Women, power, privilege and Black Friday videos in Pakistan

Published: November 30, 2015

If you didn't get to the item first, you wouldn't get it at all. PHOTO: TWITTER

Every year during the US post-Thanksgiving Day Black Friday sales, videos of brawls in the midst of the shopping madness at “big box” stores like Walmart and Target go viral.

This year in Pakistan, on the same day, a video was widely shared of women fighting during a one-year anniversary sale at the retail store Sapphire, which claims to provide “affordable designer clothes to the masses”.

The Sapphire sale — like the door-buster Black Friday sales at Walmart— is designed to create a mad rush. Sapphire marked down limited, heavily-marketed and widely-desired products by 50 per cent. If you didn’t get to the item first, you wouldn’t get it at all.

Some call it competitive shopping. Its retail as a contact sport, designed for pushing and shoving.

At Walmart or Target, the madness usually involves some popular toy or video game that a desperate parent is trying to buy on sale as a Christmas present for their child. Families that wouldn’t normally be able to afford these products save up all year to make these big purchases. Studies have shown that the typical Black Friday shopper is non-white, or a single parent. They stand in line for hours for this one item, and when the doors open, there’s a mad rush and the shelves are empty within minutes. Desperation mixed with scarcity is a dangerous combination, and some desperate shoppers lose it.

When I first saw the Sapphire spat video mentioned in my Twitter feed, I ignored it, like I usually ignore all Black Friday brawl videos. As a critic of consumerism, I see no value in shaming individual consumers. I try, rather, to understand the larger structures that underpin and perpetuate this relentless drive to acquire material goods.

But as I saw more and more people sharing the video the story took on a life of its own. A story about a few consumers fighting over clothes morphed into one about shaming all “privileged, materialistic aunties”. This sounded a whole lot like the commentary you see in the US when “rich people share Black Friday brawl videos to shame the poor” and something about the privileged shaming the less privileged felt really wrong.

But aren’t the women in the video “privileged”? Maybe some are, and maybe some aren’t. Privilege and power exist on a spectrum, especially in countries like Pakistan. The video and the fervour with which the video was shared made me stop to consider the conditions that could create this madness in Pakistan.

This doesn’t mean I condone violence of any kind, especially violence over clothes. People, who know me, know that I apologise to the chairs I bump into. So justifying this violence would be a real stretch for me. But I do think that it is important to stop and consider the factors that could possibly trigger such rage.

Does Pakistan’s social system— which systematically rewards women and girls who display the garb of privilege and chronically shuns those who don’t— carry some blame?

Perhaps the women in the video were fighting for more than an outfit. Perhaps that sale offered some families a short-cut to a kind of privilege that they normally couldn’t afford for their daughters, like the marginalised parents in the US who brave the Black Friday sales frenzy because they live in a society where their child’s social standing is improved by the toys they own or the clothes they wear.

Or perhaps some of these women are in fact “privileged women from wealthy families” forced to live on tight budgets.

Two different circumstances, but both are systemic and almost impossible for individuals to escape.

Even in Pakistan’s big cities, the latter condition is prevalent amongst the “privileged” and is an outcome of the massive imbalance of power and privilege between genders within the family unit. Some men have complete control of the family budget; the women in their families aren’t allowed to work outside the home. Some women are discouraged by their families from working, or they are simply discouraged by the many challenges that working women in Pakistan face, including unchecked sexual harassment, inadequate public transport, and a generally misogynistic culture. For many women, outings and socialising is limited to family or social gatherings, where they are expected to look their best, perhaps by sporting a Sapphire outfit.

I look at the Sapphire video and think about those urban Pakistani women— even the ones that seem “privileged”— who have been stripped of their own agency, pushed and shoved into maddening spaces and circumstances— not by choice, but by design.

This post originally appeared on Global Voices here

Sahar Habib Ghazi

Sahar Habib Ghazi

The author is a managing editor at Global Voices. She was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University in 2011. She has worked as a journalist in Pakistan. She helped launch the country's first English language TV station and produced a TV series on US-Pakistan relations, called the Disposable Ally. She tweets as @SaharHGhazi (twitter.com/SaharHGhazi)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Syeda Ali

    If this had been on a food item or a normal lawn suit I would have understood your justifications, but these women were fighting over designer wear shows only greed. Sorry but I disagree with your pointRecommend

  • iii

    Saphire is a very over hyphed brand, God knows why these womwn are so desperate for a saphire suit. There are far better brands available in the market.Recommend

  • Hassam Tahir

    I agree to some extent. Recommend

  • Fahad

    Its simple greed. A basic human instinct. Happens everywhere in most of the situations. I believe the author has over analyzed the situation with little supporting arguments. The social conditions of women might be true but the link established by the writer is flawed, superficial and holistic. Looking at the commendable credentials of the author, this article is downright disappointment. Recommend

  • Parvez

    I think you have correctly diagnosed the incident…..societal pressures make people do stupid things.Recommend

  • umar

    agreed with Syeda Ali, author totally took it other way. Those ladies were so called elite class of societyRecommend

  • Jude Allen

    In Nov we had a Street Store – a FREE shopping experience for the poor and homeless. I personally witnessed these poor women and children who were more behaved, civilized and tolerant even though everything was FREE for the taking. No cat-fights among women or children – just gratitude for the opportunity to shop. An experience that these homeless people never had in their lives. I think the homeless people are on to something ….and we “privileged lot” haven’t quite caught on to it just yet.Recommend

  • Sonia K

    There is a theory by Maslow which shows some basic needs that need to be fulfilled in order to move to the next level.
    If the author is correct and the ladies were indeed ELITE, then the Psychological needs of self-esteem and respect via clothing in a society are too huge….
    This points to a problem. Our society not only places emphasis on clothing as a MEASURE of respect, it also provides many people ways to manipulate this respect. Unfortunately many people view this from the buyer’s end and not from the viewer’s perspective!Recommend

  • Abuzar Jamil

    The part of our education where we are taught that the real privileged people are those who will be among the privileged in the “life after” has been badly undermined by us.Recommend

  • Amir Sehgal

    If you see the video carefully, the purses they were carrying were LV and much more expensive one, and the fight was for the EGO. i am Pakistani and i have EGO.
    “parhe likhe jahil”(Litrate iliterate).Recommend

  • S malik

    Totally Agree with you there.. Mr. Amir Cycle.
    spot on.Recommend

  • Amrita Yasin

    Putting the blame on society or saying this behaviour wasn’t their choice is an incomplete argument….the people standing in lines themselves represent the society….these women want to buy brands so they can appear rich and cool to each other…society doesn’t exist outside of them
    And regarding sapphire marking down prices to make these affordable to the masses, in a country like Pakistan masses are people who live below the poverty line, not anyone who can remotely afford such clothesRecommend