Every morning, twenty-three-year-old Shumaila makes her way from Korangi to Clifton and clocks into work at eleven am. From eleven am to nine pm, and sometimes even as late as ten or eleven pm, Shumaila attends to clients who visit the high-end salon she works at. She does everything from eyebrow threading to manicuring nails, but what she really enjoys is cutting and styling hair. “During wedding season or other busy times, sometimes we leave work even at one or two am,” she says. When asked what the official working hours at her salon are, Shumaila shrugs her shoulders. “I’ve never been paid for overtime,” she says, “In fact if we ever stay late and the van refuses to come, our boss doesn’t even pay for us to take a rickshaw home.”

Shumaila’s greatest expense is commuting to and from the salon. Due to rising petrol prices, the van service she avails now charges ten thousand rupees every month, which comes out to a third of her salary. This leaves her with around twenty thousand rupees, which goes towards her portion of the rent, bills and groceries. “The inflation means I haven’t saved even a single rupee in months,” she says, “but if I could get some money together, I would do a hairdressing course and get properly certified.” According to Shumaila, getting certified in hair or makeup is the only way beauty workers can ask for a higher salary.

Rabia and Rukhsana, two girls who work at a salon in DHA Lahore, say they work every day from eleven to eight and also spend between eight to ten thousand rupees on conveyance monthly. However, they feel grateful that they have managed to keep their jobs despite the flailing economy. A few years ago, at the height of COVID, the owner of the salon fired a few girls because not enough clients were coming in. “It was random,” they say. “She was in a bad mood one day and fired whichever girl annoyed her.”

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Tabinda has worked in parlours and salons across the city of Karachi for years. Her last boss, clueless about how to actually run a salon, made Tabinda do most of the work. Tabinda handled everything from the accounting to the training of new girls, but her boss refused to pay her a manager’s salary. Today, Tabinda works independently. Since getting married and starting a family, she prefers to go to client’s houses to cut and style their hair. “This way, I spend more time home with my children, but work isn’t very regular.” She no longer earns a fixed amount every month, making it difficult to save or plan for the future.

Beauty workers across the country contend with discrimination on the basis of gender, class and religion in their everyday lives. As women who navigate public spaces on a daily basis, they endure harassment from men on their way to work, and often from male clients as well. Patriarchy shapes their lives in other ways too. Many beauty workers such as Shumaila and Tabinda claim that parlour girls are also looked down upon as “bad women” in the community. “Because we’re out of the house all day and come home late at night, people gossip about us,” says Tabinda.

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As members of the working class, beauty workers are exploited by their bosses for profit and are never part of decision making at their workplaces. Many beauty workers are also Christian, and often face discrimination on the basis of religion. According to Dr Ayra Indrias Patras’ Swept Aside: A Story of Christian Sweepers in Lahore, some Christian women hope to escape the stigma that comes with sweeping by training to become beauticians. However, clients sometimes refuse to avail their services once they find out they are Christian. Shumaila echoes this sentiment. Like many salon owners, her boss is Muslim and always prefers to take the side of his Muslim workers. “I have asked so many times to get Sundays off so that I can attend church with my family, but the manager always refuses,” she says.

Beauty workers find themselves caught in the lurch, unable to make ends meet despite being skilled workers who sacrifice spending time at home with their families and community to put in long hours at work. It’s clear that salon owners are more interested in reaping profits and extending their client networks than protecting their employees, so how can beauty workers begin to advocate for themselves? Nazia Naqvi, a beautician and activist, believes that more working-class women from marginalised communities must be encouraged to join grassroots movement building.

Widowed at a young age, Naqvi worked at a garments factory as a supervisor for twelve years. Tired of working long hours for little pay at the factory, Naqvi enrolled in a beautician’s course. Now she offers training for beauty workers at a reduced cost action (PKR 500) at the Action Research Collective’s community centre, Chiragh Ghar in Chungi, Amar Sidhu. “Instead of joining salons, I encourage my trainees to start parlours in their own homes and offer services to other women in their communities.” Naqvi points out that this will save them commute costs and that everything the women earn will go into their own pockets.

