Women, Pandemic and Mobility: Getting Around Without Really Getting Around

On March 11, 2020, as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, countries across the world were caught unaware and struggled to put in place safety measures and guidelines to control the spread of the virus. Within a few weeks, the world as we knew it had been thrown into a state of flux; high transmission and fatality rates coupled with uncertainty over the development of a vaccine meant that a quick return to normal life was off the table for a while.

Under these circumstances, precautionary courses of action were enforced indefinitely to control the airborne disease, and industries, for the first time, started shifting online. Education, workplaces and retail, too, made a hurried shift to the virtual realm. As these changes happened across the world, Pakistan was faced with a huge challenge: access to the internet, which had always been considered a privilege for a population constantly struggling with acquiring basic necessities like food, shelter and clothing, had also turned into a necessity. COVID-19 increased the acceptance of internet access to be a basic utility overnight, leading to a discrepancy in the way the global pandemic impacted different individuals and groups.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) reported an increase of 15 percent in the usage of the internet in the first few weeks of the lockdown in 2020. Those without or with limited internet access, particularly in borderlands, and infrastructurally underdeveloped regions like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, were worse off in terms of work opportunities, and schooling. However, even in urban centers, where internet penetration is relatively higher, access often differed based on other factors such as class and gender. A 2020 GSMA report on the Mobile Gender Gap, shows that Pakistani women are 49 percent less likely to use mobile internet than men, and only 19 percent have access to the internet as opposed to 37 percent of men.

However, even as limited internet penetration put some groups and individuals at a disadvantage while continuing to widen the gender gap, for women with internet access but restricted physical mobility pre-pandemic, the shift to online work presented new opportunities.

Internet and the Opening of Doors

The gendered impact of remote work that relies on the internet is complex. This becomes obvious when we start evaluating how access to the internet proved to be a game-changer for some women in terms of providing them with online work opportunities, but remained an inaccessible opportunity for other women due to familial, cultural, financial and geographical barriers. During the COVID-enforced lockdown, the world moved to the internet for day-to-day tasks: online education, home-based businesses, big and small corporations, and even just gateways to mental and physical health resources and support groups; all things which had been inaccessible before due to the various restrictions on their mobility, became available to women more easily.

Atiya, a 32 year old woman from Karachi, had a prestigious, stable and well-paying teaching job until mid-2020. However, a few months into the pandemic, she started dealing with burnout caused by the fixed work hours, strict rules, and unproductivity of online classrooms. She quit her job, and decided to explore freelance communication consulting. Despite the hit the job market has taken due to COVID-19 induced economic slowdown, her gamble turned out to be quite lucrative. Atiya was able to access multiple freelance remote opportunities through social media platforms that allowed her to work from home, in her own hours, and avoid the needlessly long, expensive, and sometimes unsafe commute. Without the normalisation of online work that accompanied the pandemic, it is possible that Atiya would have not been able to make this career change to communication consulting, and would have instead stuck to her former full-time job as a teacher.

She shares, “I wouldn’t have even imagined before the pandemic that one could work flexibly or have so many freelance opportunities online, plus I would never have even tried to explore these opportunities before because the uncertainty put me off, but the pandemic and the flexible work hours have given me the time to delve into passion projects like holding a personal statement writing workshop once which turned out to be a great source of income.”

Atiya’s case is an example of being able to access a wider range of choices for work due to the shift to remote online work. But there is another category of women for whom work opportunities altogether were a novelty. In a country like Pakistan, where the patriarchy reigns supreme, many women, both qualified professionals and unskilled workers have limited access to employment due to familial restrictions on their mobility and decision-making.

Bypassing Mobility Barriers

Where the pandemic led to businesses taking a financial hit resulting in layoffs and salary cuts, it has also raised some interesting questions around women’s mobility. This is particularly relevant in terms of how increased internet penetration can be used to overcome or at least mitigate the mobility obstacles women face with regards to work by increasing the availability of remote and work-from-home opportunities.

