How Sexist is Pakistani Society Towards Women?

The issue of sexist attitudes towards women in Pakistan is being debated more prominently. We take a look at contributing factors to the sexism.

How Sexist is Pakistani Society Towards Women f

Terms like 'duty' and 'respect' are used to ensure she 'knows her place'

Sexism has existed for thousands of years. No part of the world was free from it. Sexist behaviour has been in our society from the times of the Agricultural Revolution.

Using the definition, that sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on sex especially, discrimination against women, we take a look at how sexist society in Pakistan is towards its women.

Where countries refuse to acknowledge the vital role a woman plays in society, these are normally patriarchal societies with an emphasis on male domination.

For a country like Pakistan which is the fifth most populated country in the world with over 210.79 million people, there is no doubt that sexism is definitely a challenge.

So, let’s look at the influencers and issues that impact sexist attitudes in Pakistan to understand it better.

Gender Split in Pakistan

Pakistan is a male-dominated country with 51% male population, 48.76% female, and about 0.24% transgender. Statistically, the male population exceeds the female but not with a considerable margin.

So, is it okay to assume that Pakistan isn’t a sexist society? 2.24% gap between male and female population sounds like a fairly well-balanced society.

But numbers do not signify attitude. They are only numbers after all.

The type of sexist behaviour in Pakistan tends to have a strong cultural and male-dominated outlook, which, can be frequently disguised under the cloth of faith and ‘the way it’s always been’ attitude, therefore, normalising it.

Technology and Women

How Sexist is Pakistani Society Towards Women - technology

Technology today has made it possible for everyone and anyone to use it. Especially, smartphones and the internet. Making life easier for all – both men and women in Pakistan.

However, who can have what and when still resonates as to how women are allowed to or not use technology in the home, today as much as the past, many parts of the country.

Let’s look at examples of the old telephone and mobile phone, comparing access to them for women.

The Old Telephone

Let’s take a simple example of ‘Laila’ an example name of a woman in Pakistan in the 1960s.

The first telephone was introduced in Laila’s home she was delighted. It was 1968 when telephone became a part of their home.

Laila lived in Lahore and belonged to a lower middle-class family. The family was educated both religiously and academically.

Laila had four brothers and two of them were in Arts College. She had three sisters and she was the second last.

To her telephone was like a new family member. Like the old television and radio, the telephone was also family.

She’d watch TV with all her sisters and brothers. Mother and father would also watch it – but with much contempt.

But the telephone was interesting. It wasn’t like TV but you could listen to anyone from a long distance. It was like being with someone but without seeing them in real life.

Laila loved the telephone very much. However, she wasn’t allowed to use it.

Only ‘Bhai J’i (her brother) was allowed to use the telephone or the elders of the home.

The elder women were allowed to use it. But they just would touch it, in case they did something wrong.

No sister of Laila was allowed to use it or receive any calls. If she heard it ring, she is to tell her brother or father. They’d pat her head and answer the call.

The Mobile Phone

It’s 2005 and the story is reborn. This time it’s not the old telephone but the mobile phone.

Laila’s niece is 17 years old and everyone around her has a phone.

It’s obvious that children are too young to own a mobile phone. Is it really justified that her brother owns a mobile phone who is only 15?

Her brother has a very fancy phone. It has a camera, big screen, and it even plays music. That Nokia ringtone would make her mad and envious of him.

Of course, the niece’s father can afford another mobile phone in the house but he just won’t buy it.

The mobile phone was not too expensive but it is a no-no for Laila’s niece. Why? Because she is a girl. Besides, why would she need it?

When Laila raises the point that her friend has a mobile phone.

Her brother asks: “Why does your friend have a phone?”

Her mother interjects: “She doesn’t seem to have a decent character. What does she need a mobile phone for?” 

And then, the father says to his beloved daughter: “It’s beyond me. I am not very comfortable with you little girls carrying mobile phones.”

After the conversation, Laila’s niece’s mind was coerced that she doesn’t need a mobile phone like others in high school.

Despite the fact, her friends did own them and they would talk about things she couldn’t understand and they seemed to know a lot more about the world than her. 

She didn’t even know how to send a simple message.

Her mother and she knew that the green button on the right is for answering a call.

Also, only the numbers that Bhai had entered were to be the ones they answered. Numbers other than that were ‘wrong numbers’ and not to be answered.

So having a sexist attitude towards what a Pakistani woman can use or not, defines the kind of control men have over them.

Is Ignorance a Bliss?

How Sexist is Pakistani Society Towards Women - Is Ignorance a Bliss

It may be strict parenting. Perhaps apologetics will confirm that for sure. But in the aforementioned scenarios at least the girls were educated. In rural areas, it gets worse.

Thall is a small town in the district of Hangu, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK).

It’s one of the most beautiful places in KPK. It’s also one of the most difficult places to live in KPK. There are barely enough schools or colleges.

But one thing is very certain for many women and girls to follow in the area. Do not leave home without covering your face.

That is essential and goes without saying. Nobody dares to defy that code. Try and you might get murdered on the spot.

The purdah (veil) code is persistent in many places of KPK and Baluchistan.

