Changing Tides for Female Entrepreneurs in Pakistan

Just a decade ago, female entrepreneurs in Pakistan were largely unheard of – or at least quite rare. However, recent initiatives in several major cities have challenged the sustainability of the old model – a model that insisted on women’s confinement to the home.  Countless female entrepreneurs have worked their way up from small home businesses, and many of them are now compelled to speak about the limitations they’ve both witnessed and experienced in the workplace. Entrepreneur Maria Umar dimly referred to the phenomenon as “the cement ceiling,” a much more daunting and impenetrable version of the USA’s “glass ceiling,” a term coined back in the 80s.

In the US version, one can at least conceive of breaking through glass… but powering through cement? It’s hard to even imagine how it would be done, and to most, it seems downright impossible. This is precisely the issue in many Pakistani neighborhoods – particularly low-income neighborhoods. Women have not been raised to believe in (or educated to develop) their own economic potential. But it’s a problem that is now being addressed by several local organizations.

Pakistan’s SMEDA (Small and Medium Enterprises Development Authority) has been working to enhance opportunities for networking, fill the education gaps, and improve business management skills for women. Hundreds of women have already participated in training programs across the country thanks to SMEDA.

In 2012, Women Business Development Centers (WBDCs) began cropping up in cities like Swat and Quetta. Not only are WBDCs telling women they can start their own businesses, they’re showing them exactly how, with courses on boosting sales, entering new markets, growing staff, and finding supply chains. Many women who’ve long had the practical knowledge to create quality products are now gaining the conceptual business knowledge to put those products on the market.

Along with such broadscale efforts, some of women’s entrepreneurial progress can be attributed to grassroots efforts – oftentimes beginning right in women’s homes. One group of textile workers in Karachi have experienced somewhat unexpected success in the textile industry.

ECDI, an incubator for female entrepreneurs located in Karachi, educated women on how to break into textiles, Pakistan’s largest industry. Many of these women were already highly skilled seamstresses, but the community frowned upon them leaving the home without their husbands. So ECDI began coaching them on how to work from home, selling their garments in a way that passed as culturally acceptable in some urban, conservative Pakistani neighborhoods. The group has flourished since joining up with ECDI, now selling garments in popular clothing stores like Khaadi.

With such promising strides forward, many would be tempted to claim that the tides have changed for women workers in Pakistan. However, poverty and illiteracy are still significant problems in big cities like Karachi – especially for women. And while some men are happy for – or indifferent to – the strides women are making toward financial self-sustainability, many remain in adamant disagreement. Several women have reported hiding their whereabouts from their husbands while participating in entrepreneurial programs like ECDI. One successful seamstress even claimed that her husband was regularly harassed for openly supporting her career. Since much of this work and training occurs in private homes, women who fear backlash or abuse from their families are able to conceal what they do – and perhaps even the money they make from it.

Fashion industry entrepreneur, Shama Zehra recounted her experiences to Forbes about running a small factory early in her career. “The biggest challenge was that it was women owned. All our workers were men and they just… it was hard to get them to listen to you.”

The ongoing tension accompanying women’s increased opportunities is in stark contrast to Pakistan’s general legislative direction, hinting that the public may not be ready to accept the cultural changes leaders have begun to enforce. Pakistan passed the Sexual Harassment Act in 2010, but both enforcement and reporting of such harassment is suspected to still be low in many professions. Shortly before its passing, politician Gul Naseeb Khan spoke out against the Sexual Harassment Act, insisting that women should only be permitted to work in teaching or medicine if it was absolutely necessary.

In an environment that is still partially hostile toward female employment, women have a long road ahead before obtaining genuine equality and equal opportunities in business. Women on the entrepreneurial path, an even bolder path than simple employment, will likely face the harshest backlash from more conservative groups.

A 2012 report from the World Bank stated that nearly 68% of female Pakistanis who applied for loans in the micro-finance sector needed the permission of a male relative to qualify. Even in cases where women are approved for the money, they don’t always get it. “We manage to get permission to start a business, but it’s the money that we don’t get,” one woman explained on worldbank.org.

Despite these setbacks, female representation continues to grow in various industries… and we’re pretty sure it’s not the worst thing that ever happened.

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