Dossier 23-24: ‘Race’ and ‘Culture’ in the Gendering of Labour Markets: Young South Asian Muslim women and the British labour market

Publication Author: 
Avtar Brah
July 2001
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Feminist critiques of gender-neutral approaches to the study of labour markets have demonstrated that gender relations do not simply articulate with, but are part of, the very fabric of labour markets as they have developed. That is, gender is a constitutive element in the formation of labour markets. Studies show that gender inscribes definition of skill, construction of the division between full-time and part-time work, the differential between men’s and women’s wages, the nature and type of hierarchies sustained by cultures of the workplace, and the experience of paid work in the formation of identities. [1] Much less attention has been paid to ‘race’, ethnicity, or racialised/ethnicised constructions of ‘cultural difference’ in the gendering of labour markets. [2] The point is that modes of differentiation such as ‘race’, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age or disability are at the heart of the constitution, operations, and differential effects of labour markets.

But how are such links to be theorised? The task is made even more complex by a general tendency in the literature to theorise the ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ aspects of analysis as separate, almost ‘independent’ levels. My own interest resides in trying to understand how ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ aspects work. The approach suggested here problematises this binary. This approach is offered as part of an effort to theorise more adequately the relationship of Asian young Muslim women to the British labour market, but the framework will have a wider applicability. The paper explores what the women themselves have to say about the place of paid work in their lives, but, following the discussion of the concept of ‘experience’. [3] it bears repetition that narratives are constructions and not transparent guides to ‘reality’. That is, they are irreducibly marked by wider economic, political and cultural processes, but they neither directly ‘reflect’ nor are transparently ‘reflected by’ them. The self that narrates is already a modality of narration of such economic, political and cultural discourses and practices. In the approach I am advocating, structure, culture and agency are conceptualised as inextricably linked, mutually inscribing formations.

The analysis is based upon both in-depth interviews with individual young Muslim women of Pakistani origin, and group interviews with them. Arguing against a general theory of gender that could then be applied to analysing specific instances of paid work, the framework proposed highlights the importance of studying the articulations - between and across relations of gender, class, ethnicity, racism, religion and so on - empirically and historically as contingent relationships. The young Muslim women narrate the contradictory codes of such articulations in their daily lives.

Discussions on the subject of young South Asian Muslim women’s employment tend to be dominated by a concern with statistics which point to lower economic activity rates for this category of women compared with other groups of Asian and non-Asian women in Britain. Studies which analyse the realities behind the statistics are as yet limited. Why are young Muslim women under-represented in the labour market? What is the nature and range of factors that limit young Muslim women’s fuller participation in the labour market? What are the continuities and discontinuities in the life histories of those young women not engaged in paid work as compared with those who are in employment? What are the similarities and differences in the labour market experiences of different categories of Muslim women, comparing, for example, married women with single women, or women recently arrived from Pakistan with those who have been brought up in Britain? How are educational institutions or government training schemes perceived and experienced by Muslim women? Such questions have rarely been addressed by previous research, but they form the core of a study[4] from which the interviews discussed here derive.[5]

Framing Labour Markets

Discourses about Muslim women’s participation in the labour market are suffused with ‘culturalist’ explanations. It is generally argued that Muslim women are prevented from taking up paid employment by Muslim men. The racialised themes in such discourses are now well documented (see Chapter Three). Such explanations fail to take account of a variety of aspects - discussed below - that are central to understanding the racialisation of gendered labour markets in contemporary Europe. I do not believe that analyses of women’s employment necessarily demand a general theory of gender that can subsequently be deployed in analysing the specific instance of paid work. Rather, I favour a form of analysis which can address historically and culturally specific gendered processes without demarcating ‘public’ and ‘private’ as separate domains. Social labour is thus understood as gendered in historically variable forms. Such variation is embedded within histories of slavery, colonialism, imperialism and the currently evolving global order that is underpinned by ‘G-Sevenism’.

I would re-emphasise the importance of studying the articulation between different forms of social differentiation, empirically and historically, as contingent relationships that are the effects of multiple determinations. Accordingly, a study of young Muslim women and the labour market would need to address how the labour of this category of women is:

socially constructed and represented;
experienced and figured in the landscapes of subjectivity;
constituted by and is constitutive of labour markets;
and it is framed within personal narratives and collective histories.

There is no suggestion here of a binary divide between culture and structure. A concept of culture that is evoked does not ‘reference’ an already fully constituted and fixed array of customs, values and traditions. Rather, culture is understood as a process; a nexus of intersecting significations; a terrain on which social meanings are produced, appropriated, disrupted and contested. Cultural specificities remain important but they are construed as fluid modalities, as motile boundaries constructed within a multiplicity of sites, structures and relations of power. Structure and culture are construed as relational processes. The one is not privileged over the other so that the focus shifts to how structures - economic, political, ideological - emerge and change over time in and through systems of signification, and how they in turn shape cultural meanings.

In order to understand the relationship of young Muslim women in Britain to the labour market using this approach, it would be necessary to deconstruct the concept of ‘Muslim woman’ as it has been constituted in British discourse. We would need to consider to what extent and in what ways these social representations construct ‘Muslim woman’ as a racialised category; that is, how stereotypes might serve to transmute diverse groups of Muslim women into a subject position as a racialised unit of labour. Such deconstruction would highlight discursive processes whereby labour markets are constituted as racially gendered. At the same time, analysis of women’s interviews would foreground their positionality as self-narrated selves. How these self-narrations relate to ‘Muslim woman’ as a category of ‘representation’ in British discourse would, of course, be subject to empirical variation. What light do women’s personal narratives throw on the way in which such ‘representations’ are implicated in their social identities? Do women occupy oppositional or non-oppositional subject positions within such discourses? Do their own perceptions of themselves reinforce or contest social meanings coded in such discourses?

The point I wish to stress is that it is crucial to make a distinction between ‘Muslim woman’ as a discursive category of ‘representation’ and Muslim women as embodied, situated, historical subjects with varying and diverse personal or collective biographies and social orientations.

