“good” and “bad” women: gender performance in the context of class stratification

Credit: Furqan Jawed

By Sidra Kamran

Feminists have long critiqued the false binary of “good woman” vs. “bad woman” but these caricatures still survive in some circles. But some women are increasingly rejecting this good/bad dichotomy and developing new types of femininities which combine characteristics of both “good” and “bad” womanhood. For example, the  #girlboss identity fuses characteristics of conventional femininity with the traditionally masculine traits of aggressiveness and authority. However, who creates these new meanings for femininity and are they available to all?

My research explores how these caricatures of “good woman” and “bad woman” play out in the lives of Pakistani working-class women workers. In Pakistan, the locally idealized form of femininity is that of respectable femininity, meaning women who are domestic, modest, religious, docile, and follow middle-class norms of behavior. In contrast, stigmatized femininity is associated with women who spend time in the public sphere, interact with men who are not relatives, are overly sexual or aggressive, and follow working-class norms of behavior and speech.

During ethnographic fieldwork in a women-only marketplace in Karachi, Meena Bazaar, I noticed that women engaged in a wide range of contradictory gender behaviors.  On the one hand, women beauty and retail workers regularly shouted, cursed, acted in a hypersexualized feminine way, and fought with customers and co-workers alike. They seemed to embody stereotypes of “bad women.” On the other hand, workers also constantly attempted to signal respectability, invoked the idea of their own “izzat” (translated as honor/respect/moral reputation), and sometimes were modest, religious, and upheld middle-class norms. Initially, it appeared that some women beauty and retail workers presented themselves as “good” respectable women whereas others willfully performed “bad” womanhood. On closer examination, however, I realized that it was not that some women were invested in being “good” and others in being “bad”, but rather, the same women were continuously fluctuating between both forms of femininity.

What explains this cacophony of femininities in Meena Bazaar?  I argue that women performed these different forms of femininity in attempts to accrue economic benefits such as wages and profits at the same time as respectability and social status. While adopting the “bad women” type of femininity usually decreases women’s reputation, in the context of Meena Bazaar, it also enabled access to economic benefits. For example, managers required their workers to be aggressive, loud, and domineering so that workers could effectively recruit customers amidst the tough competition in the bazaar. However, women did not earn sufficient economic benefits in these low-wage jobs and remained marked as low status both inside and outside the workplace. Thus, they also attempted to approximate more respectable femininity, for example, by adopting both religious and docile attitudes, in an effort to gain status by proving their morality. Since women workers in Meena Bazaar, mostly working-class, were unable to secure sufficient economic benefits or moral respectability to secure “good women” status, they relied on using both kinds of femininity as a survival strategy.

Professional middle-class women and feminists who are rejecting prevalent gender norms are often celebrated as the “new women” of South Asia. Working-class beauty and retail workers in Meena Bazaar were also defying gender norms. They were working outside their homes in low-status jobs and performing “bad” womanhood by abandoning traditionally feminine ways of behaving in docile and restrained ways. However, unlike middle-class and elite women in high status jobs, women in Meena Bazaar did not consciously reject, fuse, or re-define the dichotomy of “good” and” bad” women to herald a new type of womanhood. Rarely did workers in Meena Bazaar brazenly self-identify with “bad” womanhood, even as they performed it by discarding traditional femininity and rejecting the inequalities between traditional masculinity and femininity. Rather, they clung to the opposites of “good” and “bad” woman as they tried to identify as “good” and used these stereotypes to disparage other workers.

Intentionally subversive gender performances are a key tactic of feminist movements in Pakistan and elsewhere, and highlight the poverty of respectability politics. However, my research suggests that such tactics must also be accompanied by other strategies for societal change. Class inequality forces working-class women to use the caricatures of “good” and “bad” womanhood to leverage their status. Working-class women who otherwise defy prevailing gender norms continue to aspire toward respectable femininity, even when this kind of femininity is ultimately used to stigmatize them. My research shows why working-class women continue to vacillate between these opposites of “good” and “bad” womanhood and are invested in maintaining this dichotomy, rather than challenging it. Ultimately, this “good woman” vs. “bad woman” binary allows them to gain status in a class-stratified society. In the absence of efforts to address this class inequality, gender stereotypes are unlikely to be upended, as women will continue to use whatever kind of femininity, they need to in order to increase their chances of a better life.

Sidra Kamran (@sidrakn) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the New School for Social Research, where she has also completed a graduate certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her dissertation examines the flourishing yet stigmatized occupations of beauty and retail work in Pakistan and her other research analyses how TikTok is enabling the unprecedented entry of women and sexual minorities into Pakistan’s digital public sphere. You can read more about her research here.

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