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Zehra Khan, general secretary of the Home-Based Women Workers Federation, has worked with home based workers across Sindh for the past eighteen years and believes that other communities of working-class women can learn from the approach home-based workers adopted where they first built alliances amongst each other. She advises beauty workers to “start building alliances by organising meetings between girls from various parlours and salons across the city.” According to Khan, meeting on a regular basis to discuss their mutual concerns will encourage beauty workers to form a united front so that they can begin organising within their community.

Coming together in this manner is a crucial first step towards the process of eventually forming a union for beauty workers. Prior to forming a union, home based workers were unable to officially negotiate with their employers. However, under the Home-Based Women Workers Federation, registered in 2009, which now comprises four unions, members may now collectively bargain with their employers and negotiate fairer rates in exchange for their labour. In 2018, thanks to the collective efforts of the federation, the Home-Based Workers Act was passed, officially recognising home-based workers in Sindh as part of the labour force. This act has made it possible to hold contractors, who consistently underpay home based workers for the orders they give them, accountable to their workers.

Pakistani sociologist Dr Sidra Kamran, who studies the intersections between work, gender and social class and is currently working on a book that examines beauty work in Pakistan’s new service economy, points out that building solidarity amongst beauty workers may take time, as “employers often encourage divisions among workers by preventing the majority of beauty workers from learning more highly valued skills like hair and make-up. This hoarding of resources and skills results in intense competition among beauty workers. Unfortunately, this also creates antagonism, rather than solidarity, among workers.”

However, Dr Kamran believes that considering other “feminised occupational groups in Pakistan”, such as Lady Health workers, nurses and home based workers, have fought to form unions, there is no reason why beauty workers should not be able to. “Beauty workers also have a unique type of leverage with their employers. Beauty workers often become very popular among clients who prefer to get services from their favourite worker. I know some employers who have made significant exceptions (like allowing beauty workers to bring their children to work for example) for their most popular beauty workers in order to retain them. In cases where employers have failed to retain popular beauty workers, salons have lost a significant chunk of customers after the beauty worker quit. Given that beauty workers may be able to take clientele with them if they leave, beauty workers have some leverage in negotiating with their employers.”

A major obstacle with regards to building alliances amongst beauty workers is that, unlike home-based workers, their hours are not flexible. Many of them leave home in the morning and return at night. They are allowed only one day off a week, a day most of them relegate to domestic chores. Should feminists and activists step in to fill this gap and help organise meetings, giving beauty workers the space they need to talk about and organise around the issues they face both at work and at home? Dr Kamran believes that yes, we need to tie our feminist politics to labour and class politics. “I think the issue of women and work—including both paid work and social reproduction work— must be foundational to our feminist program. Feminists have recently played a remarkable role in struggles around land dispossession in Karachi and I hope that we may likewise become actively engaged in labour struggles, educating ourselves on unions, labour rights, and collective labour organising. Given that beauty salons are often women-only spaces, we need women labour organisers to take a key role. Feminists are also well-positioned to highlight struggles around women’s work not just in relation to paid work at the salons, but also the unpaid domestic and care work beauty workers must do at home.

Some beauty salon owners and customers identify as feminists, are broadly committed to women’s rights and equality, and may even participate in feminist protests like Aurat March demanding better working conditions for workers. But they fail to recognize that waged labour is always characterised by exploitation. It would be great if feminists popularised a broader critique of the very system of wage labour beyond just calling for better working conditions. I’d love to see a feminist worker cooperative beauty salon in Pakistan, in which all workers have an equal share in the ownership, management, and profits of the beauty salon.``

A beauty workers cooperative where workers have complete autonomy and the opportunity to work and live with dignity may seem like a far off dream. However, perhaps during a worker-friendly training course in the heart of Lahore, through the advice of cousins or aunts who work as nurses or home-based workers, or during a prolonged lunch break while the salon manager is away, the seeds of this dream are slowly being sown. We need to start paying attention to what beauty workers are trying to tell us.

Amna Chaudhry is a writer and activist who divides her time between Pakistan and Los Angeles. Her work includes reporting on Pakistan’s feminist, environmental, and labour movements for Guernica, Himal Southasian, Caravan, The Herald and Dawn. In 2021 she was a South Asia Speaks fellow for fiction. Her Substack, Modsquad, is a popular monthly publication for which she writes cultural criticism around the media, beauty and fashion industries in Pakistan. You can follow her on IG here: thisisthemodsquad

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