There are at least seven dimensions which would seem critical to understanding the form, extent and patterns of Muslim women’s participation on British labour markets. These are:

The histories of colonialism and imperialism which shaped the patterns of post-World War II migrations into Western Europe;

The timing of migration;

The post-war restructuring of the national and global economies;

Changing structure of the regional and local labour markets;

State policies, especially on immigration control;

Racism in the labour market;

Segmentation of the labour market by gender, class, age and ethnic background.

I elaborate this framework below by drawing out its implications and by thinking it through the study referred to above[6]. In the first section I consider how the seven dimensions listed above inscribe the terrain on which young Muslim women’s relationship to the labour market is shaped and negotiated. The second section addresses the social imagery through which Muslim Women are socially constructed in Britain, and the impact this field of representation has on how young Muslim women are positioned in social relations. This is followed by an analysis of women’s narratives.

How would the proposed framework inform a study of young Muslim women and the labour market, such as the one we made?

First, the emphasis on historical perspective draws attention to the colonial background that frames the formation of South Asian communities in Britain. The colonial encounter, as is now well known, was a complex and contested arena of economic, political and cultural relations marked by gendered forms of racism. As Mies[7] points out, colonial regimes of accumulation were centrally implicated in class-mediated changes in the organisation and structure of families and households in metropolitan societies as much as they were in the colonies. The emergence of the notion of a ‘family wage’ in Western societies, Mies argues, owes not a little to the extraction of surplus from the colonies. Certain weaknesses in parts of her argument notwithstanding[8], Mies demonstrates the centrality of gender and racialisation processes as constitutive elements in the development of a global economy. She shows how patriarchal systems of colonisers and colonised have been interconnected since long before the post-World War II migrations from the sub-continent.

A historical perspective also draws attention to the conditions under which immigrant labour was deployed in post-war Britain. The economic boom from 1945 until the late 1960s that helped to draw a growing number of white British women in the labour force also led to the recruitment of workers from Britain’s former colonies. Both sets of workers were employed predominantly in low-wage sectors of the economy. Segregation of the labour market by gender meant, however, that male and female workers were concentrated in different sectors of the economy. Asian women experienced the labour market not simply through their gender but also as racialised subjects. Even within a gender-segregated labour market they occupy a distinctive profile compared with white women. As we have already seen, overall, a higher proportion of women than men in Britain are engaged in part-time work. This pattern of employment is often taken as a major contributory factor towards women’s low pay. However, a higher proportion of Asian women than white women are in full-time employment. Yet their earnings are lower compared with those of white women. Whereas the overall pattern for women in Britain is that they are concentrated in the service industries, Asian women are more commonly found in low-paid, semi-skilled and unskilled work in the manufacturing sector, particularly in the clothing and textile industries which have recently been in decline. Even in those industries where women predominate, Asian women are concentrated in the lowest level jobs, and unemployment rates among Asian women are much higher compared with white women.[9]

In the early phase of post-war migration, Pakistani men had arrived predominantly without their female kin. The class position of these men as low-wage workers resident in declining inner areas of British cities was to have a crucial effect on the type of employment available to Pakistani women as they began to arrive. The argument that fewer Pakistani women entered the labour market primarily due to ‘cultural reasons’ warrants interrogation rather than dismissal without consideration. I set this issue aside for the moment, and discuss the effects of timing of migration, economic change, immigration control and racism in shaping the structure of job opportunities for Pakistani women.

Timing of immigration and post-war socio-economic change

Pakistani women migrated to Britain later than women from India (who were mostly Sikhs and Hindus). The former arrived mainly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, whereas Asian women who entered the labour market in the early phase of the post-war migrations were mainly Sikh and Hindu women. These Asian women took up paid employment at a time of economic growth and relative stability. Mass production concentrated in factories, and centralised forms of work organisation and managed national markets were a key feature of this phase. Most Asian women, including the small number of Muslim women in employment at this time, found paid work doing semi-skilled and unskilled jobs generated by this form of production.

From the 1970s, economies of the advanced industrial societies began to undergo fundamental restructuring. The global economy became increasingly transnationalised, creating new forms of the international division of labour alongside the older ones. In Britain, the decline in the old manufacturing sector, where Asian workers had been concentrated, led to large-scale job loss. These economic changes entailed a rise of ‘flexible specialisation’, leading to more decentralised forms of labour process and a greater emphasis on the contracting out of functions and services. New types of small business proliferated within national economies. There was a growth of jobs in the service sector, but the increase was concentrated primarily in low-status, part-time work and a variety of forms of ‘homeworking’.[10]

It will be evident from the above that Muslim women arriving in Britain in the late 1960s and early 1970s would have encountered the labour market in a period of major economic restructuring and recession. While this resulted in the contraction of certain types of jobs, there was an expansion of small businesses, especially those which rely upon the ‘putting out’ system. The ready availability of paid work that could be carried out from home would have held a strong appeal for Muslim women with young families to care for. Over a period of time, as ‘homeworking’ became an established pattern, more and more women were likely to be drawn into it through kinship and friendship networks. In other words, the growing involvement of Muslim women in ‘homeworking’ during this period could not be explained simply in terms of ‘cultural constraints’.

The relationship of Pakistani women to the labour market cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the significance of region and locality. The South Asian groups are concentrated in specific regions. The highest concentrations of Pakistanis are found in London and the South East, with substantially large settlements also in Yorkshire, Humberside and in the North West. Our study[11] was made in the city of Birmingham in the West Midlands. During the 1980s, major job losses occurred in the West Midlands, especially in manufacturing where there has been a concentration of Asian workers. In the city of Birmingham, this pattern was even more pronounced. Between 1981 and 1984, Birmingham City declined twice as fast as the region as a whole (Birmingham City Council 1988). The devastating impact of this change on Asian households may be gauged given that, according to the 1971 census, just over 60 per cent of male workers of Pakistani and Indian origin in the West Midlands worked in the manufacturing industries. Asian women, too, have been concentrated in manufacturing, principally in textiles and clothing. While there has been a relative increase in employment in the service sector, this is primarily in those enclaves where the Asian workforce is as yet under-represented. Moreover, according to Birmingham City Council’s 1986 Review of Economic Strategy, such expansion mainly consists of growth in low-paid employment, and self-employment at lower levels of the income scale. Such regional and local trends have been crucial to the type, range and extent of employment available to young women.

