For years, women in Pakistan have been denied the enjoyment of a whole range of rights – economic, social, civil and political. Women are denied not only the right to education, but also the right to decide matters relating to their marriage and divorce. Those denied these rights are more likely to be deprived of the right to legal redress. Often abuses are compounded: poor girls and women are trafficked and subject to forced marriage, forced prostitution or exploitative work situations such as bonded labor. These deprivations are manifestations of discrimination against women and girls in Pakistan.
Domestic violence and physical abuse, which includes rape, acid throwing, burning, and “honor” killings is still widespread in Pakistan. Acid-throwing is on the increase. The government has done little to restrict the sale of acid or to punish those who use it to injure women. “Honor” killings continue to be reported daily. Pakistan is also both a country of origin and a transit country for the trafficking of women for domestic labor, forced marriage and prostitution. This form of slavery is organized by crime networks that span South Asia. Some women, both local and trafficked, are killed if they refuse to earn money in prostitution. Forced marriage of young girls continues to be reported and while slavery is illegal in Pakistan, girls and women continue to be traded to settle debts or conflicts. The open sale of girls and women in markets is reported in underdeveloped areas such as parts of Balochistan.
Physical abuse of women in custody continues to be rife in Pakistan. Despite promises of police reform, police continue to use torture to intimidate, harass and humiliate detainees to extract money or information.
Since publishing our 1999 report, Pakistan: Violence against Women in the Name of Honor”, very few positive changes have taken place for women’s rights and the government in Pakistan still by and large fails to provide adequate protection for women against abuses in the custody of the state and in the family and community. In fact, the number of victims of violence appears to have risen. There is a paucity of legal remedies for women fleeing honor killing and other domestic violence, a lack of safe houses for women, or even couples at risk, an absence of reliable mediation mechanisms to interceded with parents who do not understand or accept women’s rights to freedom of choice in marriage, and an absence of reliable and prompt protection by the state.
While some progress has no doubt been made in bringing the issue of violence against women into the open, much remains to be done. Women’s awareness of their rights, thanks mainly to the dedicated efforts of Pakistani women’s rights groups, along with women’s greater participation in the workforce and resulting exposure to the human rights movement, appears to have somewhat increased. However, the killers of Samia Sarwar (see AIUSA women’s web page at www.amnestyusa.org/women) and many others remain at large. The Parliamentary act that was supposed to explicitly outlaw “honor” crimes did not pass. In one survey by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, it was reported that in 2000, almost 90 percent of women including those educated to the graduate level, did not realize they had any rights at all, such as those of divorce. 345
The government of Pakistan has made general statements on the protection of women’s rights, including condemning “honor” crimes. AI asked the Pakistan Council of Islamic Ideology for its view on whether “honor” killings are lawful according to Islam. It replied in a letter in 2000 “Although sexual immorality is one of the major sins according to Islam for which Islam has prescribed very severe punishment, nobody is allowed to take the law into his hands. Willful homicide, whatsoever be the motive, is a culpable act tantamount to qatl-e-amd (murder).” Yet legal and procedural changes have not occurred. AI is calling for repeal of discriminatory laws against women such as the Zina Ordinance and the Evidence Act as well as the Qisas and Diyat law (which allows the family of a murder victim to forgive the perpetrator and forgo prosecution).
Two examples of some progress being made to protect women’s human rights are the amendment to the Citizenship Act of 1951, which allowed children to have Pakistani nationality if their mother is not Pakistani but the father is. This had been a long-standing demand of Pakistani women, which is now fulfilled. And in the recent case of Zafran Bibi, from the Northwest Frontier Province, who was condemned to death by stoning, the Pakistan women’s movement was able to get the case reviewed by the Supreme Shari’at Court, which acquitted and released her.
Amnesty International calls on the government of Pakistan to clearly, consistently and publicly condemn, prohibit investigate and punish all acts of violence against women whether by a government agent or private individual.