So far, online work during the pandemic has proven to be a double-edged sword for women in Pakistan. It is quite evident from a glance at the gender dimensions of COVID-19 reported by organisations like UN Women, that not only is there a disproportionate impact of online work on women’s work schedule due to domestic responsibilities but sectors like retail and tourism where women are better represented, were hit the hardest during the pandemic.

In the wake of lost jobs, the shift to online work and remote opportunities enabled many women to access employment that was previously unavailable to them because of geography and/or the need to work from the office. Women like Atiya have managed to circumvent the hassle of long, expensive commutes, and she says that it has also allowed her to dodge “the difficult and often volatile negotiations with patriarchs to be mobile,” by accessing online remote work opportunities. While Atiya’s family has been supportive of her decision to freelance and work from home, Zara’s situation is completely different.

After graduating from a private university in Lahore and returning home to Karachi in the summer of 2021, Zara*, a 22-year-old Sociology student who wishes to remain anonymous, struggled with seeking permission from family to work. Years of tutoring experience during her undergrad made her qualified for home-based tutoring jobs, however, she knew that her family would not be on board with her travelling far for work or to other people’s houses.

She adds, “Now it is impossible to do the sort of part-time jobs I did in Lahore to look after myself. The tuition rates in DHA Lahore and in North Nazimabad Karachi are worlds apart. The people in DHA are largely accustomed to and can afford to fork over at least 15,000 rupees per month. The highest rate I have been quoted in North Nazimabad was 5000 rupees a month—for teaching an A-level subject.”

Luckily, shifting to the internet for education and work gave her a way out. While under normal circumstances, most people prefer tutors to come to their homes, COVID-19 induced lockdown in the city created a unique situation where people were compelled to opt for online classes. This meant that Zara*, unknown to her family, was able to pick up multiple online tutoring gigs, some of which were from people based abroad and paid better than local rates.

Sara*, who speaks on the condition of anonymity, is a 23-year-old fresh graduate from LUMS who has been doing freelance content writing for dismal rates since she was an A-level student. She explains, “My family has struggled financially in recent years but they won’t let me get a job. I think it’s because of their middle-class morality. They cannot admit to anyone that they need their daughter to support them. I found a way around this by doing content writing as a freelancer but the work wasn’t consistent. A part time gig would have been better.” Before the pandemic, like Zara*, she could not land a job as a tutor because she was not allowed to go to a stranger’s house to teach. After the normalisation of online education during the lockdown, online tuition gigs were possible. “I posted in a few Facebook groups about the subjects I could teach and luckily, a few people got in touch and I was able to teach O-Level Sociology and English online,” says Sara*, adding, “After a steady income started coming in, my parents were also forced to admit that the extra cash was useful. I started contributing to the household expenses during the lockdown.” She says, “I think this made it easier to convince my parents that it was important for me to land a full-time job after graduating.”

Zara* and Sara*’s experiences are a good illustration of the way access to the internet is interplayed with acceptance of remote work within families, to lead to greater financial opportunities for young women. The internet not only enabled them to dodge restrictions on mobility, but also helped them in earning livelihoods for themselves when there was uncertainty with regards to their employment opportunities as the world was grappling with a deadly pandemic.

How Did Men Fare?

Though online work turned out to be a blessing in disguise for some women who were finally able to explore options for remote employment, men considered it otherwise. Ahmad*, a 27-year-old graduate of NUST who wishes to remain anonymous, works at a telecom company and describes online work as ‘frustrating’. When asked if he is relieved about the saved time and money of not commuting every day, he said, “I know I should be relieved but it’s not an ideal situation for me. I would rather travel to work everyday than be stuck at home. Working from home means I have to often work beyond the 9 to 5 time slot. And the absence of people around me has been demotivating and depressing.” From the four women we interviewed for this article, none had similar complaints, and almost all of them thought remote work was a tolerable bargain.

