Female Workers Break Stereotypes in Karachi In Pakistan's male-dominated society, women are increasingly breaking stereotypes — taking charge of development in the slums of Karachi and working through the government bureaucracy to get projects done.
NPR logo

Female Workers Break Stereotypes in Karachi

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91181163/91181118" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Female Workers Break Stereotypes in Karachi

Female Workers Break Stereotypes in Karachi

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91181163/91181118" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week, MORNING EDITION is reporting from one of the world's largest cities, and we've noticed something surprising here in Karachi, Pakistan.

TRACY WAHL: So what's happening here? Is this a…

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

INSKEEP: That's our producer, Tracy Wahl, on a Karachi street that's never had water service. So in that narrow, unpaved lane, a handful of men were digging a trench the other day. They were digging it for their own water line, at their own expense. For this part of Karachi, that's normal. The surprise is that a woman was supervising the men.

WAHL: And so what are you doing now?

Ms. SABRA KHADUN (Construction Supervisor, Karachi, Pakistan): (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Sabra Khadun has a cold, steady gaze and a stud in her nose. She explains that everybody on this street is donating money for the water line.

She took a break from supervising and let our producer into her house.

WAHL: It's very beautiful.

INSKEEP: It's a tiny house, in a settlement you could call a slum, but the living room is painted pastel blue, and there's a cushioned wood couch, big enough to hold a few of her 11 children: four sons, seven daughters.

WAHL: And what are your daughters' names?

Ms. KHADUN: (unintelligible)

INSKEEP: Every single child's name begins with the letter S, just like hers.

Ms. KHADUN: (unintelligible)

INSKEEP: After a moment, Sabra Khadun let the way back to oversee the men as they dug. Turns out, it's not unusual to find women in leading roles in Karachi's development. At the public universities here, women students vastly outnumber the men in key fields like architecture. People aren't sure why, but it's happening.

One of Karachi's former architectural students is Parveen Rehman. She started her career dismayed by the work she was doing.

Ms. PARVEEN REHMAN (Director of Research Center, Karachi, Pakistan; Teacher, Architecture): So when I graduated, I was very confused. So I worked with famous architects, and I ran from the office without taking my pay.

INSKEEP: You really had a job, and you just walked out the office one day? What kind of work were you doing?

Ms. REHMAN: An architect.

INSKEEP: Designing…

Ms. REHMAN: Yeah, designing a hotel, and I didn't not decide what I was doing. And I said that since I don't need such a lot of money to do designing and waste my time in this when I know that who is this serving.

INSKEEP: She ended up going to work instead for an organization called the Orangi Pilot Project. It gives poor people the help they need to dig their own sewers or water lines when the government does not.

Rehman vividly recalls something that she heard from the project's founder.

Ms. REHMAN: He was a man who would say I'm your grandmother, yeah? He said, not your grandfather. Why? Because grandmother gives love. The grandfather's cold. And he's a (unintelligible). But the grandmother loves, and through love, she's able to encourage and make people grow.

INSKEEP: Are women especially active in the development of this city, Karachi?

Mr. REHMAN: Yes. But there are not, how do I say, they do to like to publicize. So sometimes the names that you hear are mostly of men. The women in Orangi, the one in the house, she's the one in charge of the entire house, entire budget. and if she's not convinced, no money can be let out for development. No house can be improved, no child can go and get educated, or go to the - it's a woman who takes the decision. But when you go into some house, a man will come and talk and be very upfront and high profile, because by nature, the women have been very gentle, but persuasive. They know how to persuade their men, yeah, to do the things that they want to get done.

INSKEEP: What happens on occasions when you find yourself dealing with someone in a position of government power, of high power? Because as you know, land development is key to everything here.

Ms. REHMAN: All right. Initially, was difficult. Now when we deal with the government officials, it's not so much that going to a, you know, as in saying that you do this, you do that. No. Then he would start avoiding us, because a lot of things he can't do. The system is such, but now we go and we say we want your advice. Please tell us what to do, and they feel very happy.

I feel sometimes, not with men and women, with any group, if you come just upfront and try to be - how do I say - the person taking credit for everything, that's where things start going wrong, yeah? Once you rise up horizontally, you take everybody with you. But if you want to rise vertically, you will rise, but then nobody will be there for you.

INSKEEP: That sounds like the difference between a bunch of houses in a Karachi neighborhood and a brand-new skyscraper.

Ms. REHMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Parveen Rehman heads a research center in Orangi, a portion of Karachi, Pakistan. She also teaches a college class in architecture, and the list of students right now includes 11 women, no men.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.