The Stigma Matrix
Gender, Globalization, and the Agency of Pakistan's Frontline Women
Fauzia Husain



ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON IN April 2020, Inspector Sharafat Khan was attacked by a mob of worshippers. She had only recently become one of two women to command a mainstream (i.e., co-ed) station house in Karachi. She was trying to implement COVID-19 restrictions in the district under her command. The worshippers pelted her with stones. Videos of the attack soon went viral. In them, Khan, uniformed, can be seen cornered by a crowd of men, her nose bleeding as she screams to her police force to take action against the mob. In interviews with the media, members of the mob later justified their attack. They said it was warranted on account of her disrespectful behavior.

Khan was not the first woman agent of the state to suffer such an assault upon her dignity. Just eighteen months earlier, in October 2018, Assistant Superintendent of Police Sohai Ali Talpur successfully thwarted a terrorist attack on a Chinese embassy in Karachi. The case received considerable publicity in the media, as TV channels and newspapers carried stunning images of the operation. In them, Talpur, in uniform, can be seen leading a force of armed men. The men are all wearing bulletproof vests. Talpur, fortified with only a revolver, is pictured leading the charge. These striking images of Talpur and her team gained traction on international media outlets as varied as CNN, Reuters, and the Hindustan Times. Certain Chinese nationals were so taken by Talpur’s bravery that they sent her proposals of marriage. But the international praise for Talpur’s bravery was tempered, at the local level, by doubts and censure. In cynical tweets, cartoons, and news reports, local critics asserted that Talpur’s involvement was nothing more than a publicity stunt, that she had used her rank to push herself into the limelight and that in truth, the credit belonged to her male subordinates (see Zahra 2018).

A few miles east of the embassy where Talpur thwarted a terrorist attack, another woman agent of the state also braved threats of violence in the line of duty. Shiza Hayat, a lady health worker, goes door to door administering the polio vaccine to children in her neighborhood. In the course of her duties, she said, she was intimidated by armed men. “For four days after the polio drive ended,” she said, “I noticed these men sitting outside my gate. They had guns and they looked very threatening. I was too scared to go out. If I needed to buy something, I would sneak out the back door.” This intimidation had come on the heels of a warning from her neighbors: “They told me very forcefully to give up polio work,” she said. “They think that lady health workers are lewd women because we provide the community with information and tools for contraception. . . . And they particularly dislike the vaccine work we do; they think the polio vaccine is part of an American conspiracy to sterilize Muslim children.”

The dignity assaults that Khan, Talpur, and Hayat endured are not unique. In fourteen months of field research in Karachi, Pakistan I witnessed, in site after site, frontline women workers, who, courageously face tremendous hardship and danger in the course of their work, reduced to tears by the insults, jokes, and threats lobbed at them by the public as well as by bosses, subordinates, clients, and even members of their own families. I watched public health workers who have braved terrorist threats to complete their polio vaccination work sob over the poor treatment they received at the hands of their bosses. I saw state-employed airline attendants, stoic in the face of plane safety problems, weep as they talked about family members who no longer spoke to them on account of their “disreputable jobs.” And I heard policewomen compare their workplaces to sewers that contaminate women’s dignity and their reputations.

While global gender mainstreaming initiatives have created opportunities for women like Khan, Talpur, Hayat, and other frontline women workers to take up new public roles on behalf of the Pakistani state, these measures have also brought these women into confrontation with cultural beliefs that call their competence, commitment, and their very social identity into question. The public nature of their jobs pit frontline women against local logics of gendered distancing, or what I call “purdah norms.” Purdah, literally “curtain,” describes a South Asian practice of women’s seclusion (see Papanek 1973). While it sometimes involves the physical segregation of women from men, for instance, through the erection of screens in public spaces that women can retire behind, at other times doing purdah means enacting norms of gendered distancing, such as veiling, lowering the gaze, and circumscribing interactions with non-kin men (see Husain 2020; Masood 2018). Purdah norms delineate certain spaces, temporalities, and roles as “dirty” for women (George 2000; Patel 2010; Grünenfelder 2013a, b; Rai et al. 2007; Mumtaz and Shaheed 1987). Those who violate the gendered boundaries of space and time by working in male-dominated occupations, like policing, for instance, or by taking on night shifts, are seen as immoral women, unworthy of respect or obedience (Grünenfelder 2013).

