A History of Women’s Employment Rights in Pakistan

Women’s employment rights in Pakistan have evolved over the years. However, there are still issues prohibiting this progression.

Ideas are reforming but arguably at a slower pace. 

In Pakistan, the evolution of women’s rights in the workplace is a topic of significant importance.

Despite the arguable slow progression in terms of gaining more rights and opportunities in employment, there have been notable key milestones and legislative changes.

The strong patriarchal society, where men are traditionally seen as breadwinners and women as homemakers, has been a major barrier.

Additionally, the limitations and slow implementation of policies have further hindered progress.

However, while some women comply with traditional roles, others are actively challenging these ideas, striving for greater equality in the workplace.

This overview examines these milestones, the ongoing challenges women face in their pursuit of equal employment opportunities, and the societal factors influencing this progression.

The Early 1900s

The early 1900s were characterised by a deeply patriarchal society.

Women’s roles were primarily confined to the domestic sphere, and societal norms dictated strict gender roles.

Women were largely engaged in traditional roles such as agriculture, domestic work and small-scale cottage industries.

Their contributions were crucial, however, they were left unrecognised and unpaid.

These roles were often extensions of their household duties and did not provide significant economic independence.

In terms of small-scale cottage industries, women took part in weaving, embroidery and handicrafts.

Nevertheless, their activities were based in the home and they did not offer any economic benefits or independence for that matter.

Rarely, some women worked as domestic helpers in wealthier households.

However, this role lacked security and was low-paid.

There was hardly any access to education and this was due to the societal norm prioritising education for males.

As a result, women had fewer skills and no qualifications so it was nearly impossible to enter formal employment.

Moreover, there was no specific legal framework at play to promote women’s employment rights.

The existing laws were lacking in the sense they did not address gender equality in the workplace.

It was not a priority for the British colonials to make policies for women.

Rather, the focus was on maintaining social order and prioritising economic ventures.

1947: Independence and Initial Challenges


After gaining independence from British rule in 1947, Pakistan inherited a deeply patriarchal society where women’s roles were primarily domestic.

The societal norms continued to restrict women’s participation in the workforce.

Even though time had elapsed women still were not given employment opportunities.

They remained in agriculture, domestic services, and informal sectors.

The formal workforce was heavily male-dominated. As a result, the societal expectation was for women to focus on household duties and caregiving roles.

Employment outside the home was often considered inappropriate for women, further limiting their opportunities.

1956: The First Constitution

The first constitution of Pakistan, adopted in 1956, included provisions for gender equality.

But these provisions were not effectively implemented, and women’s participation in the formal workforce still remained low.

There were provisions made that were intended to protect women’s rights. This included their employment rights.

Despite this, employment was limited due to ineffective implementation.

Due to the patriarchal structures, women’s participation in the workplace was lacking.

There was also a sense that perhaps women were unaware of their rights, as well as not fully comprehending the potential of working these jobs.

The impact of employment rights was very minimal.

However, the inclusion of gender equality provisions in the 1956 constitution laid the groundwork for future legal and policy advancements.

1961: The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance

The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance was enacted to improve women’s rights in marriage and family matters.

While it did not directly address employment, it was a step towards recognising women’s rights in the broader social context.

It addressed issues such as polygamy, divorce and inheritance, aiming to provide women with greater legal protections in these areas.

The ordinance did not directly address women’s rights in employment.

However, it had an indirect impact by improving women’s overall legal status and autonomy within the family structure.

By providing women with greater legal protections in marriage and family matters, the ordinance contributed to their empowerment.

There is an increased autonomy whereby there is growing confidence and ability to seek employment outside the home.

However, this ordinance was limited in its implementation.

Rather, the focus was diverted to family law rather than employment law.

Yet, interestingly it laid the groundwork for future legal and policy changes that would more directly address women’s employment rights.

1960s: Gradual Progress

The government began to focus on women’s education, recognising it as a crucial factor in improving women’s employment opportunities.

Educational reforms aimed at increasing female literacy rates were introduced.

This became revolutionary for its time, as women started to enter the workplace, albeit in small numbers. Nevertheless, this was a step toward progression.

The sectors that were seeing most women joining were education and healthcare.

Female teachers were becoming more common, despite their numbers still being small.

Women began to find their voice, as several women’s rights activists began to further challenge societal norms.

They became advocates for opportunities for women.

This groundwork led to future advancements in women’s rights.

1970s: Emerging Awareness

The 1970s saw the emergence of women’s organisations and movements advocating for women’s rights, including employment rights.

These organisations played a crucial role in raising awareness and pushing for legislative changes.