About Rights of Women in a Pakistani Society
‘Women’s rights in Pakistan’ is a big question often raised in the West. It is believed that women has no rights or privileges in the male dominated society of Pakistan.
Before discussing whether women have rights in Pakistani society or not, first understand Pakistani society.
Pakistan is an Islamic state, where people, not only take pride in strictly adhering to the Islamic values but are ready to sacrifice their loved belongings for the glory and sanctity of Islam. Islam has accorded a highly venerated social position to women. Islam acknowledges the rights and privileges of the women in society. Likewise, Islam does not impose any restrictions that may hamper the social growth and development of the woman. A woman is equally important member of society. The woman plays a vital role in building the society on healthier and stronger foundations.
The women in Pakistan have been constantly complaining of having being isolated from the mainstream of society. Women feel disillusioned on being maltreated by the male-oriented set up in Pakistan. They strongly claim that if they are given a chance, they can contribute more positively towards the development of all social aspects.
However the Pakistani society usually adopts a hostile attitude towards the women. Their development in society is hindered due to many factors. Particularly the rural woman has to sustain, sometimes, unbearable dominance by the other sections of society.
Numerically the women in Pakistan are almost equal to men. They are equal in potential as the men. The Pakistani women live in the most diversified location of the tribal, feudal or urban environments. She can be a highly qualified and self-confident professional or a diffident peasant toiling along with her men-folk.
Women in Pakistan observe ‘Pardha’ while coming out of domestic environs or mixing up with other sections of society. ‘Pardha,’ or veil, is meant to segregate the women-folk from the male section of the society. The women are not prohibited from working but at the same time are supposed to observe strictly the rules of morality.
Due to pardha system, most of women (particularly of low education) have to take up work at home. They involve themselves in knitting, dressmaking, embroidery, etc.
In the areas like NWFP and Balochistan, life is governed and regulated by strict beliefs and behavioral patterns. A woman has no say in any aspect of her life, including her marriage. In the populated provinces of Sindh and Punjab, a woman may keep her connections with her family after marriage. She expect support from her brothers and father in case of separation and divorce from her husband. In Punjab and Sindh, women are seen working in the fields with their men-folk collecting fuels and in some cases working on the construction sites shifting material from one place to another.
Most of women in rural areas have to bear double burden of domestic and outside work. They are the first to rise and last to bed. They lit the fire to prepare breakfast, wash the utensils and cleans the house before setting out on their outside work. When every member has ridden the bed after completing day’s work, they are engaged in working.
Although the conditions of women in urban areas are better than those of the rural women. Yet the old traditions and religious restraints have hindered the independent and free movement of the women.
Pakistan is the first country in the Muslim world that has elected a woman as its prime minister twice.
Source: Muhammad Bilal Sharif, PageWise, Inc
Status of Women & the Women’s Movement
Four important challenges confronted women in Pakistan in the early 1990s: increasing practical literacy, gaining access to employment opportunities at all levels in the economy, promoting change in the perception of women’s roles and status, and gaining a public voice both within and outside of the political process.
There have been various attempts at social and legal reform aimed at improving Muslim women’s lives in the subcontinent during the twentieth century. These attempts generally have been related to two broader, intertwined movements: the social reform movement in British India and the growing Muslim nationalist movement. Since partition, the changing status of women in Pakistan largely has been linked with discourse about the role of Islam in a modern state. This debate concerns the extent to which civil rights common in most Western democracies are appropriate in an Islamic society and the way these rights should be reconciled with Islamic family law.
Muslim reformers in the nineteenth century struggled to introduce female education, to ease some of the restrictions on women’s activities, to limit polygyny, and to ensure women’s rights under Islamic law. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan convened the Mohammedan Educational Conference in the 1870s to promote modern education for Muslims, and he founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College. Among the predominantly male participants were many of the earliest proponents of education and improved social status for women. They advocated cooking and sewing classes conducted in a religious framework to advance women’s knowledge and skills and to reinforce Islamic values. But progress in women’s literacy was slow: by 1921 only four out of every 1,000 Muslim females were literate.
