Breaking barriers: Women’s Digital League empowers women in urban, rural Pakistan

By Hyacinth Mascarenhas

Before venturing into entrepreneurship, Maria Umar was a full-time teacher at a private school in Pakistan. After she got pregnant, however, she was refused maternity leave and fired.

Discovering online work through sites such as Odesk and Elance, Umar began to take on micro online tasks ranging from content writing to social media management before outsourcing them to her nieces, friends and other women in Pakistan. In 2009, she founded her own all-women virtual firm – The Women’s Digital League.

Owned and powered by Pakistani women, WDL provides basic digital administrative services to clients around the world that range from content writing and transcription to graphic design and medical billing whilst giving Pakistani women the opportunity to have full-time careers working from home. The company also trains rural Pakistani women to take on these tasks as well.

According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, only 14.3% of Pakistani women currently participate in the labor force, reflecting the country’s socio-cultural pressures to discourage working women from letting their career goals take over their primary duties as wives and mothers.

Umar’s start-up, however, allows for women in Pakistan to become economically empowered while still working around the local cultural norms. Her innovative initiative was recently selected as a finalist in the Women Powering Work: Innovations for Economic Equality in the MENA Region competition, launched by Ashoka Changemakers and GE. We had a chance to speak with Umar about the impact of her work:

Elan: Tell us a little about your initiative and the inspiration behind it.

Maria Umar: I have an M.A. in English Literature so I started teaching at a private school, but when I got pregnant they wouldn’t give me maternity leave and fired me. I was pretty shaken that they had let go of me, but it was a blessing in disguise. I discovered online work while I was at home. I found platforms like Odesk and Elance so I started doing content writing for them.

During this time, I heard of this organization in the U.S. called the Women 2.0 who was going to have a business plan competition pitch night for which all you needed to do was pitch an idea, even if it was in the idea stage and hadn’t taken off yet. So I thought maybe there ought to be a platform where Pakistani women like myself, who for cultural reasons or familial restrictions, could not work have a full time career but they could work on different tasks online.

I submitted this idea in the competition and it was very well-received although I had no business or technical background. A lot of the judges wrote back to me with very positive feedback and that got me thinking. I thought if all these people sitting in Silicon Valley who have been there, done that are saying that this could work, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. All I needed to do is find a way to make it work.

So I started to reach out to different people within Pakistan. I didn’t know anybody so I just found random people on LinkedIn and started messaging them. Several emails and some meetings later, I found out that nobody really believed it. They thought it was just too grand and it wasn’t going to work, so in my own small way, I started working on it.

I started getting more work than I could handle myself on Odesk, so I started handing it out to my niece, her friends, then cousins, and then to complete strangers who started finding out about it and wrote to me that they wanted to work. So we made the Women’s Digital League.

Elan: What are some of the challenges and cultural stigma that women face in the workforce in Pakistan?

MU: Firstly, every society is patriarchal. But Pakistan is just a tad too patriarchal. There are examples of women in urban areas like Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore who are doing a lot. There are female pilots, generals in the army, computer and software engineers, etc. For the most part, however, women are discouraged from working outside their homes unless you get into medicine or you become a teacher. Those are considered ‘respectable’ jobs for women, although it’s preferable that they don’t do anything and stay at home. It’s just considered that the man is the breadwinner and the woman is the homemaker, so her place is at home.

There are also reasons like when you raise a family, you don’t have the time to go out and if she does, that then the family will suffer. There are also certain stigmas that there is a westernized culture that she may be exposed to and that won’t be acceptable for the family. It may make her headstrong especially with economic empowerment. So they largely discourage it for different reasons.

Then, there is obviously the security threat. There are those random kidnappings, phone snatching, the terrorism situation, anything can happen anywhere. So they worry that if she is in an office and something happens, it would bring a bad name to the family besides her getting hurt.

Elan: What sorts of jobs are available via WDL?

MU: We do all kinds of work really. They range from data entry to content writing to social media management. We also did SEO back in the day back when SEO was hot. We also make websites on WordPress. So it could be anything really.

Elan: Tell us about some of the feedback you have received from women regarding your initiative.

MU: It’s just fascinating. I get resumes nearly every day from people. It’s the reason why I haven’t given up on Women’s Digital League. Despite the obvious challenges that I have faced – the biggest one being financial – is that they come to me and tell me, “My father can’t earn or we don’t have male members in the family who can do it for us or we are facing financial problems, so I need to work even if it is from home to help generate enough work.”

This makes me more passionate about it, believe more in the idea and do my best to create this platform where I have enough work to give out to thousands of women, so no one stays home in a financial crunch and suffers from it just because they can’t find online work.

I have women sitting in the remotest regions possible like in the Hunza valley and the Gilgit–Baltistan region along the silk route which is located about 5000-6000 meters above sea level. Those women are also reaching out to me saying they have received the necessary training at ICT training centers, now what? So, it’s really opening up the world to women that culturally don’t go outside their homes and spend their whole lives in their villages.

They are communicating with clients based in the US, the Middle East or Germany. The kind of cultural interaction happening between them is mind-boggling and life changing.

