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Pakistan - Gender Relations
Encyclopedia of Women's History - from Jone Johnson Lewis
Men, Women, and the Division of Space

Gender relations in Pakistan rest on two basic perceptions: that women are subordinate to men, and that a man's honor resides in the actions of the women of his family. Thus, as in other orthodox Muslim societies, women are responsible for maintaining the family honor. To ensure that they do not dishonor their families, society limits women's mobility, places restrictions on their behavior and activities, and permits them only limited contact with the opposite sex.

Space is allocated to and used differently by men and women. For their protection and respectability, women have traditionally been expected to live under the constraints of purdah (purdah is Persian for curtain), most obvious in veiling. By separating women from the activities of men, both physically and symbolically, purdah creates differentiated male and female spheres. Most women spend the major part of their lives physically within their homes and courtyards and go out only for serious and approved reasons. Outside the home, social life generally revolves around the activities of men. In most parts of the country, except perhaps in Islamabad, Karachi, and wealthier parts of a few other cities, people consider a woman--and her family--to be shameless if no restrictions are placed on her mobility.

Purdah is practiced in various ways, depending on family tradition, region, class, and rural or urban residence, but nowhere do unrelated men and women mix freely. The most extreme restraints are found in parts of the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan, where women almost never leave their homes except when they marry and almost never meet unrelated men. They may not be allowed contact with male cousins on their mother's side, for these men are not classed as relatives in a strongly patrilineal society. Similarly, they have only very formal relations with those men they are allowed to meet, such as the father-in-law, paternal uncles, and brothers-in-law.

Poor rural women, especially in Punjab and Sindh, where gender relations are generally somewhat more relaxed, have greater mobility because they are responsible for transplanting rice seedlings, weeding crops, raising chickens and selling eggs, and stuffing wool or cotton into comforters (razais). When a family becomes more prosperous and begins to aspire to higher status, it commonly requires stricter purdah among its women as a first social change.

Poor urban women in close-knit communities, such as the old cities of Lahore and Rawalpindi, generally wear either a burqa (fitted body veil) or a chador (loosely draped cotton cloth used as a head covering and body veil) when they leave their homes. In these localities, multistory dwellings (havelis) were constructed to accommodate large extended families. Many havelis have now been sectioned off into smaller living units to economize. It is common for one nuclear family (with an average of seven members) to live in one or two rooms on each small floor. In less densely populated areas, where people generally do not know their neighbors, there are fewer restrictions on women's mobility.

The shared understanding that women should remain within their homes so neighbors do not gossip about their respectability has important implications for their productive activities. As with public life in general, work appears to be the domain of men. Rural women work for consumption or for exchange at the subsistence level. Others, both rural and urban, do piecework for very low wages in their homes. Their earnings are generally recorded as part of the family income that is credited to men. Census data and other accounts of economic activity in urban areas support such conclusions. For example, the 1981 census reported that 5.6 percent of all women were employed, as opposed to 72.4 percent of men; less than 4 percent of all urban women were engaged in some form of salaried work. By 1988 this figure had increased significantly, but still only 10.2 percent of women were reported as participating in the labor force.

Among wealthier Pakistanis, urban or rural residence is less important than family tradition in influencing whether women observe strict purdah and the type of veil they wear. In some areas, women simply observe "eye purdah": they tend not to mix with men, but when they do, they avert their eyes when interacting with them. Bazaars in wealthier areas of Punjabi cities differ from those in poorer areas by having a greater proportion of unveiled women. In cities throughout the North-West Frontier Province, Balochistan, and the interior of Sindh, bazaars are markedly devoid of women, and when a woman does venture forth, she always wears some sort of veil.

The traditional division of space between the sexes is perpetuated in the broadcast media. Women's subservience is consistently shown on television and in films. And, although popular television dramas raise controversial issues such as women working, seeking divorce, or even having a say in family politics, the programs often suggest that the woman who strays from traditional norms faces insurmountable problems and becomes alienated from her family.

Data as of April 1994

Source:

Entry from: "Pakistan: A Country Study" published by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress.

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