This book is concerned with the lives of these so-called dirty women. It follows the trials and tribulations of women like Khan, Talpur, Hayat and other frontline women workers employed by the Pakistani state to serve Pakistani citizens in the arenas of policing, health work, and aviation. Many of these women are the first in their family to venture out of their homes for work. Many have embraced their public-facing jobs in a desperate bid to support their families and serve their communities. But their jobs require them to weather persistent assaults on their dignity.

Although they can be fleeting—the women describe them as background noise—the dignity assaults endured by frontline women deserve our closer scrutiny. The bruising episodes frontline women encounter don’t just wound their bodies, their emotions, their reputations, and their dignity, they also mark frontline women as outsiders, who on account of their gender are ill suited for their public roles and offices. Whether brutal or subtle, the gestures of violence, disobedience, insolence, and mockery that frontline women ceaselessly face are like stigmata, leaving physical, emotional, and reputational scars on their victims. The marks they make don’t just undermine specific security operations, like the physical distancing measures Khan was implementing in order to help the state stem the spread of COVID-19, but also disrupt the public standing of the women they target. And more broadly, such marks shape public beliefs about women’s ability to occupy positions of authority in the machinery of the state.

The pelted stones, the questioning memes, and the intimidation draw attention to the women’s presence and mark them as being out of place, as if they do not deserve to wield the authority or hold the offices they occupy, as if they do not belong in the spaces they patrol in service to the state. Such stigmata, therefore, operate as a mechanism of gendered exclusion, a device that limits women’s capacity to perform their duties for the state and, consequently, their ability to integrate fully into the state that they serve at considerable personal sacrifice.

As Khan’s encounter with the mob and Hayat’s intimidation by her neighbors shows, the dignity assaults frontline women confront are not spontaneous localized events but are rather the dynamic products of gender norms and security processes that are global in nature. Khan was attacked by a mob while implementing measures connected with a global pandemic. The mob’s anger must therefore be understood in the context of broader public sentiments around COVID-19 policies at the time. The imposition of restrictions around COVID-19 quickly prompted a slew of conspiracy theories in Pakistan. News reports about the virus were taken to be false, and the prescribed health measures were read as part of a foreign conspiracy aimed at causing harm to Muslims. Doctors, insisted members of the public, were trying to make money from hospitalizations, while the government was angling for aid money from the west. Some even argued that news of the virus was an excuse to insert a chip into the brains of Muslims, so that antagonistic foreign nations could access the thoughts of their victims. Similar conspiracy theories frame the violence against health workers like Hayat who administer the polio vaccine at the behest of not just the Pakistani state but also its global allies. Because of the vaccine’s transnational backing, these women are seen as agents of a western conspiracy to render Muslim boys infertile and speed up the sexual maturation of Muslim girls.

The stigmatizing affronts that frontline women face, therefore, are not simple. They are not local nor spontaneous nor unstructured but rather are deeply rooted in global processes, both recent and of longer standing. To tease apart this complex of global processes, this book introduces a new multiscalar framework—the stigma matrix—outlining a new theoretical approach that can help us understand how contemporary global policies build on colonial histories and local inequalities to shape women’s experiences of stigma as well as their responses to it. By encouraging us to step back and look beyond the micro-level interpersonal contexts where stigma is inflicted, the stigma matrix framework provides a more comprehensive, more global understanding of stigma. It allows us to apprehend how stigmas, such as the ones Khan, Talpur, and Hayat endured, feed upon a long history of racialized gender inequality and how they continue to draw sustenance from various levels of social life—from macro-level socioeconomic policies through meso-level organizational arrangements to micro-level interactions and experiences.

Adopting a multiscalar approach to stigma allows us also to understand what it is that stigma accomplishes, how it works as a tool for hegemonic domination.