Therefore, if purdah is such an enforced requirement, then what about education for women in these areas? Is getting a decent education a taboo? 

It is.

A father from the region to argues that it is taboo and an unnecessary duty, saying:

“If my daughter knows how to read a bit of Urdu, that is okay with me.”

But what about the school and colleges? He replies:

“Western propaganda. Everyone knows that. It has contaminated everyone in the world. The world we know is no more civilised and ethical.

“Suppose my daughter does get an education in a school, she is going to write letters to boys and befriend them.”

“That’s immoral and unethical.

“This may be a rural area but we believe in societal and traditional values.”

This is one of the arguments of the father for not supporting women’s education.

Conversely, he has no issue sending his sons to get an education. His eldest is at university and his youngest attends a government boys school.

Pointing to a sexist outlook starting in the home at an early age which then lives with Pakistani women, especially from rural areas, for the rest of their lives, and which is then accepted as a norm.

Equality is not the Norm

How Sexist is Pakistani Society Towards Women - equality not the norm

Majority of these revelations have one thing in common, which is not allowing Pakistani girls or young women to participate in life with equality as a norm.

The segregation based on gender does is seen as a way of life and in many ways ‘has to be accepted’. The Pakistani male by default seems to have more privileges than his female counterpart.

Is this because it’s against the norm and ethics of Pakistani society?

In general, women are stronger and deal with a lot more than is always seen at the surface level. In Pakistan, they are cherished more for their domestic prowess than having the encouragement to do well in anything.

Terms like ‘duty’ and ‘respect’ are used to ensure she ‘knows her place’.

Therefore, most women are expected to be at home than work.

The woman’s duty is to raise faithful and obedient sons and daughters. She needs to look after her husband with respect and be in charge of the house. 

As ultra-conservative this sounds, it is the norm in many areas of Pakistan.

Even women who go to work and receive an education are not left out of these expectations.

In urban places, it starts with home. After a 9 to 5 job, there is always someone suspicious of her, especially if she arrives home late. This suspicion of why she was late, who she was with, can often turn into heated arguments.

A college or university female student receives the same treatment. The pressures are still the same with expectations of behaviour and attitudes in the home.

However, the best case scenario is that if her family members are supportive of her education, someone, somewhere among her relatives will not be. But for a boy, it is praise non-stop, even for passing a basic exam and how well he is doing.

Sexism amongst Educated and Working Women

How Sexist is Pakistani Society Towards Women - working women

Sexism is very common in workplaces and academia in Pakistan. But not because of qualifications and different ranks within the hierarchy. It’s only because women are considered inefficient.

Defence forces strictly prefer men over women in all ranks and hierarchies; a few to none women hold the highest office in academics; female CEOs are often given very little confidence.

All it takes is the idea to believe in something for long enough to accept it. What if that idea is objectively harmful?

That is up to Pakistani society to decide.

The worst form of treatment is witnessed on social media.

Whether they’re journalists, professors, engineers, doctors, lawyers, it all comes down to their gender.

In 2017, Ayesha Gulalai, a Pakistani politician accused Imran Khan of inappropriate text messages.

But the response on the internet and TV by critics was more than just sexist. It went on as far as media trials, victim blaming and shaming.

The same pattern was observed when singer and actor Ali Zafar was accused of sexual harassment by Meesha Shafi.

Interestingly, women are often encouraged to apply for in-door jobs such as teaching, nursing, and medical jobs. But that too is encouraged as long as there are other women.

But when it comes to going out in the field, working parallel with men, it is often mocked with a strong sexist current.

Society believes as if the woman is trying to be masculine and fulfilling her dreams of being a man.

In workplaces, women are commonly subjected to mockery, being the fragile gender, and are not letting them work in a productive manner.

All this is done within or without their presence.

In academics, male students feel more comfortable with male teachers than female ones. It is because, at times, male teachers do not consider female staff any better.

Sexism in Public

How Sexist is Pakistani Society Towards Women - in public

Sexism in public can be very complicated unless the issue is discussed with keeping in mind the social status of Pakistani women.

Ogling happens worldwide and in Pakistan, it could be very disturbing and unapologetic.

For women who come from abroad, it is a social undertaking that they cover themselves. This includes wearing long shirts (kameez) and trousers to a dupatta on their head.

While that is considered a norm, it becomes more of an obligation than a choice.

Pakistan women both local and from abroad get awkward stares. Eve teasing to blatant staring are all issues faced by women in public. Especially, if they are wearing something different from those covered in conservative dress.

In Pakistan, a woman needs to have her body covered. As conservative as it seems, it is full of dichotomy – men and women who think alike men will still be staring and judging.

It descends from the woman of a higher socio-economic status to lower.

There is even a women-only taxi service called Paxi Pakistan, which launched in Karachi, aiming to protect women by providing a safe travelling environment.

Independent Pakistani women who can afford chauffeurs and own a luxury lifestyle are not redeemed from sexism in public either.

They will be aware of the slurs they get to face. They can be accused of being a private courtesan or having slept their way through to obtain such luxuries and wealth.

But women of middle socio-economic class rely on their patriarchs. They are there with them in public to defend the honour of their families and the social status of women.

