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Census and the city

If policies are to be made to improve lives, the census must be complemented by socio-political and ethnic realities

Census and the city

The DG ISPR need not have wasted his time threatening citizens that lying about information for the census 2017 (held after a gap of nearly 20 years) warranted a 6-month prison sentence. As the census reaches its final stage, the numerical findings will likely simply confirm what a handful of prescient research studies have been saying over the past two decades.

The numbers will confirm Pakistan as the fourth or fifth most populous country in the world. They will also confirm rampant urbanisation, and dispel the myth that pious Muslim men are too proud to let their women work or that child labour is exaggerated. The census will contradict those who have argued that persisting illiteracy or under-education caused the War on Terror and maldevelopment. The census will also debut Pakistan’s transgender but not, same-sex population.

Karachi city represents a concentrated version of the expected findings of the census. It is the epicentre of massive urbanisation, migration and increased household density. It hosts large populations of men whose lives depend on working women and children.

Unlike other cities, however, Karachi is home to ethnically diverse populations and this directly affects the city’s spatial organisation and the socio-political behaviour of its citizens. In other words, more than class, ethnic identity remains the driver in the intersectionality of social and economic life of Karachi. Ethno-political affiliation may still influence and control access and delivery of services (or prevent them), but political aspirations are no longer defined by just ethnicity and certainly not class. Arguably, if Shahbaz Sharif stood for elections from Karachi today, he would not be disappointed with the result.

While censuses count humans, they do not account for human experiences especially, the incalculable experience of being vulnerable. Being a poor working woman from an ethnic minority is a life-time sentence to a ghetto life with no electricity, torturous mobility, precarious employment but her income is critical for household survival. Her experience will include public and domestic male violence and if not political, then domestic-level financial extortion or, both.

A series of recent surveys, empirical studies and ethnographic accounts for the city of Karachi have revealed massive falls in crime-rates (70 to 90 per cent) in the aftermath of state ‘operations’ from 2013. Efficacy, violations and excesses of a brutal state exercising its monopoly over violence notwithstanding, the results of the operations have directly facilitated the physical, economic and social mobility of citizens of Karachi.

While censuses count humans, they do not account for human experiences especially, the incalculable experience of being vulnerable. Being a poor working woman from an ethnic minority is a life-time sentence to a ghetto life with no electricity, torturous mobility and precarious employment.

Despite high support for these operations, the institutional memory and sense of insecurity among Karachiites remains such that most remain under a siege mentality and (depending on the neighbourhood) many reportedly want even more policing. More importantly, after the crackdown on crime syndicates that operated through “unit offices” in neighbourhoods — which used to monopolise income that was generated through street crimes, hide-collections and extortion — a crime vacuum seems to have opened up.

This has enabled more opportunistic petty crimes to replace the earlier deadly ones but also, some disorganised elements have started capturing the space to mimic the earlier rentier criminal arrangements, such as, profiting from illegal encroachments, parking, thelaas and any local resource. The reason this usurpation is effective is because fear of non-compliance is based on a memory of violent consequences even though, this may be an empty threat on the part of the new and unproven practitioner.

Gender is the other inimitable experience that defines the economy and spatial arrangements of city life. Traditionally, studies have looked at working women in terms of their participation in the formal, informal and home-based sectors. Women’s work is often celebrated for its contribution to the economy and even for encouraging mobility, or some levels of empowerment for women. However, this form of specular economy does not reveal the vicious conditions of employment or, the stated aversion to work as claimed by many women employed in low-income work.

There are a few sociological factors linking gender with low-income work in Karachi. First, women’s employment has become a key consideration in deciding where families will reside in Karachi. Factories in Korangi and Landhi make these districts attractive for employment but also women working as domestic workers can access transportation from this main hub to the richer neighbourhoods of defense society. Families pay higher rents to be in locations where women get better paid jobs.

If policies are to be made to improve lives, the census will be a limited source and must be complemented by the socio-political and ethnic realities of any part of the country but especially, Karachi.

Second, the abysmal state of overcrowded buses and lack of accessible routes, with garbage and sewerage blocking entire roads of the city, makes mobility a torture for women. However, the ratio of women to male bus passengers is increasing and many report that while sexual harassment is routine and a “disease” that men suffer, it’s not a deterrent for them. Some women observe that when men harass, it is other women passengers who defend the victims and reprimand the harasser rather than any supposed ‘ghariatmand’ male passenger.

Third, many working class women who use public transportation wear the “abaya” (and call it so, rather than a “burqa”) but say there is no religious reason for observing it at all — it is simply a method of securing a sense of self-protection (zehni safety). When asked if it then works as a deterrent against harassers, they unanimously report, “not at all”. They wear it to preempt shame and blame only.

The majority of these women are high school graduates at least. The predominant source of information for recruitment opportunities for women remains “word-of-mouth”. The more ethical factories pay them fairly while others hire them contractually but do provide transportation when they work overtime.

Moreover, factory work seems predominantly to be an occupation acceptable for single women who report that “company women” are considered compromised and sometimes, wedding proposals have been withdrawn if a woman starts working in a factory. Many of these single “company women” report they are first generation earners in their households who do so out of family “mujboori” (compulsions) and would leave this work at the first opportunity.

Once married, women reportedly do not work during child-bearing years but are financially compelled to return to work, usually as (part-time) domestic workers. Across the board, these working class women say time is the most valuable commodity; they are physically exhausted; and they have no leisure time once home (except TV when there is electricity) but on weekends they do visit parks and the beach. The majority reports that they would quit working if their families did not depend on their incomes.

Location and identity reveals far more than numbers. In Karachi, a “low-income community” is not necessarily uniform in class composition; ethnicity is not a stable factor in terms of patronage, services or employment; and women’s low-income employment is driven by a moral economy more than anything else, and their entry in public spaces remains fraught with danger and often offers unrewarding experiences. If policies are to be made to improve lives, the census will be a limited source and must be complemented by the socio-political and ethnic realities of any part of the country but especially, Karachi.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

aafiya sheharbano
The writer is a researcher based in Karachi.

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