Immigration control

The impact of immigration legislation on Asian families is now well documented. Social constructions of Asian marriage and family relations as a ‘problem for British society’ have been pivotal in the legitimation of British immigration policy. Images of ‘tidal waves’ of Asian men scheming to circumvent immigration restrictions through the arranged marriage system were commonly invoked in the justification of immigration control. While the Asian male was defined as a prospective worker posing a threat to the employment prospects of white men, Asian women were defined in immigration law as ‘dependants’. This social imagery of Asian women as hapless dependants who would most likely be married off at the earliest possible opportunity has played an important role in constructing the ‘commonsense understandings’ which teachers, employment advisers, training officers and other professionals might hold of young Muslim women’s education and employment prospects. Such professionals have an important role to play in encouraging or discouraging young Muslim women from pursuing certain types of education or employment.[12]

There is now an extensive literature that documents direct and indirect discrimination in the labour market in terms of access to employment, promotion and training.[13] Such discriminatory practices are constituted in and through a variety of racialised discourses and practices that construct the racialised group as inherently ‘different’. Just as patriarchal discourses may represent women’s labour as ‘different’ and/or inferior, racialised discourses call into question the abilities, aptitudes, cultural attributes, and the general suitability of a group for certain types of jobs and positions within the employment hierarchy. Research shows that teachers, careers officers and employers can all be implicated in practices that have life-long adverse consequences for individuals.[14]

Images, representations, and lived culture

Where Asian women are concerned, racialised constructions articulate with those of gender, ethnicity, religion and class in the social representations of this category of women in Britain. There is a long history of orientalised discourses embedded in literature, paintings, drawings, photography, ‘scientific’ discourse, political debate, state policies and practices and in ‘commonsense’. The ‘oriental female’, especially the Muslim woman, came to occupy a position of the quintessential ‘Other’ in this discursive space of desire.[15] Whether she is exoticised, represented as ruthlessly oppressed and in need of liberation, or read as a victim/enigmatic emblem of religious fundamentalism, she is likely to be cast as the bearer of ‘races’ whose ‘alien’ cultures continually threaten to disrupt ‘civilised values’. She excites Western fantasies of transgression: mystique, lust, danger. The ‘veil’ is the ultimate icon of this fantasmatic field, frustrating the Western gaze by its opaqueness and its apparent dismissal and disregard for its hegemonic moves. ‘Veil’ is the metaphor for the orientalisation of the contradictions of gender and imperialism. But orientalisation is a process, and there is no one-to-one direct correspondence either between colonial representations of groups who were ‘orientalised’ (Arabs, Turks, Indians, for example, have been orientalised in different ways), or between colonial representations and contemporary discourses. There are continuities as well as discontinuities across this discursive field. Hence, social images of Pakistani women in present day Britain may in part derive from colonial representations of Muslims in colonial India, but, essentially, they are an integral component of the field of representation associated with the Pakistani presence in post-war Britain. Such social imagery connects also with discourses of ‘the Muslim’ in Western Europe as a whole. There would seem to be substantial overlap in the available imagery of young Muslim women in different parts of Western Europe.[16]

But how do such images of Muslim or other categories of Asian women affect their employment trajectories? They do so when, as noted above, these stereotypes are translated into institutional practices with adverse consequences for women’s position in the labour market. For example, the discourse of ‘cultural constraints on Muslim women’ is played out within a myriad of practices on the part of teachers, education and training guidance providers, recruitment and personnel officers, youth workers, social workers, and so on. The general currency of such ideas on a wide scale through the media means that they have become sedimented into a collective common-sense. Their influence can be all-pervasive, although the precise meaning and significance attached to them would depend upon how they articulate under given circumstances.

To highlight the discourse of ‘cultural constraints’ as ideology is not to deny the importance of culture. But what do we mean when we speak of cultural constraints? In discussions of Muslim women the ‘cultural’ constraint that is most frequently invoked is the institution of ‘purdah’ - a series of norms and practices which limit women’s participation in public life. It is important to point pout that this social concept signifies practices which vary enormously from one historical period to another, from one country to another, and from one social group to another. Even within the same social group its patterns of observance can differ considerably along class, caste and other dimensions[17]. Nor is this institution confined to Muslims in the Asian sub-continent. Versions of ‘purdah’ are also observable among Hindus and Sikhs. Indeed, Sharma (1980) argues that, in terms of its broader meaning as a sign for the complex of discourses and practices which circumscribe women’s participation in public life, the concept may have some applicability in all societies. In this sense, the segregation of the labour market by gender in Britain, for instance, could be understood as a set of patriarchal ideologies and practices that are not entirely different from ‘purdah’. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the specificity of Islamic forms of ‘purdah’, but without viewing the institution as uniform, fixed or unchanging. The important issue, then, is how ‘purdah’ is played out differently among different Muslim groups and other South Asian communities in Britain, and how it articulates with other British patriarchal ideologies and practices. The point I wish to stress is that ‘Asian’ patriarchal discourses and practices in Britain are not exogenous to British society; they are very much an internal dynamic of the British social formation.

The lived cultures that young Muslim women inhabit are highly differentiated, varying according to such factors as country of origin, rural/urban background of households prior to migration, regional and linguistic background in the sub-continent, class position in the sub-continent as well as in Britain, and regional location in Britain. Asian-British cultures are not simply a carry-over from the sub-continent but are now ‘native’ to different regions and localities of Britain. Asian cultures of London, for example, may be distinguished from those of Birmingham. Similarly, East London Asian cultural life has its own distinctive features compared with the local cultures of West London. There are some commonalties, of course, depending upon which particular modality - religion, region, language, class, etc. - is singled out. For example, Panjabi cultures have their own specificities compared with Gujerati or Bengali cultures. On the other hand, all Muslim groups, be they Panjabi, Gujerati or Bengali, share certain cultural specificities. But each case is simultaneously a dimension of region and locality - of ‘Englishness’, ‘Scottishness’, ‘Welshness’, ‘Irishness’, or of ‘Geordiness’, ‘Cockneyness’, ‘Yorkshireness’, and so on. In the everyday lives of women, these are not separate but enmeshing realities. They can not be disaggregated into ‘Asian’ and ‘British’ components. They are fusions such that ‘Asian-British’ is a new ensemble created and played out in the everyday life world.

