Gender, Work, and Globalization in Pakistan


A review of Chaddors and Pink Collars in Pakistan: Gender, Work, and the Global Economy by Zehran Yasmin Zaidi.

Muslim women have become a central site for examining the “progress” of Muslim societies. Viewed as victims of their own patriarchal culture, Muslim women are to be empowered primarily through participation in the labor market. Zehra Yasmin Zaidi, in her dissertation study, complicates this individualistic and market-oriented conceptualization of empowerment by showing how the Pakistani women workers of international call centers, a non-traditional profession for women in Pakistan, negotiated and managed the work culture of a transnational organization as well as cultural expectations of their gender. This project studies the relationship between gender, work, and globalization by focusing on how women’s workplace experiences impact their lives and gender relations in private and public domains. Through examining the lived realities of these women workers of global call centers, Zaidi theorizes that the global interacts with the local to produce not only opportunities but also new regulations for these women. These women workers are part of the “global workforce,” which the author defines as “transnational organizations that use technology to provide service to clients worldwide through employees who are local internationals, based in one country but travelling electronically through their work to different countries” (p. 2). Through analyzing this interaction of local and global, this study challenges the mainstream conceptualizations of empowerment by showing how the participants engaged in a “patriarchal bargain” (Deniz Kandiyoti, “Bargaining with Patriarchy,” Gender & Society 2(3), 1988, pp. 274-290), which made certain rewards accessible while simultaneously reinforcing other gender norms. Empowerment, thus, is approached as the “ability to make choices” (p. 5) in a particular cultural context, instead of merely participation in the labor market.

Chapter 1 outlines major debates in gender and globalization literature to ground claims about the interconnections of the local and global and the way these interconnections shape the lives of women workers in transnational organizations. These debates range from asserting the current processes of globalization as nothing new, to these processes being a transformative force for political and economic structures in different countries. In addition, some scholars view globalization as central for progress through enterprise and entrepreneurship, with open markets and fair trade leading to economic opportunities, prosperity, and participatory politics. Others show how globalization has increased unemployment, poverty, and marginalization of the less privileged in different countries. The literature of gender and globalization has also highlighted the negative effects of globalization, such as the feminization of labor among other issues. The author presents a synthesis of these different debates to argue that whereas women’s paid work has not necessarily resulted in expanding freedoms, it has created opportunities for greater autonomy and empowerment in non-work related domains. However, these processes are not universal. Instead, they have to be contextualized in the local gender and class relations in order to examine and understand the impact of globalization. For example, middle-class women’s engagement in pink and white collared jobs may have a different outcome as compared to the working-class women’s participation in factory lines. This uneven impact of globalization, thus, makes globalization a local phenomenon.

Chapter 1 also presents an informative review of literature on call centers focusing on India. Call centers offer an interesting site where class, gender, religion, and ethnic identities and structures are reorganized in a particular institutional culture. Zaidi also presents an extensive review of the social, legal, and cultural conditions of women living in Pakistan. Pakistan, like many other developing countries, experienced a feminization of labor, especially in the informal sector, as a result of globalization. Though the overall literacy rate of women in Pakistan remains low, the author emphasizes the need to be mindful of the diversity that exists within and across the rural and urban women in terms of class and ethnic backgrounds. This discussion also problematizes the binary of “modern” (seen as secular) versus “conservative” (seen as Islamic) by discussing how, in some cases, it is women with hijab who have entered into male-dominated professions in Pakistan.

In Chapter 2, Zaidi provides information about the research sites and research participants. The study employs Poster’s “gendered global ethnography” to combine the macro-meso level conceptualization of Ong, Salzinger, and others with the micro-interactional focus of West and Fenstermaker in order to examine the intersections between global economy, society, and family that shape the identities and lived experiences of the women workers (Winifred Poster, “Racialism, Sexuality, and Masculinity: Gendering ‘Global Ethnography’ of the Workplace,” Social Politics 9(1), Spring 2002, pp. 126-158; Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty, Durham: Duke University Press, 2006; Leslie Salinger, Genders in Production: Making Workers in Mexico’s Global Factories, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006; Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker, “Doing Difference,” Gender & Society  9(1), February 1995, pp. 8-37). The author conducted participant observations of the work place and in-depth qualitative interviews with 55 employees of the two major call centers in the Pakistani cities of Islamabad and Lahore from January 2008 to February 2010. 34 female employees were interviewed, whereas 21 interviews were conducted with male employees to understand how they perceived their women colleagues. In addition, ten family members of the female employees, as well as three government policymakers, were interviewed. The author also conducted participant observations at the two call centers.

