Pakistani Female Entrepreneurs: Prospering in the Shadows

Sundus SiddiqiPakistan’s environment is far from conducive to entrepreneurship. According to the 2007 World Bank Group Entrepreneurship Survey, the average annual entry rate of registered businesses was quite below the average of entrepreneurial activity in other regions. The government’s emphasis has historically been on large scale manufacturing, and no institutional mechanisms, policies or incentives have been put in place to support innovative activity. Additionally, working at a ‘self-owned’ enterprise is a social stigma as most people perceive large industries to be the only source of economic growth.

Female participation in the labor force is particularly frowned upon, as pride generally stems from whose wife makes the best chicken curry. The general consensus that arises from social, cultural, traditional and religious elements is that a female is most appropriately suited to stay at home. If she must work (a big, loud, pronounced ‘IF’) then she is expected to either become a teacher or a doctor. A business is perceived to be ‘as dirty a profession as politics’ for women. Even my decision to take a course on Entrepreneurship generated a string of squirming relatives calling in to ensure I was not going on to become a ‘Business Woman.’ “Why are you wasting your father’s money on such useless courses?” yelled my mother. “I always knew we should have forced you to major in home economics.”

Given the prevalent anti-entrepreneurial conditions, it is surprising to note that in fact, upon closer inspection, Pakistan’s women are dissenting from within and are engaging in more entrepreneurial activity than is popularly believed. As they mostly operate from home and their ventures are not visible to the male strata of society, they have camouflaged themselves well into Pakistan’s social landscape.

In my hometown, the trend started with a boom of parlors. In the face of traditional home makers having too much free time on their hands, these female entrepreneurs presented them with a hugely popular alternative: to make themselves beautiful. Armed with nothing but a pair of scissors and a sharp, white thread, these women started operations right in their houses- thus keeping the moral police happy! Ladies of all ages, shapes and professions flocked to them by the dozen, using the time to socialize and make friends. What the beauticians lacked in skill, they made up for with hospitality. Slowly but surely, a parlor serviced almost every neighborhood and street.

Firdous Huda (owner of the Firdousi Beauty Parlour, Islamabad) is one such entrepreneur. A divorcee with three children, she started her business in the ground floor of her house, moving upstairs to live on the first floor with her children. Her success and fame lies in providing personalized services for her customers. Her brother vehemently opposed the idea but she remained resolute. She commented, “For women doing business is difficult as they have to bear children and raise them, while male entrepreneurs absolve themselves from these responsibilities. I am confident though, that everything is possible in life through sheer hard work and dedication.”


Another way that women fought out against inflation and impending poverty was by entering the garments industry. Shahida Syed, owner of New Baby Garments, started her stitching business in 1989 under impoverished circumstances.  Illiterate and unaware of any formal methods of running a business, her skill and low prices provided her with a loyal customer base. Most of her relatives and acquaintances discouraged her, suggesting that it was a “curse” for a woman to step out of her house to indulge in business. However, survival came first.

She soon expanded her business and was able to secure a loan from the First Women Bank. She began to sell clothes to shopkeepers on credit, but was exploited by male retailers as they denied her payments. Her brother stepped in and started to oversee their marketing, thus providing her with the bargaining position she was denied as a woman. The supportive role of a male via marketing, financial and technical assistance is observed in numerous other female entrepreneur cases.

“The biggest problem for women in business is men, as they dominate every kind of activity in Pakistan”, says Dr. Shakila, owner of the Shafi Hospital. Work-life balance forced her to quit her job that was too long a commute from her home for her to be giving ‘adequate’ attention to her children. Understanding that the community she lived in was largely uneducated, she utilized the lack of a lady doctor in the vicinity to her advantage. The people were largely reliant on traditional means of medicine and shied away from male doctors. Thus, Shakila installed an x-ray machine in her house and started her own ultrasound practice, becoming very successful amongst the females of her neighborhood. In this manner, she not only continued her medical practice but was also able to provide meaning to her society she lived in.

These are just three examples of thousands. Women entrepreneurs have existed a longer time in villages, traditionally employed in the garments and handicrafts sector. However, now the urban sector is seeing women working from the vicinities of their own homes, even in the face of adversity. Pakistan’s urban ‘home makers’ are exercising their entrepreneurial skills as best as they can to maneuver a niche for themselves in the market, making use of the opportunities that present themselves in this developing country.

Ms. Siddiqi is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy and Management from the Heinz College. She hopes to become involved with the entrepreneurial poor and use microenterprise as a tool to battle poverty. 

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