In Pakistan, men and women have experienced remote work differently. Manal*, a graduate from FAST University, speaks on the condition of anonymity, and shares that she has been working full-time in the IT industry since 2016 when she graduated. She got married towards the end of 2020 and continued her job after marriage. Manal* shared the shades between how she and her husband coped with the transition to online work during the pandemic.

She explains, “I was already used to juggling household chores with my professional work even before the pandemic since I was expected to help with dinner as soon as I got home. This did not change with remote work. As soon as I virtually clock out of work, I immediately become involved in other housework.”

However, she laments that her husband does not bear the burden of similar expectations. She realises the double burden of working full-time along with managing household duties but at the same, she also notes that she had an easier time adjusting to remote work as compared to her husband.

“[Women] are used to working from home even before [they] start working professionally. I think the transition was easier for me. Being stuck at home was harder for my husband,” Manal* points out that most women are already used to juggling their academics with household chores while they are students. They are also relatively more accustomed to staying home as compared to men. “This is not a good thing,” Manal* clarifies, “but a ground reality that has shaped my ability to multitask in the space of my home without it being too overwhelming. My husband, on the other hand, has never worked from home and doing so has been more frustrating for him.”

Why A Crisis?

Considering the way online work has opened up economic opportunities for women who previously struggled to get a job due to their restricted mobility, we are forced to ask why it took a global health crisis to consider online work as a viable option, and subsequently, for women’s increased participation in the workforce to become a possibility.

Sara* notes that the biggest obstacle to getting a part-time job before the pandemic was that she was dependent on her father to pick-and-drop her, and his schedule often clashed with her potential work timings. She shares her experience of dealing with the reluctance of workplaces to let her work from home before the pandemic, and says, “I have offered to work remotely for people in the past after explaining my situation but the same organisations which quickly shifted online post-pandemic were reluctant to even consider the possibility before and kept insisting that I come to their office.”

Aqsa*, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a successful CEO and founder of a company focused on youth engagement in civic issues and policy discussions, adds, “Though a lot of corporate companies attempt to exhibit a progressive facade these days, few are fully willing to accommodate their female employees. If work did not collapse by shifting online now, it is safe to assume that it could have been managed [online] before as well.”

However, it took a health emergency for work through the internet to become a valid option, which has now set the tone for the ability of most tasks to be done remotely. Nonetheless, large companies like Facebook, Twitter, Salesforce, Deutsche Bank, and many others have changed their work model to remote-first during the pandemic in 2020.
Manal*, however, sides with a hybrid model of work. She says, “I want my company to continue with a hybrid model [post-pandemic] which incorporates online work with on-site work, but I am doubtful that this will happen.” Zara*, on the other hand, is concerned about whether good online tutoring opportunities will still be available to her once social distancing measures enforced to control the spread of COVID-19 are a thing of the past.

The return to pre-pandemic normalcy may be welcomed by some and understandably so, but for a lot of women, the ‘normal’ is not a favorable option anymore because it will be accompanied by societal barriers restricting their mobility to office. Moving back to work-from-office would lead to a severe lack of job opportunities for women in the absence of online work which became a widely accepted mode of employment in the past one year.

The year in the pandemic is an evidence of the fact that where online work did not disrupt the economy during a global health crisis, it will not impact the profits when the crisis is averted. For the individuals who make up half of the country’s population to be part of the economy, it is imperative that suitable work conditions are offered while leveraging the access to the internet which has enabled the world to connect beyond borders.

Not Really Getting Around

It is important to acknowledge how online work provided women with more opportunities and a certain degree of financial independence. At the same time, it is also crucial to note that working from home enforced the traditional patriarchal notion of char diwari that demands that women remain within the bounds of their homes, further restricting their avenues of free mobility in the outside world. From our conversations with the women we interviewed, it is evident that even as they capitalised on the benefits of online employment, their financial power did not translate into a better social position within and outside of their homes and had little impact on the expectations from them to contribute to domestic work which continued per usual.

