The (In) Visible Workers: Gender, Status, and Space in Pakistan’s New Service Economy.
In my dissertation entitled The (In)Visible Workers: Gender, Status, and Space in Pakistan’s New Service Economy, I study the economic and social lives of women beauty and retail workers in Pakistan who are defying prevalent norms of gender seclusion to take up paid work outside their homes. Drawing on 12 months of ethnographic research and 80 semi-structured interviews with workers and managers, I argue that beauty and retail workers in Pakistan are characterized by status ambiguity. Like other working-class employment, beauty and retail jobs are low-paid, grueling, and stigmatized. Yet they also offer symbolic advantages over other working-class jobs, through their “modern” practices of dress and consumption, promise of upward mobility, and, in the case of beauty work, moral status because it usually occurs in gender-segregated spaces. I show how gender intervenes at the level of the occupational field to produce this ambiguity and at the level of the overall labor market to produce incongruencies between women workers’ class origins, situations, and performances during the course of their lives. Women leverage this status ambiguity in multiple ways to gain status and, ultimately, it creates both opportunity and anxiety in women’s lives.
Publications from this research:
- Kamran, Sidra. 2021 “A Patchwork of Femininities: Working-Class Women’s Fluctuating Gender Performances in a Pakistani Market." Gender & Society.
Scholars have studied multiple femininities across different spaces by attributing variation to cultural/spatial contexts. They have studied multiple femininities in the same space by attributing variation to class/race positions. However, we do not yet know how women from the same cultural, class, and race locations may enact multiple femininities in the same context. Drawing on observations and interviews in a women-only bazaar in Pakistan, I show that multiple femininities can exist within the same space and be enacted by the same individual. Working-class women workers in Meena Bazaar switched between performances of “pariah femininity” and “hegemonic femininity,” patching together contradictory femininities to secure different types of capital at the organizational and personal levels. Pariah femininities enabled access to economic capital but typically decreased women’s symbolic capital, whereas hegemonic femininities generated symbolic capital but could block or enable access to economic capital. The concept of a patchwork performance of femininity explains how and why working-class women simultaneously embody idealized and stigmatized forms of femininity. Further, it captures how managerial regimes and personal struggles for class distinction interact to produce contradictory gender performances. By examining gender performances in the context of social stratification, I explain the structural underpinnings of working-class women’s gendered struggles for respectability and work.
Keywords: hegemonic femininity, pariah femininity, class, labor, South Asia
- Kamran, Sidra. 2022 Experiencing the City as Workers: The Spatial Practices of Beauty and Retail Workers in Pakistan. Toward a Sociology of South Asia: Postcolonial Legacies, Global Imaginaries Eds. Smitha Radhakrishnan and Gowri Vijayakumar. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
This chapter investigates how the otherwise “private” space of the workplace enables experiences associated with “public” life, especially for women in Karachi who have limited access to spaces besides the home and work. Drawing on observations in a bazaar and a department store in Karachi, in addition to interviews with beauty workers, retail workers, and managers, I explore how women workers experience the city through their workplaces. I find that women’s workplaces, despite being sites of managerial control and exploitative labor, allow women to experience a version of what public spaces are often assumed to provide: pleasure, freedom, and the opportunity to craft new identities. Drawing on theories of the multiplicity of space, I suggest that ideas of “publicness” vary across different subject positions and are shaped by complex inequalities. I ultimately make a case for more centrally including workplaces in our analyses of urban life.
Keywords: urban life, workplace, public space, pleasure, gendered mobility
Article in Preparation
“Gender and Class Ambiguity in the New Service Economy in Pakistan.”
Labor, Play, and Moral Regulation of Pakistani TikTok
In my other research, I examine how intersecting class and gender dynamics fuel the moral panic around Pakistani women’s extraordinary entry into the digital public sphere through the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok. During fieldwork with beauty and retail workers, I noticed that working-class women, who are typically perceived by others as “backward”, were at the digital frontiers of TikTok cultures. Supported by a grant from The New School, I used interviews, ethnographic observations, and extended digital ethnography to further research working-class women’s use of TikTok. In an article manuscript I am currently finishing, I explore how TikTok’s unique appeal to working-class users and its ability to facilitate both gender transgressions and new practices of digital purdah (veiling) have contributed to its extreme yet contentious popularity in Pakistan. I presented an early version of this article at the Cultures of TikTok in the Asia-Pacific conference in 2020. I intend to expand this research to study how popular forms of digital labor and leisure challenge gender hegemony in predominantly Muslim societies like Pakistan for my next project.
Article in Preparation
“How TikTok Challenges the Digital Divide: Social Class, Gender Transgressions, and Digital Purdah in Pakistan.”