Elan: What are some of the barriers you have faced with the launch of your initiative?

MU: Well, that’s a long list. There have been personal challenges in addition to challenges with WDL such as reaching out to other people.

Personally, I belong to a very conservative family from the South Waziristan Agency in the tribal areas of Pakistan. So to convince my family to be the only girl in her family working outside her house doing something other than teaching or practicing medicine was very hard. I had to take it very slow – start from home, work for a couple of years, and then finally convince them through my own example to let me go out and meet people, spread awareness and then, take it to the next level where they didn’t mind me going to the U.S. for a business program or the UAE for a business fund competition and go out and have all this media spotlight. It was a huge, huge challenge to break down that wall and convince everyone around me that this was a good idea and it wasn’t going to change me in any way.

When I started I was about 27 or 28, so for a young woman to go out and meet men in a very male-dominated industry in Pakistan was very hard. There are very few women that I can go up to, so it’s mainly absolute strangers that you have to go out and meet.

When I started out, people were mostly in the banking sector, tech sector or in call centers so the whole concept of a virtual assistant platform was very new to them. They just couldn’t wrap their heads around it. So to find the right advisers, mentors and people who could understand it was a huge challenge.

As you know, Pakistan is no Silicon Valley. We have frequent power outages and failures so finding a way around that is a huge, huge challenge. Sometimes internet services are shaky or there is internet censorship that lead to complete shutdown of services like YouTube. Right now, I can’t make any phone calls through Skype since they have banned that. I have to pick up the phone to call clients which is, again, very costly. There have been several challenges but none so big that we can’t overcome because, at the end of the day, that’s what entrepreneurship is about – solving problems.

Elan: What’s next for WDL?

MU: Well, my goal is to make this platform to a point where we can provide training to women throughout Pakistan, whether it’s the rural regions or urban areas. We can train them in ICT skills and then provide them with an online platform where we can give them tasks that are very Odesk-like.

Our platform is different from Odesk in the sense that the clients are specifically coming to us with tasks because they believe in the social cause behind it i.e. the economic uplift of women in Pakistan. We also don’t make the clients go through the whole process of going through the talent and finding the right person to do the job. We take care of all of that. We also want to increase the kinds of tasks we receive because there have also been doctors who reaching out to me asking what can they can do online because they got our medical degrees and now they’re sitting at home. So we’re expanding to do medical transcriptions, medical billings, etc.

Elan: Why do you think economic equality is so important in the Middle East?

I always debate this point. It’s not so much about equality. It’s more about emotional empowerment.

Women here get raised to become good wives. You raise a daughter well enough to go into the next house to become a good wife and good mother, so at some point, education is not such a huge problem anymore. Women are getting educated here. But when you get a graduate degree and post-graduate degree, you are expected not to work although you want to. It can be very emotionally disturbing.

So there are a lot of problems that arise out of it. When the woman of the house is unhealthy, especially in case of mental health, the whole household unit is disturbed. It was emotional empowerment more than economic empowerment that I wanted to work on and that’s been coming out great.

As far as economic empowerment is concerned, I believe in empowerment; I don’t believe in equality per se. If a woman wants to work or pitch in to the household income, she should have a way of doing that without hurting either the social fabric around her or working against her culture. To an outsider, the culture of a particular place may look suffocating, but it may not necessarily be so for the people living within it. But we need to find ways to work within that and find a solution to do what we want to but within those norms.

So I gave them this platform and said you don’t have to leave your homes if you don’t want to. If you believe that a woman should stay at home then she can work out of it. There is a way of doing something besides running a bake shop or stitching clothes at home. You can work in the tech sector, write content, create so much online and have this whole wide world before you that you can connect with without hurting anybody. You are looking after your family, raising your children and working full-time.

Pakistan has a lot of similarities with the rest of the MENA region. So again, I’m not working against any culture. I don’t want to go against any religious beliefs or traditions that people have. But this is more of a struggle to find a way to work within those norms and create something.

Elan: What advice would you give to women seeking employment in the MENASA region?

MU: If you have the necessary skills and you’re willing to work on them, build them, work hard, persevere and be passionate about it long enough to see success, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t succeed. Aim for the higher slots. Don’t be suppressed by the glass ceiling anywhere. Go for the top, build your skills and I’m sure you will get there.

Elan: Why do you think entrepreneurship is crucial for the region?

MU: Pakistan is a country where we are always expecting the government to do something for us and we have been disappointed for many decades now. It’s about time that we stop putting the blame somewhere else, start doing something on our own and try to solve our own problems. We have an unemployment problem in our country where there aren’t enough jobs. So we need to go ahead and create jobs.

It’s the best time to be an entrepreneur because there’s this whole new revolution going on around the world where with something as simple as a laptop and an internet connection, people are creating multimillion dollar businesses.

We really need to focus on the resources that we have, stop worrying and building more walls around us. Break through them, find new ways to be creative with the resources that we have and grow our economy.

Editor’s Note: Additional information about the competition, assessment criteria and fascinating trends that are emerging from the finalists’ solutions can be found at www.changemakers.com/MENAwomen.

Follow #womenWork on Twitter to receive the latest on trends and competition news.




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