The shame of work

This morning I came across a newsflash on the BBC about “The risqué business of selling underwear in Pakistan”, which serves as a click bait because the article-proper is titled “Pakistan: The man trying to improve women’s underwear”. Its content immediately resonated with me. The quotes from female workers therein took me back to the research I did on the women, who worked for Pakistan International Airline (PIA) in 1960s. The factory in-focus, where they are making the garments, is based in Faisalabad (Lyallpur), a city I know well because of my own doctoral research, while the business was started by a Leicester born businessman. Leicester/DMU where I work, is city renowned for its garment factories and indeed DMU has long pioneered research in the increasingly sophisticated lingerie industry.

The interesting element is of course that in Pakistan, women’s undergarments are either on full display in congested stalls in busy bazaars, where a majority of women shop (buying, most likely, from a man) or they are curiously hidden (veiled) behind the blackened windows in fancy shopping malls. This stark class disparity is also symbolic of a cultural disparity in a society where working women of the sub-urban informal sector in r-urban areas, rarely have the luxury to be veiled, while the newly middle-class women, of families with the means to be pious, are more prone to and secluded in world of purdah.

The focus of the said article is about comfort and ensuring that women have access to underwear garments that are fit for purpose – and not just for optics. The fact that society treats these necessities in life as taboo, something to be embarrassed about and to snigger at because we are unsure how to respond, is a fine example of how a patriarchal society works to keep women confined in both public and private spaces.

When I was doing my research on PIA, the airline was established in 1955 in part to meet the needs of keeping East and West Pakistan connected, it was obvious that to get it off the ground, it needed staff, male and female. I was intrigued by the women who worked for PIA in the 1950s and 1960s, what motivated them, what their background was, given that in this still-more socially conservative age, women working as “airhostesses” or cabin crew were yet-more objectified, with age/size/marital status being important to the job. So, it was not surprising when such women encountered reluctance from the family members. 

These quotes from the BBC article could have been from the women I spoke with: (1) “We had two people who came back and said their families do not want them to work in an undergarment factory.” (2) “My father instantly refused…I had to ask him to let me go and see for myself and if…I don’t like the atmosphere at the factory, I won’t accept the job.”

Women who wanted to work for PIA endured similar sentiments. Families were reluctant or worse at their sisters/daughters working in this “forward” industry and the potential shame. But this was the 1950s/60s, and many of these women were away from home, flying high and experiencing a completely different world. In their taking off, they were breaking new ground, pioneering and enabling others to work in professions other than the usual “respectable” teaching/medicine. And so, to read these quotes from women today, 60 years later and working for a factory that is making undergarments is emblematic of how Pakistan has rolled on the road of more piety and rituals, as a ruse for rule; cover for control.

Faisalabad/Lyallpur is the third largest city in Pakistan, after Karachi and Lahore, and is the hub of the textile industry. It is often referred to as the Manchester of Pakistan. Following the Partition of British India, the city witnessed mass movement of people, both those who left for India and the large number of refugees that transformed this colonial town into the city that it is today. When I was doing my research on the city in the early-2000s, it was a conservative city despite the vast wealth being generated in its bazaars; 20 years on, it continues to be so, perhaps because of the new capital and its renewed performance of customs and commodification of shame.

Read further:

Pippa Virdee, ‘Women and Pakistan International Airlines in Ayub Khan’s Pakistan’, The International History Review, 2019, 41:6, 1341-1366, DOI: 10.1080/07075332.2018.1472622

Saher Baloch, ‘Pakistan: The man trying to improve women’s underwear’, BBC News, 13 June 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-57268691.

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