It is important to note that such call center jobs are considered pink collared jobs in Pakistan because they require educational credentials as well as fluency in English (Pakistan’s national language is Urdu). In addition, the salaries are often higher than in many other professions open for young individuals with similar educational qualifications. However, these jobs are still considered “untraditional” for women because these call centers primarily operate at night to serve the Western clients who reside in a different time zone. The author used ATLAS.ti, a qualitative software program, to transcribe interviews. Later, deductive and inductive codes were used to examine the issues around gender and globalization, women’s empowerment, class, and identities.

Chapter 3 takes us into the gendered world of the “Virtuous, Respectable, Wannabes, Bad, and Independent” women workers of the two call centers. Whereas the call centers presented a space quite distinct from the outside world in terms of its flexible gender norms regarding women’s dress code, interactions with men, and strict gender harassment policies and practices, women workers had to enact a certain form of domesticity at their work place to create a delicate balance between work and family. The women and men workers used the labels mentioned above to refer to themselves as well to other women, with the exception of “Wannabes” and “Bad,” which no one used to refer to themselves. These labels mobilized existing contested constructions of Pakistani women that employ women’s clothing, speech, and behaviors as their identity markers. In addition, these labels help us understand how the lived realities of the women workers simultaneously operated on and problematized the traditional/modern binary. For example, “Independent” women were seen as respectable even though they did not abide by all the gender norms. Their difference from “Bad” women, the most frowned upon group, was that they were not seen as sexually promiscuous. Sexual deviance was also the mark of distinction between different and yet acceptable “Wannabes” and “Bad” women. Like “Bad” women, “Wannabes” were seen as westernized in their speech and clothing, but were still abiding by the gendered sexual norms. Interestingly, “Respectable” women, polite but neither modern nor conservative, were seen as Pakistani in their values, as were the more religiously-inclined “Virtuous” women. The performance of these gendered identities was grounded in the class backgrounds of the workers. For example, working-class women were expected to abide by the gender roles more strictly as compared to the middle and upper-class women whose “westernization” was seen as more acceptable. This chapter analyzes how the identities of the women workers of the call centers were shaped by the intersection of gender, class, and religion as they became part of the global workforce.

Chapter 4 highlights how young urban Pakistani women and their families do and redo gender and class to enter into a profession that can damage women’s image as “virtuous and dutiful daughters.” The women navigate a complicated cultural terrain to mitigate the stigma attached to working outside of home at night and in close proximity of young men of their own age. This chapter is an insightful analysis of the process where women violate certain gender norms, on the one hand, and on the other hand present themselves as dutiful daughters. Again, this requires creating a delicate balance between their identities as assertive global workers and as submissive daughters who do not make any decision without the consent and permission of their families. The author conceptualizes it as a patriarchal gain that allows women to participate in non-traditional employment outside of home, but requires women to observe cultural norms in non-work related matters. The dynamics of this process can be understood by examining how class and gender operate in Pakistan. Many women workers who were interviewed by the author came from working-class backgrounds, yet made contradictory claims about working out of choice rather than economic necessity. These claims were grounded in a cultural narrative where middle and upper class women’s employment was viewed as a reflection of progressive values rather than a challenge to father’s role as male provider. In addition, for families to rely on women’s income created a social stigma for women and their families. The women workers, thus, claimed a middle-class identity to assert their roles as dutiful daughters and their families as progressive and supportive institutions. Similar contestations became evident as the women and their families claimed the “professional” status of the call center work even though it involved the mundane task of responding to around 300 calls per day. However, this identification of their work helped women and their families to claim a respectable status in their communities and neighborhoods. This chapter showed how the women workers reimagined gender scripts to overcome sociocultural resistances to young unmarried women working in an untraditional profession. These women thus emerge as active agents who do and redo gender, instead of as passive victims of their culture.

