The story of Shabnam is one among countless instances that reflect positive aspects of our society. Laced with inimitable fortitude and perseverance, showing courage in the face of adversity, she has earned herself a name on merit and hard work through painstaking efforts to replace her sick husband as the sole breadwinner for the family.
Shabnam Khashkehli was born and brought up in the ancient city of Shahdadpur, Sindh. After getting married she moved to Sheedi, a town near Hyderabad, to live with her life partner. Her husband was in manual labor until a tragic illness afflicted him. Shabnam found herself quite helpless and anxious, as any other woman dependent on men for livelihood would be.
The dim prospects of children surviving the threat of persistent hunger and starvation to which they had been exposed were constantly staring the family in the face. What gave the experience a more tormenting cast was the further issue of not having enough money for the treatment of the household’s head. She had to support herself along with her children and was faced with two options that some people in similar circumstances usually choose from, that is, to live off the labor of others either relying on almsgiving or starting to beg altogether. As a self-reliant and respectable woman, she refused to choose among the given alternatives and decided to do something on her own.
Determined to work with a singular purpose of establishing something lasting in her mind, she opened up a bicycle repair shop. Next to the workplace, she also had a setup built that featured a billiard/snooker table for those customers who could kill time with it as their bicycle was undergoing repair.
Money started coming in and finally, Shabnam was able to support her husband, and two children, through thick and thin. She now earns 700 to 1000 rupees per day and has been able to send her two children to school – one of them is currently doing matriculation from a local school while the other is enrolled in an intermediate college.
Through her work, Shabnam got opportunities to rub shoulders with her male counterparts. Realizing that it is quite difficult for a woman to survive in traditionally male work, Shabnam changed her name to Shabu Dada. Not long ago, the town where she lives currently was infamous for criminal activities and was considered a hotbed of narcotics/drugs. Shabnam says that she gave her a new name to scare off local thugs and hooligans.
Shabnam is now the talk of the town and has set an example for many other women from her native town of Sheedi, Hyderabad, Sindh, who, out of diffidence, see no other way, thereby inevitably deferring to constraining traditions and compromising on their freedom to act.
Pakistan’s female labor force participation (22 percent) remains among the lowest in South Asia. Rigid gender roles, social norms, lack of access to safe and secure transport, and household responsibilities – among many others, are the critical barriers that prevent the majority of Pakistan’s women from having the time to work.
Yet, when faced with enormous challenges that life throws at common Pakistani women, many of them, perforce, have to take up the uphill task of becoming a breadwinner to support their families. In addition to the necessary burden of undertaking domestic labor that hardly gets acknowledged, countless unsung women heroes go to great lengths to work outside their households to make ends meet.
Despite copious obstacles and enormous resistance, these women step out of chaardeewari (homes) and defy societal attitudes associated with the concept of purdah that places so many overt and covert restrictions on their agency and autonomy. But these courageous women remain uncounted and neglected in official annals and figures.
It is high time that these marginalized and silenced, though ultimately promising, facets of our social life were unearthed and brought before the public eye.