Julia Grünenfelder, University of Zurich
The discursive constitution of the 'Pakistani Working Woman'
This paper provides a historical examination of ‘women and work’ in Pakistan. It does this by reviewing how state projects in Pakistan have affected gender relations and by discussing implications on women’s opportunities to work. Based on a critical re-reading of secondary sources such as literature on the political history of Pakistan and feminist writings, the paper argues that ‘Pakistani Women’ are constituted at intersections of discourses on gender, nation, religion and modernisation. It concludes that intersections are used variably to de/legitimise women’s engagement in working activities.
Gender norms have always played a crucial role in Pakistan, yet studies on women and work in Muslim contexts stress that they have had supportive as well as restrictive consequences for women’s work activities (Syed, 2010; Khan, 2007:8-9; Mirza, 2002; Cook, 2001; Weiss, 1984; Papanek, 1971). Nowadays, even though more and more women take up paid work, discourses of the ‘modest and decent Islamic woman’ are present in much of the everyday talk in Pakistan, restricting women’s daily practices including formal employment (Syed, 2010; Ellick, 2010; GoP, 2009; SDPC, 2009; Khan, 2007; Mirza, 2001; Grünenfelder, forthcoming/unpublished). Yet, different times have opened up different opportunities to work for different groups of women. Since women play important symbolic roles in societies (Rouse, 2004; Yuval-Davis, 1997, Weiss, 1994:412; Jalal, 1991; Mernissi, 1987), a state’s interest in promoting a certain image of women that serves its purposes can be very powerful in defining what kind of work is possible for Pakistani women.
Post-structural feminist and postcolonial scholars have long called for research that tries to understand how monolithic and homogenising categories such as the category ‘Woman’ are discursively constituted in specific contexts. They encourage attempts that analyse how various discourses intersect to constitute gendered subjectivities and what material consequences these constructions entail (Mohanty, 1988; Spivak, 1985). For the context of Pakistan, Nancy Cook has nicely shown how intersecting discourses of gender, nation and Islam have strengthened a disciplinary regime with effects on Pakistani women (Cook, 2001). She does this by illustrating how various idealised ‘Pakistani Women’ – such as the ‘women as biological reproducers of the state’ and the ‘women as transmitters of national culture’ – have been discursively constituted through state discourses between 1947 and the late 1990s. What she does not discuss in her analysis are the effects of the different constitutions on women’s opportunities to work. However, Cook’s work suggests that we can gain a better understand of the working opportunities of the ‘Pakistani Woman’ through an analysis of state projects.
With this paper, I aim at showing how (different groups of) Pakistani women have had different opportunities to work at specific historical conjunctures from the 1940s to the late 2000s. I do so by outlining how idealised ‘Pakistani Women’ have been discursively constituted and by discussing the implications of these constitutions on women’s working opportunities. The findings will contribute to the disruption of the monolithic category of the ‘Pakistani woman’ and show that this category is in a process of constant production. The review will provide a ground for further studies that intend to analyse how women in Pakistan and other Muslim countries individually negotiate the category ‘woman’ in their everyday practices.