Promoting the education of women was a first step in moving beyond the constraints imposed by purdah. The nationalist struggle helped fray the threads in that socially imposed curtain. Simultaneously, women’s roles were questioned, and their empowerment was linked to the larger issues of nationalism and independence. In 1937 the Muslim Personal Law restored rights (such as inheritance of property) that had been lost by women under the Anglicization of certain civil laws. As independence neared, it appeared that the state would give priority to empowering women. Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, said in a speech in 1944:
No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you; we are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live.
After independence, elite Muslim women in Pakistan continued to advocate women’s political empowerment through legal reforms. They mobilized support that led to passage of the Muslim Personal Law of Sharia in 1948, which recognized a woman’s right to inherit all forms of property. They were also behind the futile attempt to have the government include a Charter of Women’s Rights in the 1956 constitution. The 1961 Muslim Family Laws Ordinance covering marriage and divorce, the most important sociolegal reform that they supported, is still widely regarded as empowering to women.
Two issues -promotion of women’s political representation and accommodation between Muslim family law and democratic civil rights- came to dominate discourse about women and sociolegal reform. The second issue gained considerable attention during the regime of Zia ul-Haq (1977-88). Urban women formed groups to protect their rights against apparent discrimination under Zia’s Islamization program. It was in the highly visible realm of law that women were able to articulate their objections to the Islamization program initiated by the government in 1979. Protests against the 1979 Enforcement of Hudood Ordinances focused on the failure of hudood (see Glossary) ordinances to distinguish between adultery (zina) and rape (zina-bil-jabr). A man could be convicted of zina only if he were actually observed committing the offense by other men, but a woman could be convicted simply because she became pregnant.
The Women’s Action Forum was formed in 1981 to respond to the implementation of the penal code and to strengthen women’s position in society generally. The women in the forum, most of whom came from elite families, perceived that many of the laws proposed by the Zia government were discriminatory and would compromise their civil status. In Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad the group agreed on collective leadership and formulated policy statements and engaged in political action to safeguard women’s legal position.
The Women’s Action Forum has played a central role in exposing the controversy regarding various interpretations of Islamic law and its role in a modern state, and in publicizing ways in which women can play a more active role in politics. Its members led public protests in the mid-1980s against the promulgation of the Law of Evidence. Although the final version was substantially modified, the Women’s Action Forum objected to the legislation because it gave unequal weight to testimony by men and women in financial cases. Fundamentally, they objected to the assertion that women and men cannot participate as legal equals in economic affairs.
Beginning in August 1986, the Women’s Action Forum members and their supporters led a debate over passage of the Shariat Bill, which decreed that all laws in Pakistan should conform to Islamic law. They argued that the law would undermine the principles of justice, democracy, and fundamental rights of citizens, and they pointed out that Islamic law would become identified solely with the conservative interpretation supported by Zia’s government. Most activists felt that the Shariat Bill had the potential to negate many of the rights women had won. In May 1991, a compromise version of the Shariat Bill was adopted, but the debate over whether civil law or Islamic law should prevail in the country continued in the early 1990s.
Discourse about the position of women in Islam and women’s roles in a modern Islamic state was sparked by the government’s attempts to formalize a specific interpretation of Islamic law. Although the issue of evidence became central to the concern for women’s legal status, more mundane matters such as mandatory dress codes for women and whether females could compete in international sports competitions were also being argued.
Another of the challenges faced by Pakistani women concerns their integration into the labor force. Because of economic pressures and the dissolution of extended families in urban areas, many more women are working for wages than in the past. But by 1990 females officially made up only 13 percent of the labor force. Restrictions on their mobility limit their opportunities, and traditional notions of propriety lead families to conceal the extent of work performed by women.
