends as she pleases: mostly on gifts to her parents, sisters, and friends as well as on lunches and dinners out with friends and gadgets like her cell phone—all new luxuries for her. She said that she has no interest in saving because her parents take care of housing and food, just as she expects her husband will do after she marries. So her disposable income is wholly hers to spend, allowing her to contribute to the household budget while also buying luxuries that were previously unimaginable for her parents, without adding a burden to them.
What about the perceived dangers of working with and serving men? Saadia and the other young women reiterated to me in private what the branch manager had said earlier. McDonald’s enforces strict sexual harassment policies to encourage the recruitment and retention of female staff members. Saadia said that her “male coworkers are very supportive, and they all really respect all female workers. Maybe it’s because of the strict rules of the company, but I think they really do.” Saadia also said that “mostly the customers respect us.” Even transport for her hour-long commute has been neutralized as an issue. McDonald’s provides her and her female coworkers who work evening shifts with private transport. For day shifts she uses public transport, which is a concern, she said, only because of the possibility of petty crimes committed by pickpockets (“two boys tried to snatch my cell phone recently”). Sexual harassment is not a possibility because of the gender segregation on most public transport.
At 23, Saadia has reached the average age of marriage for women in Pakistan. When I questioned her about marriage plans, she told me that she is currently under no pressure from her parents to marry. They expect her to enter an arranged marriage eventually; “I would like to choose,” she said, “but my parents don’t like love marriages.” One condition she intends to put on any suitor’s proposal is that she will continue to work after marriage, unlike her sisters. “I really love to work, but only with McDonald’s. I would marry, but not now. I think I should make my career first, then I should marry.” She recognizes that, even continuing to work, her role is likely to be seen as caregiving and homemaking, as it still is for most women around the world, so she wants to make more progress in her career before signing up for a double shift.
Saadia is not an anomaly. She said proudly: “You know what? I’m really happy that even from my neighborhood 40 percent of the girls are doing a job.” This is remarkable for an area where just one generation ago girls rarely completed secondary school. She said things are truly changing for women, particularly in the last five years. The many women who have gone on to institutions of higher education in the past decade have begun to graduate and join labor markets. Among Saadia’s bachelor’s of commerce classmates, 60 percent were working, not only because of the awareness and ambitions created by educational opportunities, Saadia thinks, but also because of economic necessity. Even in marriage, she said, things are changing. “Fifty percent of men want their wives to be economically independent, and 50 percent think that wives only have to give birth to babies and look after them and their families.”
A new generation of women and men like Saadia have grown up with different mind-sets and aspirations than those of their parents and their communities, shaped by newly acquired educations, new job prospects, and exposure to myriad views, information, and opportunities. Saadia may end up having a long career at McDonald’s or elsewhere, or she may end up leaving her job when she marries. But either way, she feels like she has a choice that is hers to make about her future. That alone represents a remarkable shift.
From Fifty Million Rising: The New Generation of Working Women Transforming the Muslim World by Saadia Zahidi. Copyright © 2018. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.