To show “gender in action,” Chapter 5 focuses on the marital status of six women workers as an analytical category to examine intra family micro-processes. The analysis shows how these women adopt strategies based on their marital status to engage in patriarchal bargains with their families. For example, single women create and mobilize “trust credits” that they have generated with their families by seeking the family’s permission for any non-work related activity, not violating gender norms regarding clothing and behavior in public, and opting for “arranged” marriages. As a reward, they were allowed to take up jobs, become mobile in the public domain, and spend time with friends. For engaged and married women, these strategies varied based on the circumstances of engagement and marriage. For instance, women who chose their husband/fiancé against the wishes of their families had to take on a submissive/serving role in their marital relationship. These women had to prove that they were “good” women even though they had violated gender norms that dictated women to enter into marriages arranged by their families. The strategy of married women in this context was to use “financial credit,” as they contributed significantly to the household income. This chapter brings to light the interplay between individual agency and social structures that leads to social change as women become part of global workforce in countries like Pakistan.

Does labor market participation empower women? Chapter 6 further complicates this question by challenging the conceptualization of empowerment as control over resources. Whereas paid work for women changes gender relations, the impact of such work on women’s lives is complex and multilayered. For example, the participants defined empowerment as confidence, maturity, education, determination, stubbornness, and depending on oneself. An empowered woman was seen as assertive and yet able to gain the support and trust of those she valued. Whereas earning financial resources was important to gain confidence and assertiveness, it was the usefulness of such resources for the family that seemed to have empowered women in this particular context. In the collectivist society of Pakistan, empowered women negotiated, compromised, and worked cooperatively instead of openly confronting or contesting people and/or institutions. Thus, empowerment, agency, and autonomy are to be approached as multidimensional processes grounded in their socio-relational context.

Chapter 7 outlines the policy implications of this research that asks: Can a system of inequity, such as global capitalism, create space for advancing gender equity? The response redefines the meaning of gender equity by placing it in a specific sociocultural context. This study shows that women workers and their families were willing to change the social script if the rewards for doing so were secure and monetarily worthwhile. The call center profession not only provides financial security but also a safe and transparent work environment conducive for women. The analysis of the call centers shows how opportunity structure is to be transformed through changing the political, economic, and social frameworks. In order to encourage women’s participation in the workforce, certain policy and institutional level reforms are to be introduced. For example, women are to be provided transport to commute to work, a secure work environment free of harassment, anti-gender discrimination policies and practices, and state regulations that provides job security to women. Thus, it is not merely through participation in the labor market, but the work environment as well, that allows family and community culture to create an empowering context for women.

This study provides a thought-provoking and insightful analysis of the complex lives of the women workers of two call centers in Pakistan. In the absence of literature on women and work in Pakistan, this research shows how globalization and liberalization have produced multiple effects in terms of creating new employment opportunities and changing gender relations. This study takes us into the offices, homes, and neighborhoods of the women workers. It also helps us understand the nature of different trade-offs that these women have to make in their work and family relationships. Last but not least, it complicates the notions of empowerment by showing how women approach and mobilize collectivist notions of empowerment instead of openly contesting patriarchal structures and practices. The study does an excellent job of using micro-interactions to comment on the macro structures while showing how these micro- interactions themselves are shaped by the broader structures.

Ayesha Khurshid
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
College of Education
Florida State University

Primary Sources

68 qualitative interviews conducted by the author at two call centers in the Pakistani cities of Islamabad and Lahore
Participant observations conducted by the author at two call centers in the Pakistani cities of Islamabad and Lahore

Dissertation Information  

Brandeis University. 2012. 263 pp. Primary Advisor: Karen V. Hansen.

Image: “Celebrating Valentines Day at a Pakistan Call Center: The Reception Desk,” 2010. Photo by Author.

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