Aqsa* shared, “Instead of just performing a second shift with office and domestic work, many women I know within my workplace went on to perform a triple shift which included children’s parenting and online schooling, and medical care if someone in the family was afflicted with the virus. In addition to this, it is usually women who offer emotional and psychological support to family members who struggle with their mental health.”

Through online work, women are able to join the workforce without compromising on their domestic ‘responsibilities’ and can negotiate some financial independence while adhering to the social and cultural mobility restrictions set out for them. A prime example of this is Zara*’s case who stated, “Even though remote work gave me access to well-paid tutoring opportunities, I still cannot tell my parents about them or convince them to let me go across the city for work when online opportunities disappear.” Sara* had a slightly better experience. She shared with a chuckle, “My father insisted that I continue doing home-based freelancing when I told him about my job offer which required me to go to the company office. But that was a big no for me. I don’t want to be stuck at home for so long. Doing so during my senior year at LUMS had already been bad for my mental health. I needed to get out, so I took the full-time office job, even against my father’s wishes.”

While working through the internet has certainly increased women’s participation in the workforce and provided them with constant income streams to overcome mobility barriers, it still does nothing to address the structural inequalities that keep women out of the workforce in the first place. It is a balm to soothe the ache of not being able to access work, but it is by no means a cure for the underlying systemic problems which prevent women from pursuing professional careers.

Beyond social and cultural restraints on women’s mobility, Pakistan’s crippling lack of public transport and limited female vehicle ownership means that even when women can go out for work, they may not have the financial resources to do so. The way our cities are designed ensures that they remain hostile spaces for women. Additionally, high gender based crimes rates present safety concerns that further inhibit women’s ability to move around public spaces.

Atiya was particularly incensed by these issues. “Part of my decision to shift to freelance work had to do with Karachi’s awful traffic, and how availing services like Careem and Uber cost you more than half your salary. And even when you are using these services, it is not completely safe.” She adds, “If I am out late, I usually tell my parents to sleep and I would take a Careem back, but they refuse because they never feel truly comfortable with that, so I just sometimes tell them a friend will drop me back.”

Back in 2016, when ride-hailing apps were first introduced with Careem in Pakistan, it was hailed as an affordable and safe option for women, which may have been true for a certain period of time and for a specific subset of women. With rising petrol prices, taxes, and chilling incidents of harassment and attempted kidnappings, these services too have become a defunct option for a lot of women. Not to mention, given how limited women’s access to the internet is, transport options like Careem and Uber are again only available to certain women with internet access, smart phones and ability to buy mobile data while the rest must grapple with the sparse, irregular, and unsafe public transport networks.

Even as remote work opens more doors for women in the labour market, and allows them to virtually bypass mobility barriers, it also sheds damning light on the societal imbalance that deprives women of access to the internet, work opportunities, public spaces, and affordable transport. Remote online work does not present as a substitute to policy action which is needed to ensure equal participation of women in the workforce, something that allows them to operate outside the confines of patriarchal bounds.

At the state level, this means addressing the issues that restrict women from joining the labour force which may include instances like unsafe and unaffordable public transport, expensive childcare, inadequate anti-harassment legislation, unequal and discriminatory treatment of women applicants and enforcing strict work-from-office models. At the societal level, measures need to be taken to reform paternalistic and unreasonable attitudes towards women so that more women can enter and occupy public spaces and workforce whether that is for work or recreational needs instead of being policed and prevented from moving around.

*Names have been changed reflecting the consent of the parties.

Rabia Khan is a political science graduate who is currently working in the e-healthcare sector to provide quality  healthcare access to all. She has research experience in Pakistani cinema, media censorship and populism. And Shehreen Umair is a graduate of LUMS who majored in Economics and Politics. She is a multidisciplinary writer who strives to imagine interdisciplinary futures.

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