This attitude only cripples the self-confidence of women.

It also urges male predatory ideals to lurk and abuse women through slangs and sexual harassment while their male defenders are absent.

Whether it is public transport, parks, shopping malls, cafes etc. The mistreatment and sexism are prevalent in all places.

Pakistani women who can afford more economic transports such as motorbikes cannot drive. All because it is unsafe for women to be on their own and drive.

It goes even as far as pointing the virginity of a woman. That sitting on a motorbike or bicycle could disrupt their virginity – a social topic/taboo taken very seriously by Pakistani society.

For the women of lower socio-economic, it is the worst. Sexual harassment is often a common offence faced by such women.

Whether they’re factory workers, low wage earners or housewives of a low-income household, they face severe sexism in the form of physical and verbal abuse.

All because of the fact that they are women and for the male counterpart, it is easy to manipulate their lives without considering them human.

And as for those women who don’t have a male member with them, regardless of their social status, they are defamed in all circles of life more or less.

For Pakistani society, a woman cannot be out in public without the presence of a male member.

In many parts of rural and urban Pakistan, women are not even allowed to communicate with men, unless they have a blood relation or are married.

Sexism is Intolerance

How Sexist is Pakistani Society Towards Women - intolerance

Is sexism hereditary disease that has been passed down from generations? What are men and elder women so afraid of? Is it some kind of phobia that is only prevalent in Pakistani communities?

Furthermore being a sexist man doesn’t make you pious. It certainly does raise the piety or character of a woman. If she is uneducated it doesn’t make her spiritual or noble. It just allows her to be a slave and that is intolerable.

Infanticide and abortion is something unheard of but happens frequently in Pakistan. It’s not related to teen pregnancy. It’s a very simple case – the baby is a girl. Conservatives will defy all odds just to get a son.

Girls are even given away and ‘discarded’ just for not being the right gender. Women themselves are made to believe that a baby girl is not the right child to have.

Those who consider abortion and infanticide inhumane will still not be happy with the baby girl. It’s just not what for they’d hoped for.

Thus, there are people who will refuse to consider Pakistani society sexist. Hijab, Purdah or Burqa? These are seen as norms of society.

However, what about women empowerment? Well, they are free to receive an education and get jobs – as long as they are fulfilling their household duties.

If the stories had boys and men mentioned in it, Pakistani society would have lost its mind. That would have been outright inhumane and unprogressive. Boys become men and men have to take care of things.

When everything is turned against the male part of the society, it comes down to this – a woman’s rightful place is in her home. A man’s rightful place is practically anywhere in the world.

If this treatment is a result of class it would be incorrect. Irrespective of socioeconomic status, the majority of people in Pakistan tend to have this attitude. This attitude is not absolute and there are degrees to it.

The question of sexism can be easily merged with misogyny and patriarchy.

It’s not limited to households, education and professional lives. Are there equal opportunities for women in all fields? No, there are not. 

Whether it is being the head of an organisation or being a leader in their field, some excuse will come up. There will always be something that will filter out the woman.

A society where being a woman is a challenge does not create healthy individuals. An atmosphere with social hostility and gender segregation cannot survive in the 21st century.

The #MeToo movement shook many Pakistani men from all fields. The women who came out were victim-shamed and blamed. They themselves were held responsible for the misdemeanours. Male celebrities blamed are still free to live their life as they wish.

Would it make any sense to put a ban on baby’s gender for the expecting couple? The Pakistani Punjab Health Minister believes it could reduce infanticide and abortion.

Is the state of women actually that horrid and unbearable? Catcalling, harassment at work, college, university or even at home. It is both common and what people looking in, would deem as inappropriate, intolerable and unacceptable.

Legislation & Society

Where does law enforcement begin? Does it not play any role in a sexist society?

It’s not because of legislation that Pakistani society has these patriarchial views about women, although legislation does need amendments and debate. 

It’s basically the Pakistan society cannot seem to view it in any other way. There seems to be a sea of denial that Pakistani society is sexist towards women.

Legislation may grant rights on the paper but it’s the practice that makes it real.

A social stigma before makes its way into the legislation needs to be addressed socially. Without a doubt, legislation and lawmakers exist but the question is how effective is the implementation?

Had it been for legislation a lot of men and women would be in jail or on trial. Had it been an effective practice, many young women would not be isolated and depressed. They could have been living a decent and productive life.

Does Pakistan society need to play its part? Yes. It does

We have moved beyond the question of how sexist is society towards women in Pakistan. To the fact, that it definitely exists, and it needs to be addressed.

The measures of how it needs to be addressed are correlated with many factors. Some which are obvious and easy to do and others which could take generations to fix.

The citizens of Pakistan have a duty towards their women and their wellbeing. Therefore, any signs of improvement in the sexist argument need to start from within the household. As to how women are treated within the home and by the family.

Only then, can the impact of such change be transferred to the various branches of practical life in Pakistan, where, sexist and misogynistic attitudes towards women in the country are addressed and hopefully, tackled.

Z. F. Hassan is an independent writer. He enjoys reading and writing on history, philosophy, art, and technology. His motto is “Live your life or someone else will live it”.