Women, laws and culture in Pakistan


Knocking on the collective conscious



‘He threw me off the bed, punched me and kicked me several times. When I didn’t show any reaction, he took off his belt and started to strike me in front of my children. I couldn’t hold it any longer and started to sob, begging for him to stop.’

This woman belongs to an upper-middle class family whose husband is a reputable figure in the business sector of Pakistan. He has been having an affair with his secretary for more than a decade. He has provided for a separate residence to his mistress and takes care of all her expenditures. Last week, she told me that her eldest son got in a quarrel with her and in a rage threw a punch at her. Afterwards, he stormed out of the house while she lay on the ground dumbfounded and broken.

‘This is your choice. Look at what you are wearing. I can’t help you. You have enabled my husband to take advantage of (rape) you.’

These words were uttered by the lead actress in a drama serial on one of the most popular channels in Pakistan- HUM TV. In the serial, the actress plays the role of a woman, who is intellectually gifted, independent and a non-conformist. She is strongly portrayed as an advocate for education and marriage equality. However, on multiple occasions, she passed similar comments about other women in the serial.

‘I was walking home from my school and I went to the store to buy a toy for my niece. While I was looking at things a guy pressed a handkerchief on my nose. I fainted and was kidnapped. Then four men gang raped me.’

The thirteen-year-old Kainat Soomro told her story to the jirga and was subjected to karo-kari (honour killing) by her village elders in Sindh. Defying the societal norms, her family refused to kill her and took the matter to the court in 2007. The court ruled against her and one month later, he brother was killed in cold blood. Despite receiving numerous death threats Kainat and her family refused to lose hope. Eight years later, they still are engaged in appeals against the court’s ruling.

‘The bill is nothing more than a stunt as it does not present the problems faced by the women of the society.’ –-Bilawal Bhutto, Chairman Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and graduate of Oxford University

‘This law is in conflict with the Holy Quran, the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Constitution of Pakistan and values of our country.’

If the Chief Minister’s wife puts him through the proposed treatment, will he be able to enter his own house? In our society a man is expected to assume responsibility of a bread earner, thus, he is the one who would hold the sway in running his household affairs.’

He said that the law was against human values and will have a negative impact on society since domestic matters would be dragged to the police station.

The law is tantamount to undermining our family system and would affect the relationship of respect between mothers, sisters and husbands. It will cause divisions within families and the rate of divorce will increase.’ –-Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) Chief

‘The Bill is unacceptable and has torn Shariah laws apart. Voice will be raised against it in the parliament and we will hold countrywide protests against it.’--Professor Sajid Mir, PML-N ally, head of Jamiat Ahle-Hadith

What is this bill? This law recently criminalized all forms of violence against women, whether domestic, psychological or sexual. It also aims to set up a universal toll-free helpline which will be available to all to contact protection centers and shelter homes where disputes can be resolved and reconciled.

This reaction was evoked when in a landmark move the Governor Punjab signed into law the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill 2015. However, discarding the critics, the Chief Minister Punjab has endorsed the newly passed bill.

These are not unique, rare and unusual accounts. Unfortunately, events like these are a common place in Pakistan. Recently, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won her second Oscar which stirred quite a controversy in Pakistan. Many critics argue that she banking on portraying a negative imagine of the country. Whatever the case may be, it cannot be denied that Pakistan has no comprehensive federal law to tackle violence against women. A study conducted by the Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani women’s rights group, in 2013 showed that Punjab province alone accounted for 5,800 crimes against women – 74 percent of crimes against women in the whole of Pakistan.

In a poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2011, Pakistan was ranked as the third most dangerous country in the world for women, after Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, everything is not bleak. More and more women are enrolling in educational institutes, aiming for higher managerial positions at firms and standing up for their rights.

Despite societal, bureaucratic and political hurdles, I’d argue that Pakistani women have shown tremendous promise and resilience. Women who have garnered international fame range from Fiza Farhan, Muniba Mirza, Jehan Ara, Maheen Rehman to the young female athletes training to be boxers in Karachi.

It is about time that all stakeholders in the policy making circles in Pakistan accept that societies are better off when women are politically and economically empowered. We cannot subjugate the rights of more than half of the population merely to appease the conservative and radical elements in the society. Passing laws for women protection is an effort worth applauding but the critical element to follow is its just implementation.

In order to truly empower women, we need a systematic change in Pakistan beginning with providing women with equal opportunities. Pakistani media must stop portraying women as simpletons whose sole purpose on earth is to find an eligible bachelor and try to explore other dimensions of their not-so-limited lives. In order to facilitate a cultural change, the government should adopt policies like providing flexible maternity and paternity leaves for workers and building support structures to value care givers in the society.

It took nearly seventy years for one province to enable legal protection of women as mere human beings in Pakistan. I hope to live long enough to see the day when women walk down the street in the country without being subjected to the sexual objection of the male spectators and not be followed by their harassing catcalls and leering gazes.


  1. What is her Faith? The most ‘prominent’ figure qouted by her is Bilawal Bhutto. I leave the rest to your imagination. But I strongly feel she should write on modeling fashion or Boxing. Meanwhile I recommend her to read Holy Quran translation. Its available in any language she prefers. I can recommend but let her make her own choice. But she is badly in need to read Holy Quran.

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