Theferore, as I said earlier, it is crucial to distinguish between ‘young Pakistani women’ as a generalised object of social discourse and young Pakistani women as embodied historical subjects. The latter are a diverse and heterogeneous category of people who occupy a multiplicity of subject positions. As is the case with other subjects, their everyday lives are constituted in and through matrices of power embedded in intersecting discourses and material practices. The next section examines how the respondents to the study are constituted by and in turn elaborate the discourse of women’s paid and unpaid labour. We examine the ways in which women’s narratives represent a range of responses and strategies- of accommodation, complicity, resistance, struggle, transgression - as they negotiate the many and varying facets of power in their everyday lives. The aim is to explore how wider social structures are implicated in the lived cultures that the women inhabit.

Narrating Self and the Rest

It is axiomatic that paid employment is only one form of work. Although wage labour has existed for many centuries, the almost total dependence of households on a wage is a relatively recent phenomenon. In Europe, where it is now the dominant pattern, it only dates from the nineteenth century (Pahl 1988). It is a commonplace to say that women have always worked. In most societies, however, some of the most demanding work that women perform, i.e. housework, child care and caring work for other members of the family, is rarely regarded as ‘work’, such as the notion of ‘work’ is now a synonym for paid work. While many women are engaged in paid forms of work, whether inside the household in some form of homeworking or on an employer’s premises, the ideology of the male breadwinner is still pervasive in advanced industrialised societies.[18]

In less industrialised countries, the subsistence sector is comparatively large and the demarcation between ‘productive’ work and work for creation of ‘use values’ is less clear. Women may be involved in a variety of tasks which simultaneously form part of the market economy and in the production of goods and services directly for consumption within the household[19]. In South Asia, women perform a wide range of economic activities both inside and outside the household. In urban Pakistan, women may work in a variety of professions such as teaching, medicine and social work. Women may also be found in some of the lowest status forms of paid work, including road and building construction, municipal street sweeping and domestic service. In rural areas, women are likely to be responsible for the care of domestic animals and the processing of food for preservation and storage; they may undertake specialised forms of agricultural work such as the transplanting of rice, and take part in general sowing and harvesting of crops; and they may weave, sew and produce handicrafts alongside other domestic and child care responsibilities[20]. In other words, Pakistani women who migrated to Britain are likely to have been involved in a variety of economic activities prior to migration. What would be new when they migrated would not be the prospect of ‘working’ but rather the experience of paid work in an advanced industrialised society.

There is a dearth of research case lore from which to develop a systematic picture of the labour market realities of young Muslim women. Much of the research carried out relates to the immigrant generation[21]. One exception is a pilot study involving a dozen households where the author interviewed daughters, mothers and grandmothers in the city of Bradford[22]. In this account, we encounter women employed largely as homeworkers, although some women had worked in mills before the birth of their children, or as unpaid workers in a family business - and, in some cases, as ‘career women’. Clearly these women were economically active, although few would be included in formal statistics.

In our study we interviewed five categories of women: those who were not looking for paid employment; those engaged in paid work (both those working on employers’ premises and homeworkers); unemployed women; trainees on Government Training Schemes; and students in courses of further or higher education. This range of women were interviewed because, in order to fully understand why some Muslim women do not enter the labour market, we needed to know why others already have done so. Also, it is important to know what perceptions and aspirations are represented among women enrolled on courses of education and training.

To work or not to work?

This question held different significance depending upon whether the respondent was a student or a trainee, an unemployed young woman, a woman with young children weighing the advantage of an income against the cost of paying a childminder or nursery fee, or someone already engaged in paid work outside the home or as a ‘homeworker’. The most striking common aspect of the responses we received was that the women overwhelmingly supported women’s right to paid work. Irrespective of whether or not they themselves wished, or were in a position, to find employment, this support was consistently echoed in the interviews. It represents a serious critique of patriarchal discourses which privilege male income and construct women’s labour as singularly appropriate to caring responsibilities in the household. It interrogates the hegemonic claims of such ideologies. Women’s earnings were considered by our respondents as an indispensable contribution to the income of households. Paid work was also valued for offering women a measure of independence and a sense of confidence.

When performed outside the household, paid work was thought to provide a much needed network of contacts beyond those of family and kinship. Employment outside the home was considered an antidote to the boredom and isolation of staying at home. Workplace friendships were experienced as a source of fun. Women talked about the joy of sharing a joke, teasing, engaging in casual banter, sharing out items of lunch brought from home, gossiping, offering a sympathetic ear to workmates experiencing domestic or other problems, sharing ‘a moan’ against employers, and so on. Contradictions of gender, ethnicity, racism, class and generation seemed to be played out in all their complexity in these workplace cultures. The importance attached by women to workplace cultures is also attested by ethnographic studies of women in the workplace.[23]

Barriers to employment

If the great majority of women emphasised the importance of paid work for women, why were some of them not looking for employment? All the women who fell into this category - both married and single - cited housework and other caring responsibilities as taking up most of their time. The single women often had to share responsibility for looking after their younger brothers and sisters, or, in some cases, their nephews and nieces. In instances where a mother suffered ill health, the single woman had to assume the overall responsibility for the household. There was no doubt that, for these women, housework and other forms of caring work including child care, care of elderly parents-in-law, or that of other members of the extended family, constituted ‘work’ par excellence:

How can I look for other work, I can’t even finish my housework. I have plenty of work to do: wash, iron, make dinner and all that. My mum can’t do it because of poor health, so I have to do the housework.
18-year-old single woman

Housework takes up all my time. There are eight of us at home. Cooking, cleaning the house, washing clothes, ironing - it never finishes.
20-year-old single woman

I have four children, three boys and a girl. I have my hands full… Besides, if I did work I would have to place the children in a nursery. That costs more than the wage I would earn.
Young married woman

