If it wasn’t already apparent, the pandemic further underscored the society’s reliance on women – at the frontline, workspaces and at home. Women continue to stand tall in the face of crisis as healthcare workers, caregivers, innovators, entrepreneurs, community organisers and as some of the most exemplary national leaders in combating the pandemic. The crisis has highlighted both the centrality of their contributions and also the burdens that they carry.
Every year, the International Women’s Day is celebrated on 8th March. This year the theme revolves around ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.’ The theme celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in demonstrating their skills, knowledge and networks to effectively lead during the pandemic. While the world went through a financial crisis, some women rose to the occasion and proved their worth in these circumstances.
“The only family I have is my mother who is also my biggest supporter. Not only does she support my decisions, but she always makes me feel like I have made the right choices. She was very happy when I finally decided to do what I have always dreamed about,” tells Hiba Jamil, a chef and an entrepreneur. “After 7 years of rigorous corporate life, I finally decided to open my own restaurant ‘Riwayati Lazzat’. One day I thought to myself that if I’m still working here [corporate] when I’m 30, I might end up killing myself. It was then when I realised that my fear of a boring and unsatisfying career inside a large company was stronger than my fear of failing as an entrepreneur. So, by putting my passion before my prudence, I’m now pursuing my dreams and not someone else’s,” narrates Hiba.
Unfortunately, just after 20 days of opening her restaurant, she had to shut operations from 19th March, 2020, as government had issued a lockdown notice; which extended to July 2020. “My one-year plan was to stabilise my start-up and all those months of work all of a sudden went down the drain. The working capital which I had kept to run the operations was eventually spent on the overheads to keep the premises and also to look after the employees I had just hired. It took some time but then I realised that we too can ‘Work from Home’. I just had to figure out how to manage the kitchen, food packaging, order dispatching, inventory management, marketing; staff work shift, and their conveyance. Once figured, we started getting online orders gradually which kept us going with high hopes till we re-opened from August 2020. I am still hoping things will get better for us and everyone affected by it,” she enthuses.
Salwa Admaney has a similar story to share. She is a Karachi-based makeup artist who had trouble finding good quality local brands. Inspired by the journey of Huda Kattan of HudaBeauty, Salwa began following in her footsteps. “I started the company with my name four years ago by launching my eyelash line, just like Huda,” she tells. When the pandemic hit, Salwa had to struggle to keep her business standing. “I don’t have any employees but I have started outsourcing an accountant to handle my accounts and I have a fixed rider who caters to all my deliveries since day one. All my stock comes from China. Before the lockdown, we were in production and the stock was then delivered to a warehouse from where it was supposed to come to Karachi. The sudden spike in Covid cases put all imports and exports on a halt. All the stock was stuck in China for almost a year and I had to live on my savings. My sales went to zero for around four months since there were no events or weddings happening; and my main clientele were makeup artists. But I gave it sometime and it started getting better. I plan to expand and go bigger while providing the best quality products. Currently, my products are only stocked in Karachi, the rest are delivered. I want to stock my products at every big store across Pakistan and one day, even internationally.”
While these incredible women have managed to establish their businesses, this position came with a lot of struggles and having to surpass gender biases. Salwa is a single mother to a five-year-old boy, and had to face severe hostility for establishing her company. “While my parents have always been supportive, I was married into a family where everything was a struggle and I had no support for my venture. This business was a key to get out but I faced a lot of backlash from my then-in-laws. I was told to shut down my business in under three months or never to return home... and so the choice was made. My parents are my greatest supporters and look after my son while I go out for work; and my son loves the fact that I work and enjoys his grandparents’ company,” she informs.