Usually, only the poorest women engage in work -often as midwives, sweepers, or nannies- for compensation outside the home. More often, poor urban women remain at home and sell manufactured goods to a middleman for compensation. More and more urban women have engaged in such activities during the 1990s, although to avoid being shamed few families willingly admit that women contribute to the family economically. Hence, there is little information about the work women do. On the basis of the predominant fiction that most women do no work other than their domestic chores, the government has been hesitant to adopt overt policies to increase women’s employment options and to provide legal support for women’s labor force participation.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) commissioned a national study in 1992 on women’s economic activity to enable policy planners and donor agencies to cut through the existing myths on female labor-force participation. The study addresses the specific reasons that the assessment of women’s work in Pakistan is filled with discrepancies and underenumeration and provides a comprehensive discussion of the range of informal- sector work performed by women throughout the country. Information from this study was also incorporated into the Eighth Five-Year Plan (1993-98).
A melding of the traditional social welfare activities of the women’s movement and its newly revised political activism appears to have occurred. Diverse groups including the Women’s Action Forum, the All-Pakistan Women’s Association, the Pakistan Women Lawyers’ Association, and the Business and Professional Women’s Association, are supporting small-scale projects throughout the country that focus on empowering women. They have been involved in such activities as instituting legal aid for indigent women, opposing the gendered segregation of universities, and publicizing and condemning the growing incidents of violence against women. The Pakistan Women Lawyers’ Association has released a series of films educating women about their legal rights; the Business and Professional Women’s Association is supporting a comprehensive project inside Yakki Gate, a poor area inside the walled city of Lahore; and the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi has promoted networks among women who work at home so they need not be dependent on middlemen to acquire raw materials and market the clothes they produce.
The women’s movement has shifted from reacting to government legislation to focusing on three primary goals: securing women’s political representation in the National Assembly; working to raise women’s consciousness, particularly about family planning; and countering suppression of women’s rights by defining and articulating positions on events as they occur in order to raise public awareness. An as yet unresolved issue concerns the perpetuation of a set number of seats for women in the National Assembly. Many women activists whose expectations were raised during the brief tenure of Benazir Bhutto’s first government (December 1988-August 1990) now believe that, with her return to power in October 1993, they can seize the initiative to bring about a shift in women’s personal and public access to power.
Source: “Pakistan: A Country Study”, the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress.
Family Life in Pakistan
Pakistani families are very close, often consisting of grandparents, parents and children living together in the same house. The smaller family is becoming more of a reality in the urban centres. The elderly often live with their children and are treated with great respect.
Children tend to accompany their parents to most social events. Important events in the family’s life are celebrated with relatives and friends.
Pakistani families are usually large because children are considered to be gifts from God or Allah. Teaching children the beliefs of Islam is considered to be one of the most important responsibilities of family life.
Most Pakistani marriages are arranged. When a couple is married, the bride applies mehndi or henna paste to her hands and feet and the quazi, the religious leader, administers the nikah (the marriage contract).
Strong traditions and values influence women’s status in the family and in the community. These affect opportunities for education and for work, especially for less privileged women.
When a male baby is born, circumcision is performed in accordance with religious rites. When he is seven days old, the family holds an aqeeqa ceremony, which is a family feast. Both men and women wear the shalwar-kameez, the national dress. This consists of loose pants gathered at the waist and worn with a long shirt. The women’s clothing is more colourful, and is worn with a long scarf or dupatta. Some wear a chaddar, which is a shawl or long garment. In the urban areas men are more likely to wear western-style clothes.
The Pakistani are an ethnically diverse people.
Wealthy families and middle-class families live in bungalows or large apartment buildings. Many employ servants to perform various household duties.
In the cities’ poorer areas, families live in two or three room dwellings. In rural Pakistan, cooking is still done on small kerosene stoves, clothes are washed on the banks of rivers and water is transported from rivers and wells.