By: ANJUM IBRAHIM
Women contributions to the economy are typically understated in most countries as quantifying the contribution of a housewife remains a challenge for national data collectors but those women engaged in economic activity outside the home are well documented in most countries. And it is this documented sector that shows a marked difference between the Muslim and the rest of the world with the common perception being that Muslim countries like Pakistan do not provide the enabling environment for women to work or engage in business activities outside the home.
Shireen Arshad Khan, Pakistan’s first jewellery and dress designer with exhibitions of her products in more than 25 countries agrees. “I began designing jewellery and dresses around 30 years ago. And believe me it was not easy. My family including my husband was opposed to my being engaged in business and I had to fight my own family every step of the way but I was determined to make it a success,” she recalls. Her determination to succeed was premised on her passion for designing clothes and jewellery. “I would urge women entrepreneurs to allow their own talent, their skill set and capacity, to provide the guideline as to what business to engage in,” she advised. She accused several non-government organisations (NGOs) that grant vulnerable women access to capital at near zero interest rate of compelling women to engage in a business, usually sewing and embroidery, in which they may have little or no talent which not only results in the failure of the venture but also disables the borrower from paying back the loan that could be used to fund others. “This does not mean that I do not believe in education and training to fine-tune skills but skills need to be inherent even if they are dormant for any business to succeed,” she added.
Working capital, she acknowledged, was important but added that “in my case I began very small, designed one piece of jewellery and a dress or two and my clients were mainly friends/acquaintances. I did not market my products and success was by word of mouth. Over time I built up my business and was invited to be a member of Pakistani trade delegations to other countries. I have exhibited and sold my work in around 25 countries”.
Availability of capital is critical for the start of any business. Pakistan at present has around 30 microfinance providers that rely mainly on support from international donors. A recent study by the World Bank revealed that women are not the final beneficiaries of microfinance and 50 to 70 percent loans extended to women are actually channelled to male relatives. Many NGOs support the vulnerable, men and women, and among several others an organisation named Akhuat provides up to Rs 50,000 to the vulnerable – men and women – to start their own businesses. Akhuat, Ms Khan stated, has to its credit several success stories of men and women who were enabled to overcome their economic vulnerability.
Small and medium enterprises requiring higher capital support were the focus of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s statement on Friday while addressing the opening session of “Vision 2025 – Stakeholders Conference”. He announced a new scheme that he claimed would benefit an equal number of men and women. Ms Khan cited this as proof positive that the newly-elected government is committed to mainstreaming women in its policy to promote small and medium enterprises. Under the scheme banks would be encouraged to extend loans of 0.5 million to 2 million rupees with relaxation in interest for the first year and the government would pick up the tab for interest above 8 percent in subsequent years. First Women Bank, Ms Khan argued, charges a high interest rate and requires collateral which accounts for only well to do or well connected women being the Bank’s clients. Ms Khan was, however, quick to point out that in several cases, women are not the final beneficiaries of First Women Bank loans and are fronting for their male relatives.
“I am very proud to say that I was successful in establishing my business both in my country and outside against all odds – opposition by family as well as little capital.” But what Ms Khan is clearly more proud of is her contribution to providing an enabling environment for vulnerable women in Pakistan as the Chairperson Handicrafts Association of Pakistan, Chairperson Women Empowerment and Advocacy Forum, Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Senior Vice President, Federation of Pakistani Chambers of Commerce and Industry on Liaison with Government Agencies, and Member on the Board of Directors, Bahawalpur Handicrafts Village, a city famous for its artisans.
Ms Khan’s commitment to exploit business opportunities led her to attempt to trade with India across the Wahgah border two years ago. However, trade restrictions between the two countries forced her to abandon that market, she laments. “But with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif committed to opening trade between the two nuclear rivals I am hopeful that sometime soon I would be able to exploit the large Indian market,” she stated. Her commitment to working towards that goal as well as empower women in South Asia is reflected in her holding the executive membership of the South Asian Association for Regional Countries (including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Afghanistan) Chamber of Women Entrepreneurs Council.
Remarkably Ms Khan is also a member of the National Assembly and is affiliated with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. During Pakistan People’s Party’s five-year rule (2008-2013) she was declared by the independent Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) as having tabled the largest number of legislations in parliament. The standing committees of the National Assembly for the current parliament would begin meeting from today however in the previous parliament (May 2008-May 2013) Ms Khan was a member of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting, Trade and Commerce, and Finance and Convenor Trade Development Authority of Pakistan. She was recently appointed Chairperson of Aik Hunar Aik Nagar (AHAN) that provides support to artisans and is successfully marketing blue and yellow pottery in the domestic market (a unique blend of colours associated with South Punjab from where Shireen Khan hails). Her objective is to encourage artisans to access the international market and she is currently seeking further assistance from USAID (which currently pays rent on one outlet) to support AHAN’s efforts to access the US market.
“Pakistani women need to be empowered both in terms of a legal framework that guarantees a fair hearing in the courts, and I am referring to discriminatory laws for example equating one man’s testimony to two women’s even in cases of rape, as well as a socio-economic framework that does not discriminate against women. I know the constraints women face in all walks of life as a wife, mother and a business woman – a realisation that prompted my entry into politics where I am proud to say that I am contributing a little to the upliftment of women of my country,” Shireen Khan concluded.