By Ammara Maqsood
September 24, 2017
Pakistan is often seen as a country with small Birkin-bag-sporting elite, a poverty-ridden mass and little in between. The reality is that Pakistan does have a large urban population, which identifies itself as middle class. Being middle class is a status closely associated with a progressive modernity — in Pakistan, in India — that individuals and successive governments alike yearn for.
In undivided, colonial India, the term “middle class” was associated with Indian officials, bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers and teachers who were linked to the colonial state. But while they displayed the values and ambitions of the modernizing English middle class — mediating between the rulers and the ruled — many of them came from aristocratic and landed backgrounds.
After the formation of Pakistan in 1947, the families employed in the colonial government were at the forefront of the national project of modernization, along with emerging groups such as urban professionals from India and educated families from smaller towns in Punjab. They are known as the “old middle class” in contemporary Pakistan. Their children don’t work for the state but tend to be employed at midlevel and top positions in the more lucrative private sector.
In Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, old middle-class families distance themselves from the upwardly mobile through their genealogical ties to prestigious families, local notables and their display of affinity for the “lost” culture of the 1950s and 1960s. They share photos and stories of Ava Gardner staying at Faletti’s Hotel during the filming of “Bhowani Junction” and Dizzy Gillespie playing saxophone with a snake charmer — evidence of a period when Pakistan enjoyed a more favorable global reputation.
The old middle class sees Pakistan as being on the path toward modernity before the Islamisation agenda of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq (1978-88) brought upheaval. Their nostalgia influences foreign commentators, who tend to showcase events, such as literary festivals, that glorify the earlier progressive history of the country.
Implicit in these portrayals is a vilification of the upwardly mobile groups whose more visible religiosity is viewed as the legacy of General Zia. It is these groups that constitute the new urban middle class that has emerged since the 1980s. In Lahore, many of them are second-generation migrants from small towns and rural areas in Punjab.
Products of the state education system of the 1980s — a time when General Zia gave religious clergy free rein and curbed political parties — most members of the new middle class are familiar with the discourses of Islamic groups. While many are sympathetic to Islamist parties’ call for social justice, and some have had affiliations with such groups, few are lasting members. Support for an Islamist party is often issue-based and transient, and in most cases, does not translate into votes.
The new middle class has a strong sense that the solution to Pakistan’s problems lies in becoming better Muslims and instilling Islamic values. But it is also conspicuous for its members’ considerable investment in the latest mobile phones and consumer electronics, along with frequent trips to Western-style shopping malls, megastores and markets in Lahore. Careful attention is paid to rearing children: using branded diapers instead of local nappies, buying clothes from well-known Pakistani labels and feeding them Western-style snacks, such as chicken nuggets and instant noodles.
Yet twinned with the desire for consumption is anxiety about such exhibition and how to sustain it. Most homes possess microwaves and mixer-grinders, but their owners use them sparingly and store them in their original packaging. They buy sofas to match what they see in soap operas and advertisements, but protect them with plain sheets that are removed only on special occasions.
Families on the poorer end of the new middle class visit malls and shopping spaces for recreational experiences. They rarely make purchases from such places and prefer to look for the same or similar goods in cheaper bazaars and wholesale markets. Their ability to find more economical deals becomes a way to distinguish themselves from the presumed decadent and self-indulgent upper classes.
Members of the new middle class covet government employment, which still remains a mark of status, but such work does not provide sufficient income to sustain their idealized level of middle-class consumption. Many in this group augment their state income through investment in real estate.
Many families in new middle-class circles have acquired their current status through money made by a relative in a semiskilled job in the Gulf countries or North America. The most significant waves of semiskilled labour migration from Pakistan over the past half-century have been for industrial work in Britain in the 1960s, construction labor in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s and, since the 1980s, taxi driving, construction and restaurant employment in the United States. Pakistan received $20 billion in remittances in 2016, according to the World Bank.
The visible religiosity of the new middle class is often identified as the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia. However, it is not Wahhabi Islam but the globalized Islam practiced by Muslims in the West that better explains contemporary religious trends. Made familiar with Muslim practices abroad through relatives living abroad and returning migrants, many members of the new middle class have started incorporating them in their own lives.
For instance, Quran schools and religious study circles, where the Quran is studied with translation and interpretation, were introduced in Lahore in the early 2000s by returnees from the United States. Similarly, many women have replaced Dupattas and Chadors — the traditional ways of showing modesty in public — with head scarves and cloaks similar to those worn by relatives in the West, Saudi Arabia or the Gulf.
It is not so much the desire to be closer to the heartland of Islam that prompts these changes, but the desire to display a modern Muslim identity, a shift commensurate with their economic progress.
Denied the status of modernity in the local class hierarchy, these groups look for it through a familiarity with a global Muslim community. Just as the old middle class gains its modern status through a narrative that is used to explain Pakistan to the outside world, so the new middle class attempts to use its own connections to the West to assert its modernity.
Ammara Maqsood, a junior research fellow in anthropology at St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, is the author of “The New Pakistani Middle Class.”