Of course, there is a sense in which these narratives might be understood as being typical of any woman under such circumstances. But while these women are not alone in finding domestic responsibilities onerous, there are two factors that have a particular bearing on this group. First, these women often had responsibility for larger-than-average households, which sometimes included members of the extended family. Second, domestic appliances such as washing machines or dishwashers that might relieve the pressures of housework were not a common feature of many households, especially those facing difficult material circumstances in a period of high unemployment. A similar finding is reported by Shaw (1988).[24] It is worth bearing in mind that both during and since the last decade, Pakistani households in Birmingham have been one of the hardest hit by job losses in the area. In our study, we came across families where several members of the household were unemployed. Moreover, even when a household might not be directly affected by unemployment, low income might still be a problem due to the concentration of Pakistanis in low-paid jobs. Moreover, the financial demands of mutual obligations amongst extended kin may further deplete disposable household income.

It is sometimes suggested that South Asians from rural Pakistan, as compared to those from urban centres, might be more inclined to restrict women’s entry in the labour market. However, we did not find any major differences in family background prior to migration between women who were not searching for a job and those who were ‘economically active’ - that is, who were either unemployed or employed. The families of the majority of women in all three categories migrated from rural parts of Pakistan. Rural origin in itself, therefore, could not account for whether or not young Pakistani women would take up employment. Nor did marital status emerge as a particularly important determinant of women’s propensity to seek paid work. Although single women were more likely to be economically active, they were also strongly represented among those not looking for paid work.

One factor that did seem to have a clear influence on the likelihood of a woman participating in the labour market was her length of stay in Britain. We found that the great majority of women who were active in the labour market were born here or arrived here as children. In contrast, most of the women who were not pursuing employment came to Britain as teenagers or later and, as a consequence, their experience of schooling in Britain was limited. In Pakistan they had attended mainly village schools. In Britain the majority had left school without achieving any formal qualifications, and some experienced difficulty in using English. Such women often perceived their lack of formal qualifications and their limited facility in the English language as a barrier to ‘good jobs’.

Sitting at home you get bored. But finding jobs is not easy. I have to learn English first.

At the moment I don’t know. When I have learnt English and other things I’ll see whether I want to work or not. English is a big problem for me.

These women were not unaware of jobs in the secondary sector of the labour market, especially in the clothing industry in Birmingham where employers asked no questions about knowledge of English or other types of formal qualification. But the young women categorised these as ‘bad jobs’ with low rates of pay and poor working conditions. Such jobs held no attraction for the women, since they would merely impose an extra burden on existing demands on their time from domestic responsibilities, without any of the advantages of a well-paid job with good working conditions.

I said earlier that women’s position in the labour market is defined, not simply by the structure of the labour market or the needs of the economy, but also by patriarchal ideologies which define women’s position in society. Social norms about ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’ are constitutive of the unequal division of labour in the household, occupational segregation of the labour market by gender, and the possibility that a substantial number of women may never enter the labour market. Patriarchal ideologies have a bearing on all women in Britain, but they may take specific forms in relation to young Muslim women. Notions of ‘purdah’, as has already been pointed out, vary enormously among Muslim groups. But where families do wish to observe such norms the prospect of women going out to perform paid work causes deep concern because it is thought to signal the inability of men to provide for the economic maintenance of the household. The generalised ideology of the male as breadwinner, common in Britain and other Western countries, emerges in this system of signification as ‘family honour’. The prospect of young women working away from home unchaperoned is understood as providing fertile ground for malicious gossip. Such gossip is considered a serious threat to a woman’s reputation. Sue Lee’s[25] work demonstrates the power of gossip and innuendo in casting doubts on a young woman’s reputation in British schools. A white girl who has been constructed as a ‘slag’ may redeem her reputation by finding a steady boyfriend. Such possibility of patriarchal ‘redemption’ through the heterosexual economy of desire is not available to young Asian women. They must have a reputation of no sexual involvement prior to marriage if they are to help maintain their ‘family honour’, something that was not generally uncommon in Britain that long ago. The point is that both instances are exemplars of patriarchal practices.

What is interesting in terms of our study is that only about a quarter of our respondents gave their families’ opposition to women holding jobs away from the home on the grounds of ‘izzat’ and ‘purdah’ as the major reason why they were not doing paid work. But when opposition did occur constraints could be quite stringent:

My parents want me to stay at home… The relatives are the same as well. They say she shouldn’t go out… I don’t even sign on. I think they wouldn’t mind me doing homeworking.

If I was at home they could keep an eye on me. If I went to a factory they might think I will go somewhere else with a friend, or I might find a boyfriend.

My parents didn’t let me out of the house. Straight home from school, do the housework and stay in. Didn’t see my friends. My Mum is stricter than my Dad. Dad used to say ‘let them go out’, but she wouldn’t. She said people would talk.

Patriarchal norms and practices cannot, however, be regarded simply as ‘external constraints’. As we saw in the last chapter and in the first part of this one, at any given moment our subjectivity is marked by the discursive field of complex articulation between the psychic and the social. We have different investments in different political positions. That is, women may be positioned or even consciously position themselves differently within patriarchal discourses, not because they are either ‘oppressed’ or ‘forced’ to do so or because they are propelled by an enlightened self-referencing agency, but because they are emotionally, psychically, subjectively invested in specific positionalities where the effects of the social dynamics of power are non-reductively interiorised into the contradictory modalities of the mind. So, how did the young women who were not looking for employment construct themselves in terms of the cultural practices that serve to exclude women from the labour market? In some cases the young women echoed the gender-specific injunctions that mark the concept of ‘izzat’. As one woman observed:

When women work outside the home it brings ‘Be Izzti’ (dishonour) on the family. I do not think women should work outside the home. I do not want a daughter of mine to work! [translated]

But other women opposed the idea that women should not hold jobs outside the home. Their responses to the personal circumstances that had led to their own exclusion from the labour market differed considerably. One single woman, currently unable to take up paid work due to the opposition of her parents, lived in the hope that her future partner would be more liberal on the subject. A second young woman, whose parents had not considered it appropriate for unmarried women to work outside the home, and who was married soon after leaving school, found that her husband too was not in favour of her finding a job. Feeling isolated and bored at home, she feels quite disenchanted with this aspect of her life. But she is determined to ensure that when she has children her daughter will get similar opportunities to a son. Her own life might have been constrained by the normative construction of the male as breadwinner, but she is keen to negotiate a different future for her daughter. A third woman, who was twenty-four-year-old young mother with three children, would not take up employment because of child care responsibilities, but she was planning to train as a nursery nurse when her children were older. Her husband and in-laws were supportive of her job aspirations. It is clear that young Pakistani women who are outside the labour market constitute a diverse and differentiated category of individuals.

