Burqas to burgers: Pakistan's women in shop front

DINNER at Rabia Sultana's house is now served over a cold silence. Her family has not spoken to her since May, when the 21-year-old swapped her home life for a cashier's job at McDonald's.

Her conservative brother berated Sultana for damaging the family's honour by taking a job in which she interacts with men - and especially one that requires her to shed her burqa in favour of a short-sleeved McDonald's uniform.

Then he confiscated her uniform, slapped her across the face and threatened to break her legs if he saw her outside the home. Her family may be outraged, but they are also in need. Sultana donates her $100 (64) monthly salary to supplement the household budget for expenses the men can no longer meet.

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Sultana is part of a small but growing generation of lower-class young women entering service-sector jobs to support their families, and by extension, pitting their religious and cultural traditions against economic desperation.

The women are pressed into the workforce not by nascent feminism but by inflation, which has spiked to 12.7 per cent from 1.4 per cent in the past seven years. As a result, one salary - the man's - can no longer feed a family.

"It's not just the economic need, but need of the nation," said Rafiq Rangoonwala, the chief executive officer of KFC Pakistan, who has challenged his managers to double the number of women in his workforce by next year. "Otherwise, Pakistan will never progress. We'll always remain a third-world country because 15 per cent of the people cannot feed 85 per cent of the population."

Female employment at KFC in Pakistan has risen 125 per cent in the past five years.

Several chains, such as McDonald's and the supermarket behemoth Makro, where the number of women has quadrupled since 2006, have introduced free transit services for female employees to protect them from harassment and to help persuade them to take jobs where they may face hostility.

Zeenat Hisam, a senior researcher at the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, said: "We're a society in transition. Men in Pakistan haven't changed, and they're not changing as fast as our women. Men want to keep their power in their hand.

"The majority of the people here believe in the traditional interpretation of Islam, and they get very upset because religious leaders tell them it's not proper for women to go out and to work and to serve strange men."

More than 100 young women who recently entered service jobs told of continual harassment. At work, some women spend more time deflecting abuse from customers than serving them. On the way home, they are heckled in buses.

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"If I leave this job, everything would be OK at home," Sultana said. "But then there would be a huge impact on our house. I want to make something of myself, and for my sisters, who are at home and don't know anything about the outside world."

So far, the movement of women into the service sector has been largely limited to Karachi. Elsewhere across Pakistan, women are still mostly relegated to their homes, or they take jobs in traditional women-only settings such as stitching factories or girls' schools, where salaries can be half of those in the service industry. Even the most trailblazing companies, such as KFC, have nine male workers to every female.

Pakistan ranked 133rd out of the 134 countries on the 2010 Global Gender Gap Report's list of women's economic participation.

While there is no reliable data on the number of women who specifically enter the service sector, Pakistan's female workforce hovers around 20 per cent, among the lowest of any Muslim country.

The women interviewed said they had to battle stereotypes that suggested that women who work were sexually promiscuous. Sometimes men misinterpret simple acts of customer service, such as a smile. Fauzia, who works as a cashier at KFC, said that last year a customer was so taken with her smile that he followed her out of the door and tried to force her into his car before she escaped.

Sunila Yusuf, a saleswoman who wears pink traditional clothes at home but skin-tight jeans at the trendy clothing boutique in the Park Towers shopping mall, said her fianc had offered to pay her a $100 monthly wage if she would stay at home. "He knows that Pakistani men don't respect women," she said. Hina, who works the counter at KFC, said her brothers, who also work in fast-food jobs, worried that she had become "too sharp and too exposed".

"They can look at other people's girls," Hina said with a grimace. "But they want their own girls hidden."

Rangoonwala, the KFC Pakistan executive, said: "Unfortunately, our society is a hypocritical society. We have two sets of rules, one for males and one for females."

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For Fauzia, the hardest part of the day is the 15-minute walk through the narrow alleys to reach her home. She wears a burqa to conceal her uniform, but word of mouth about her job has spread. Neighbours shout, "What kind of job is this?" as she briskly walks by with her head down.

As a solution, some companies spend up to $8,000 a month to transport their female workers in mini vans.

Most companies, however, are unwilling to absorb the extra cost of employing women. Even most stores that sell purses, dresses, perfumes and jewellery do not employ women.

Nearly all of the 100 women interviewed said marriage would end their careers. But many saw benefits along with the hazards. Most said that they had never left the house before taking a job.

"I've learned never to take what husbands say at face value," said Sana Raja Haroon, a saleswoman at Labels, a clothing boutique where men sometimes slide her their business cards.

But the employed women are also approached by admiring young women who want to follow their lead. "Girls envy us," said Bushra, a KFC worker. "We are considered the men of the house, and that feels good."