Similarly, while Hiba’s achievement is commendable, she too was not spared the brunt of wagging tongues and unkind labels. “Patriarchal values heavily govern the social structure in Pakistani society. Therefore, a woman is always expected to only take care of the home as a mother, wife, sister, or daughter. They are not expected or allowed to be the sole breadwinner for the family. In my case, I am the sole breadwinner and have been working since a very young age. I have been a workaholic which often leads to long working hours most of the days; and sadly, women who stay late at the office are looked down upon. While few relatives or friends have always admired me, encouraged my effort and hard work to give myself and my mother a stable life; there are still some people who have questioned my character or my work requirements. There were also some people questioning my capability of doing all of it by myself with apparently no male support. But when you have eyes on the prize, you have to fight all wagging tongues and petty mindset of people to rise to your goal. And rise I did!”
When it comes to senior leadership roles, women are often underrepresented, especially in the corporate world, which is a result of pre-existing social barriers. Despite the fact that women bring different experiences, perspectives and skills to the table that work better for all. Sidra Salman is an accomplished advertising professional with an experience of over 10 years. She was amongst the 10 women selected for the Spikes’ ‘See It Be It’ programme in 2019, and was one of the Pitch Fanzine’s Superwomen in 2020. Sidra received Pakistan’s most prestigious advertising accolade, PAS Award in 2015, and has a nomination in Effie Pakistan 2020.
“I entered advertising almost 10 years ago when I graduated. I was always inspired by having the power to change the narrative and create powerful communication and address social issues, which is also the main reason why I stayed in the field,” says Sidra. “However, for the longest time I have had to constantly struggle explaining to people what my job is. Because many times I had to sit late at work trying to crack an idea, or be at shoots and many didn’t take my job seriously. They thought I’m doing something for fun and I would eventually leave, but over the years their opinion has changed,” shares Sidra. “The general gender bias we face is the trust factor. When hiring a woman in her early 20s, the employer fears she’ll get married and leave, if she is married and in late 20s, they think she’ll get pregnant and then leave. Why?” laughs Sidra. “I have been asked such weird and absurd questions in interviews, but I took a stand in the past and up until now. I prove that I am the most hardworking person in the room through my actions. I’m the Creative Director at Synite Digital for the past two years and manage three offices. Now that I have the authority, I hire women without any baggage. As a woman myself, I can be much more accommodating – by empathising with their circumstances. There is no doubt that women are brilliant multitaskers, so how can we not facilitate them? If we don’t, we lose great resources,” elucidates Sidra.
While many businesses suffered the brunt of the lockdown, there were some that flourished despite the challenges. “Business wise, we did really well because everything what was not happening on-ground was happening on digital, so the work doubled. This made it difficult to manage work and home at the same time, especially during the first five to six months when we didn’t have house help. Handling the team was another challenge. When you are on the floor you have that energy to create. But, when you’re not on the floor, having a one-to-one session all the time is tough. Empathy is one thing I hold on to. Everyone was going through a hard time so the sooner we accepted that these weren’t normal circumstances, the better it was for us. People were struggling. What did help me through this was to be super organised. We instantly started using project management tools which we were already using, we had regular calls with the team and a lot of sessions even on a personal level just to keep them motivated and see everything is well at home. The team had to be fine emotionally and mentally, because if they are not, how will they end up producing something that’s creative,” explains Sidra. “A positive factor for me was that I was working very closely with Islamabad and Lahore office which I often felt was neglected from among the three offices I look after. During the Covid-19 lockdown, everyone was
equal and I realised that things can be managed very easily if you are organised,” she adds.
So, what’s the secret behind their professional success? The three women offer their valuable advice to aspiring women. “Always trust your instincts, and don’t overthink it. When you trust your instincts, your true self surfaces in the most authentic way,” advises Hiba.
“No matter how bad things are or how demotivated you feel, you have to keep trying and strive for success. There will be hurdles, but hang in there,” shares Salwa.
“Keep working hard because hard work pays off. Be consistent with whatever you do. You have to show up every day in order to achieve anything in life. Secondly, be financially independent. Women don’t have to be dependent for any financial need on anyone. Get an education, start early and only then you can have the liberty to take decisions and be at the table,” concludes Sidra.