Dilemmas of paid work

Muslim women may be under-represented in those forms of paid work which are accessible to statistical collation. But they are far from absent in the labour market. As we saw earlier, evidence suggests that a substantial proportion of these women may be engaged in ‘home-working’. On the other hand, Muslim women are also employed in a range of manual, office and clerical, as well as professional, jobs in Britain. This range was reflected among our employed respondents, with three of them working in a clothing factory, one self-employed as a graphic designer, one a primary school teacher. Another respondent worked for the local authority in a middle-range advisory/managerial post, three worked in the voluntary sector as community workers or advice workers, and two worked from home as ‘homeworkers’. Another twelve women were unemployed. A common characteristic of both employed and unemployed women was their determination to find a job. They placed great emphasis on the need for women to be economically active:

I think men and women should have equal rights. If men work why can’t women? Women are not just there to do the housework.

I strongly disagree with those who think that women should not work outside the home. Well, why should they stay at home? Why can’t men stay at home?

I think that both men and women should work. You can’t live on one person’s income… It is important to me not to be dependent on anyone - my Mum or husband. I am ambitious for myself.

A substantial proportion of our respondents belonged to families who were quite flexible about women holding jobs. In such instances, parents had been at the very least non-obstructive and, in several cases, positively encouraging about the education and career ambitions of their daughters:

When I decided to look for jobs my parents were not overjoyed. But they didn’t stop me either.

My parents left the choice to me: you can stay at home or go to work just as long as you don’t give me a bad name and people can’t point the finger.

My parents were very encouraging. They said, ‘do what you want to do’.

Where families were initially reluctant, the women used a variety of strategies of persuasion to obtain consent, often recruiting the support of sympathetic relatives of family friends to help negotiated a desired outcome. Academic and professional jobs are especially highly regarded among Asian groups. Even those parents who might at first be ambivalent about a daughter pursuing higher education/professional qualifications for fear that the young woman may become ‘wayward’, as one respondent put it, will feel quite proud once she has achieved such qualifications.

Not surprisingly, economic necessity emerged as one of the most effective persuaders:

At first I didn’t work because my parents didn’t want me to. Dad is unemployed now. It is hard. I am looking for work now.

Well it is hard because my Mum doesn’t really want me to have a job. But we have been forced to because we’ve got no money… My parents want me to sew at home [homeworking]. Loads of girls my age [17] do it around here. But I don’t want to.

When my father retired of ill health we actually had to support ourselves… There’s no way my sisters could have got married - right - the dowry, the jewellery and hiring the hall, feeding the guests - all that - without previous employment.

The effects of immigration legislation were also cited as influencing women’s decision to participate in the labour market. Our respondents argues that the law discriminates against Asians, and the young women are particularly caught up in this through the ‘primary purpose’ clause which places the onus on an applicant from the Asian sub-continent married to a British-born Asian woman to provide the burden of proof that the marriage was not contracted primarily for the purpose of immigration to Britain. The immigration rules also stipulate that persons wishing to bring their spouses over to live in Britain must be able to support them without recourse to public funds. Families are often divided across continents due to these laws, and the women who wish to sponsor a spouse must find employment in order to provide proof of being able to support a spouse without recourse to public funds.[26]

Whatever the reasons given for holding a job, and irrespective of the level of social importance attached to women’s right to employment by individual women, paid work was not always experienced as an unequivocal advantage. Managing the ‘double-shift’ of domestic responsibilities alongside paid work was likely to be exhausting[27]. For most women combining these two types of work the day could start as early as five or six o’clock in the morning, and may not end until ten or eleven o’clock at night after the household chores, or the task related to paid work (e.g. marking student essays or preparing for the next day’s lessons, in the case of a teacher; or completing the piece-work quota for the day in the case of a ‘homeworker’) had been completed.[28]

Our interviews with ‘homeworkers’ support the evidence from other studies which points to low wages, insecurity of employment, boredom and isolation, unbearable pressures resulting from sudden deadlines imposed at short notice by suppliers, and overall lack of employment protection, as characteristic features of ‘homeworking’[29]. This should not be taken to imply, however, that women working at employers’ premises considered themselves as being better off. Indeed, several women working outside the home in low-waged, non-unionised sectors of the economy complained bitterly about conditions of work. Any attempts at unionisation of the workforce, they said, could result in dismissal. Fea of ‘the sack’ was a powerful deterrent against collective action. As one woman put it:

They treat you like animals but everyone fears the sack because you can’t get a job that fast.

Poor working conditions - whether associated with ‘homeworking’ or with work carried out from employers’ premises - were deplored across the board. Women condemned such conditions even though they may have no option themselves but to accept such employment through necessity and lack of available options.

Overall, ‘homeworking’ was regarded by the women as the least favoured form of paid work. They described it as sheer drudgery and exploitation. They saw it as reinforcing social isolation and leading to loneliness, and in some cases to acute forms of depression. Correspondingly, low-skilled forms of ‘factory work’ or non-manual work were also met with little enthusiasm, although they were generally preferred over homeworking. Women wanted ‘good jobs with decent pay’ and a creative and positive working environment. Yet they possessed a fairly realistic assessment of the limited range of jobs available to the majority of Asian women. Living in working-class areas of decaying urban centres, women were fully aware of the limitations of the local labour market. They spoke of how ‘home-working’, certain types of factory work, or at best, low-skilled low-paid non-manual work in the service sector had become the norm for Asian girls in the minds of local employers, teachers, education and guidance advisers, as well as among sections of the Asian communities. There is not the space here to discuss our respondents’ experiences of education, the Government Training Schemes, and the education and training guidance services. Suffice is to say that the young women reported low expectations and stereotypic perceptions of Asian girls, their aspirations, abilities and parental cultures, on the part of educational professionals. The professional gaze in which a young Muslim woman is always an object rather than a subject of her own destiny was seen by our interviewees as a major obstacle to Asian girls’ success in the labour market.