The government began to take more concrete steps towards improving women’s employment rights.

Policies aimed at increasing women’s participation in the workforce were introduced.

Although their impact was limited by societal resistance and lack of effective implementation.

1980s: Conservative Backlash & Limited Progress

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The 1980s were marked by the military rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who introduced conservative Islamic laws that further restricted women’s rights.

The Hudood Ordinances, for example, imposed severe limitations on women’s freedoms and rights.

Popular jobs were still in sectors like education and healthcare.

However, their numbers remained limited, and they often faced significant societal and legal barriers.

Women’s rights activists and organisations, such as the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), emerged to challenge the restrictive laws and advocate for women’s rights, including employment rights.

These groups played an important role in raising awareness and pushing back against regressive policies.

1990s: Return to Civilian Rule & Renewed Focus on Women’s Rights

The return to civilian rule in the late 1980s and early 1990s brought renewed focus on women’s rights.

The government, along with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), began to address issues related to women’s education and employment more actively.

Established in 1989, the First Women’s Bank aimed to support women entrepreneurs by providing them with financial services and resources.

This initiative was a significant step towards empowering women economically.

The 1990s saw some legislative efforts to improve women’s rights.

Despite these efforts not being effectively implemented, this step was a milestone as it recognised the need to address these issues.

There was an increased emphasis on women’s education and vocational training during this period.

Various programmes were launched to improve female literacy rates and provide women with the skills needed to enter the formal workforce.

Early 2000s: Legislative Changes and Advocacy

The early 2000s saw significant legislative changes aimed at improving women’s rights.

However, there was still slow progress in the labour force, highlighting the divide between male and female participation in the workplace.

One of the landmark laws was the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act 2006, which aimed to protect women from violence and discrimination.

Women’s rights organisations and activists continued to advocate for gender equality in the workplace.

These efforts led to greater awareness and more robust discussions about women’s employment rights.

2010: Protection against Harassment

Enacted in 2010, this law provided a legal framework to address workplace harassment.

It mandated the establishment of inquiry committees in organisations to handle complaints of harassment, offering women a safer work environment.

Despite the progressive nature of the law, its implementation has faced challenges.

Many women remain unaware of their rights, and enforcement mechanisms are often lacking.

2012: National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW)

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Establishment of The National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) was established to monitor and promote women’s rights, including employment rights.

The NCSW plays a crucial role in advocating for policy changes and ensuring that existing laws are implemented effectively.

There has been a noticeable increase in women’s participation in various sectors, including technology, business, and public service.

Initiatives aimed at empowering women economically, such as microfinance programs and entrepreneurship training, have been launched.

Some companies have started to adopt more inclusive policies, such as flexible working hours and maternity leave, to support female employees.

However, these practices are not yet widespread.

Efforts to improve women’s access to education and vocational training have continued.

Programs aimed at increasing female literacy rates and providing technical skills are helping more women enter the formal workforce.

2024: Current Day

There are struggles to the current day for women in the workplace.

There is a disconnect between aspirations and a knowledge of what these opportunities entail.

Many women are finding they have to drop out of school due to safety concerns or financial difficulties.

There is a fear that family members and communities may resist if they pursue jobs outside the home.

However, there is a shift in perceptions of expectations of girls.

According to the World Bank: “A woman expressed a committed desire to support their daughters’ ambitions to complete schooling and work for pay if they wished to”.

Another struggle that women face is many men restrict their women from leaving home and if they do, they are chaperoned.

There is a grey area as to what is socially acceptable.

Ideas are reforming but arguably at a slower pace.

A non-working woman previously employed as a school helper stated:

“I think a woman should do home-based work.

“This way she can keep an eye on the children. She will be able to perform household responsibilities, everyone will get food on time, and everything [will] be done smoothly.”

Lack of education is another significant constraint to women’s work.

Peshawar has a strikingly low level of education.

“54 per cent of them have not completed primary education and only 29 per cent have attained higher than primary education.”

Inevitably this limits what these individuals can achieve in terms of employment and future career progression.

In terms of comparing women’s rights in Pakistan across the West, there is a stark difference in standards and expectations.

Many issues prohibit a woman from being employed.

Such as patriarchy, low education, old-fashioned mindsets about gender roles and perhaps not recognising their potential.

However, at a glance at the larger picture, we can see a progression.

Kamilah is an experienced actress, radio presenter and qualified in Drama & Musical Theatre. She loves debating and her passions include arts, music, food poetry and singing.

Images courtesy of World Bank, editions - cove collective, dawn, medium, courting the law, defense.pk, link springer,

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