Racism and discrimination were cited as another huge barrier to entry and success in the labour market:

Racism is a problem. It is easier for white people to get jobs. If a white person advertised a job he would probably want a white person to do it.

It is difficult for us. They give the white people jobs first and then us last.

There are some white people who do not like Asian people. When they see them on the streets they shout abuse and swear words. It makes me really angry. Some employers don’t like to give jobs to Asians.

Contingent Positionality

It is clear from women’s narratives that they are ‘situated’ differently and differentially across a variety of discourses. While some women endorse a woman’s rights to employment and thereby pose a challenge to patriarchal notions of the male as breadwinner, other women’s narratives reiterate patriarchal values. There was no direct correspondence between, on the one hand, their views on women’s participation in the labour market as a desirable and desired general goal and, on the other hand, individual women’s own involvement in paid forms of work. The latter was circumscribed by such aspects as the form and extent of their caring responsibilities, the financial circumstances of the household, the structure of opportunities available through the local market, encouraging/discouraging attitudes on the part of relations/teachers/employment advisers, and racism and racial discrimination in employment. But the point is that women’s experience is not unmitigated uni-directional ‘oppression’, nor are their narratives a straightforward codification of ‘social orientation’ waiting to ‘burst out’ as voluntaristic agency.

Rather, the narratives ‘perform’ variable modalities of subjectivity as the site of ‘social’ and ‘psychic’ simultaneity of positionality. Women’s views about paid employment narrate articulating but distinctive and differentiated gender identities. As previously discussed, identity may be understood as that process whereby the instability and contradiction of the subject-in-process is signified as having stability and coherence as a ‘core’ which is enunciated as the ‘I’. The ‘I’ is non-identically but relationally installed as the ‘we’ across the discursive space of subjectivity and institutional power and practice. In this sense, the collective agency of the women we interviewed was deeply marked by different political subject positions, but not necessarily those which neatly fit certain received notions of the ‘political’, where political agency signals a certain kind of ‘consciousness’ and a certain kind of ‘action’. By placing a strong emphasis on the importance of women having access to well-paid jobs with good working conditions, our respondents articulated a gendered discourse of social equity and justice. As we have seen, some of these young women were not ‘economically active’ themselves, but they persisted in the pursuit of everyday strategies that would facilitate and strengthen the opening up of socially just options for women, even if, as in their own cases, such a goal had to be deferred for a generation and achieved through daughters, or partially gained by supporting friends or female relatives. Women who already held jobs created cultural spaces where the pleasures of sociality could be experienced in the everyday minutiae of life in the workplace. Paid work embodied all the contradictions of class, gender, ethnicity and racism as women sought to balance the ‘double-shift’ of combining domestic responsibilities with a job. In their varying capacity either as ‘homeworkers’, workers in low-waged occupations on employers’ premises, or doing various clerical, managerial and professional jobs, women came face-to-face with gendered forms of radicalised class exploitation. Their everyday life world whispered myriad configuration of power relations.

Overall, the young women’s relationship to the labour market was constructed by a multiplicity of discourses and institutional practices, such as the impact of the global and the national economy on the local labour markets; discourses about women’s suitability for caring responsibilities and women’s own positionality in such discourses - how they might ‘feel’ and ‘think’ about them; the role of education in the social construction of gendered job aspirations, and racism. In other words, ‘structure’, ‘culture’ and ‘agency’; the social and the psychic are all implicated. They are all integral to the framework I have outlined.

Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting identities by Avtar Brah
Routledge, London and New York

First published 1996 by Routledge, 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE
Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada by Routledge, 29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001

© 1996 Avtar Brah


[1] cf. Beechey, V. (1988)’ Rethinking the Definition of Work: Gender and Work’, in J. Jensen, E. Hagen and G. Redd (eds) Feminisation of Labour Force, London Polity Press for an overview.

[2] See ’Unemployment, Gender and Racism: Asian Youth on the dole’ in A. Brah. (1996) Cartographies of Diaspora, London Routledge; S. Westwood (1984) All Day Everyday, London, Pluto Press; A. Brah (1987) ‘Journey to Nairobi’, in S. Grewal et al. (eds) Charting the Journey: writings by Black and Third World Women, London: Sheba Press; S. Westwood and P. Bachu (1989) Enterprising Women, London: Routledge; A. Phizacklea (1990) Unpacking the Fashion Industry, London: Routledge; S. Walby (1990) Theorising Patriarchy, London: Basil Blackwell; K.K. Bhavnani (1991) Talking Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] in ‘Refiguring the multi: The politics of difference, commonalty and universalism’ in A. Brah. (1996) Cartographies of Diaspora, London Routledge.

[4] A. Brah and S. Shaw (1992) Working Choices; South Asian Young Muslim Women and the Labour Market, London: Department of Employment, Research Paper No.91.

[5] The study upon which this paper is based was funded by the Department of Employment. It focuses upon young women of predominantly Pakistani background living in Birmingham. It is a qualitative study, carried out during 1988/89, which involved 55 in-depth interviews with individuals and group discussions with 50 women in the age group 16-24. The women had family origin in the Mirpur district of Azad Kashmir or in the Panjab. Most of the families came to Britain from rural parts of the sub-continent, but about a sixth of them had urban backgrounds prior to migration. The young women’s parents worked mainly in manual occupations in Britain (Brah and Shaw 1992).

[6] A. Brah and S. Shaw (1992) Working Choices; South Asian Young Muslim Women and the Labour Market, London: Department of Employment, Research Paper No. 91.

[7] M. Mies (1986) Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, London: Zed Press.

[8] cf. S. Walby (1990) Theorising Patriarchy, London.

[9] see Gendered Spaces: Women of South Asian Descent in 1980’s Britain, in A. Brah. (1996) Cartographies of Diaspora, London Routledge.

[10] S. Mitter (1986) Common Fate, Common Bond: Women in the Global Economy, London: Pluto Press; Allen and Massey (1988) The Economy in Question, London: Sage; J. Jensen et al. (1988) Feminisation of Labour Force, London: Polity Press; S. Hall and M. Jacques (1983) The Politics of Thatcherism, London: Lawrence & Wishart; Phizacklea (1990) Unpacking the Fashion Industry, London: Routledge.; Nazir (1991) Local Development in the Global Economy: The Case of Pakistan, Aldershot: Avebury Press.

[11] A. Brah and S. Shaw (1992) Working Choices; South Asian Young Muslim Women and the Labour Market, London: Department of Employment, Research Paper No. 91.

[12] Cross et al. (1990); A. Brah and S. Shaw (1992) Working Choices; South Asian Young Muslim Women and the Labour Market, London: Department of Employment, Research Paper No.91.

[13] cf. W. W. Daniel (1968) Racial Discrimination in England, Harmondsworth: Penguin; D. Brooks and K. Singh (1978) Aspirations versus Opportunities: Asian and White School Leavers in Midlands, London: Commission for Racial Equality; C. Brown (1984) Black and White Britain, London: Heinemann; D. Drew et al. (1991) Against the Odds: The Educational and Labour Market Experiences of Black Young People, Sheffield: Department of Employment Training, Research and Development Series.

[14] G. Lee and J. Wrench (1983) Skill Seekers, Leicester: National Youth Bureau; M. Cross et al. (1990) Ethnic Minorities and the Careers Service: Investigation into Processes of Assessment and Placement, London: Department of Employment, Research Paper No. 73; D. Drew et al. (1991) Against the Odds: The Educational and Labour Market Experiences of Black Young People, Sheffield: Department of Employment Training, Research and Development Series, see also Gendered Spaces: Women of South Asian Descent in 1980’s Britain, in A. Brah. (1996) Cartographies of Diaspora, London Routledge.

[15] cf. Said (1978) Orientalism, New York: Pantheon Books; Alloula (1986) ‘The Colonial Harem’, Theory and History of Literature, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[16] see Gendered Spaces: Women of South Asian Descent in 1980’s Britain, in A. Brah. (1996) Cartographies of Diaspora, London: Routledge; Parmar (1982)’ Gender Race and Class: Asian Women in Resistance’, Centre for Contemporary Conflict Studies, University of Birmingham, The Empire Strikes Back, London: Hutchinson. A. Brah and R. Minhas (1985) ’Structural Racism or Cultural Difference?: Schooling for Asian Girls’, in G. Weiner (ed.) Just A Bunch of Girls, Milton Keynes: Open University Press; H. Lutz (1991) Migrant Women of ‘Islamic Background’: Images and Self Images, Amsterdam: Middle East Research Associates, Occasional paper (11).

[17] N. El Sadawi (1980) The Hidden Face of Eve, London: Zed Press; U. Sharma (1980) Women, Work and Property in North India, London: Tavistock Publications.

[18] cf. D. Leonard and M.A. Speakman (1986)’Women in the Family: Companions or Caretakers?, in V. Beechy and E. Whitelegg (eds) Women in Britain Today, Milton Keynes: Open University Press; S. McRae (1989)Flexible Working Time and Family Life, London: Policy Studies Institute; C. Hall (1992) White, Male and Middle Class: Explorations in Feminism and History, London, Verso.

[19] L. Beneria and G. Sen (1981)’ Accumulation, Reproduction and Women’s Role in Economic Development: Boserup Revisited’, Signs, 7(2).; K. Young and C. Wolkowitz (eds.)(1981) Of Marriage and the Market: Women’s Subordination in International Perspective, London: CSE Books; Redclift (1985) ‘The Contested Domain: Gender Accumulation and the Labour Process’, in N. Redclift and E. Mingion (eds.) Beyond Unemployment, Oxford Basil Blackwell.

[20] Papaneck (1971) ‘Purdah in Pakistan’, Journal of Marriage and Family, August; Nazir (1991) Local Development in the Global Economy: The Case of Pakistan, Aldershot: Avebury Press.

[21] Dhaya (1974) ’The Nature of Pakistani Ethnicity in Industrial Cities in Britain, in A. Cohen (ed.) Urban Ethnicity, A.S.A. Monograph (12) London: Tavistock Publications; U.Saifullah-Khan (1974) Pakistani Villagers in a British City, unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Bradford; P. Jeffery (1976) Migrants and Refugees, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; M. Anwar (1979) The Myth of Return, London: Heinemann.

[22] H. Afshar (1989) ‘Gender Roles and the “Moral Economy of Kin” among Pakistani Women in West Yorkshire’, New Community, 15(2): 211-24.

[23] cf. A. Pollert (1981) Girls, Wives, Factory Lives, Basingstoke: Macmilan; S. Westwood (1984) All Day Everyday, London: Pluto Press.

[24] A. Shaw (1988) A Pakistani Community in Britain, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

[25] As we saw in Gendered Spaces: Women of South Asian Descent in 1980’s Britain, in A. Brah. (1996) Cartographies of Diaspora, London Routledge.

[26] cf. R. Sondhi (1987) Divided Families, London: Runnymede Trust.

[27] see ’Unemployment, Gender and Racism: Asian Youth on the dole’ in A. Brah. (1996) Cartographies of Diaspora, London Routledge.

[28] see case studies in A. Brah and S. Shaw (1992) Working Choices; South Asian Young Muslim Women and the Labour Market, London: Department of Employment, Research Paper No.91.

[29] cf. L. Bisset and U. Huws (1984) Sweated Labour: Homeworking in Britain Today, Pamphlet No.33, London: Low Pay Unit; S. Allen and C. Wolkowitz (1987) Homeworking: Myths and Realities, Basingstoke: Macmillan Education; A. Phizacklea (1990) Unpacking the Fashion Industry, London: Routledge.