Pakistani Nobel Prize recipient and education activist Malala Yousafzai speaking in a classroom of girls

Anthropology: Sociocultural Implications in the Struggle for Women’s Education in Pakistan

In the advanced world we live in today, information is easily accessible at the touch of our fingertips. Through the internet, learning has become much easier than it was in the past. However, receiving an academic education is still difficult in some places today, specifically for girls and women. In Pakistan, the struggle for women’s education has been a long and difficult one. Primarily, because while a curriculum may have been established, the quality of education is still poor or overlooked. Additionally, an unequal balance of resources negatively impacts the education of girls and women in more rural areas. This imbalance of education is just one small part of the systematic oppression women face in countries run by patriarchal governments. There are many people that believe in the oppression of women, and keeping them from being educated. Thus, stories such as Malala Yousafzai’s are seen as inspirational and also as a stark reminder of the conditions some women continue to face today. Therefore, in order to understand the issues women face in all aspects of their lives, it is important to analyze the obstacles they encounter while attempting to pursue their right to be educated.

Forces Against Women’s Education

Education is a vital part of thriving within a society. It assists in a person’s mental development, enriches them with knowledge and other skills needed to make it in this world. It can also greatly benefit the country as a whole. Educated individuals would be able to actively contribute and influence both society and the economy. Enforcing the social acceptance of women not being educated just further limits their role in society. Moreover, it can impact a woman’s ability to form social connections and secure financial independence. Additionally, since many of the jobs today require a university level degree, pursuing a higher education ensures women have access to work and healthcare.

Furthermore, education can empower women to voice their opinions and concerns within male-dominated households and thus, put them on equal footing with their male counterparts. Therefore, access to education in countries with conservative governments, such as Pakistan, is absolutely crucial. However, there are many forces against women’s education. For example, in Pakistan, the dependency on culture and tradition tends to hold women back. Another example would be religious extremist groups, such as the Taliban, who have conservative views and opinions on women’s right to education.

Anthropology and Culture

colourful illustration of three Pakistani women with head scrafs sewing and doing needle work

Pakistani culture is built upon the foundation of religious conservatism; the official religion of the nation is Islam. Within Islamic rules and regulations, women have a considerably high status in the general hierarchy. However, somewhere along the way, this status was erased from the country’s conservative beliefs. Now, instead of regarding women as individuals with their own aspirations and thoughts, they are considered as a single entity that belongs in a household setting. While having conservative beliefs is not in itself wrong, enforcing these beliefs on others and resulting in their rights being neglected is a huge problem.

Traditionally, women are expected to learn domestic chores from a young age in order to be considered appropriate for their future husbands and in-laws. They are generally expected to stay in the informal sector of work and leave the public domain to their male relatives. This expectation is reflected in every aspect of Pakistani society. From TV shows to movies, they commonly represent female characters as nothing more than caretakers. In fact, the characters in pieces of fiction that are praised are usually submissive in nature, and insist on doing household chores happily.  More importantly, taking up the role of housewife and caretaker should only be acceptable when it is entirely the woman’s choice, and no amount of coercion or peer pressure has taken place.

Interestingly, the idea of a “liberal” educated woman, one that speaks her mind and refuses to submit to domestic life, is always viewed in the media as annoying and generally villainous. This character is also usually very open about her sexuality. This is telling of the fact that some conservatives link an educated woman to sexual promiscuity and general inappropriateness. This, again, stems from the deeply religious belief that women and their sexuality should be repressed and kept hidden. Some might even say that the Pakistani media circulates social  propaganda in an effort to maintain the misogynist conditioning. Therefore, the stigma around the idea of women receiving a higher education is constant. The common fear is that once a girl or woman is educated, she will abandon her family values completely. This type of misunderstanding and strange stereotypes keep women from receiving the education and opportunities they deserve.

Historically speaking, Pakistan’s constitution clearly states that every citizen has equal rights and discrimination on the basis of gender is forbidden. It also states that women have the right to participate in all areas of life. However,  many women in Pakistan today cite early marriages, poverty, dowry and social norms as barriers to their receiving an education. Due to the immense importance put on marriage, the education of girls and women is often neglected. Further, if they do have access to education, the quality of the curriculum being taught is generally poorer in comparison to that reserved for boys.

In Pakistan, there is a natural segregation of genders within an academic setting. Boys and girls are taught in separate buildings with different teachers and curriculums. While this separation is the result of religious beliefs of propriety, it can also worsen the academic conditions for girls. This distinction between the two forces schools to decide which section deserves certain resources over others when budgets get cut. Usually, the girls’ section is the one that suffers more, as it is believed that the boys will end up with meaningful careers, while the girls will just end up married. Therefore, there is an obvious pattern of gender discrimination within academic settings that affects women’s access to education. It is fueled by the conservative culture embedded deeply in Pakistan’s society and the traditions that accompany it.

The Taliban: An Islamic Extremist Terrorist Group

men with their faces covered carrying guns

The Taliban, also known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is an Islamic extremist group and movement. It has been internationally condemned for the cruel and harsh treatment of the citizens in Afghanistan. Its interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law has been enforced throughout the country of Afghanistan and resulted in the brutal treatment of many people. Overall, this group is notorious for its misogynist views and violence towards women.

The extremist group claims to be creating a “secure environment where the chastity and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct”. This sentiment is derived from the cultural beliefs Pashtunwali that women should live in purdah. In Afghanistan, women were forced to wear the burqa every time they went out in public. The Taliban spokesman said this was because, “the face of a woman is a source of corruption” for the men that they weren’t related to. Other appalling violations of women’s rights committed by the Taliban included: women not being  allowed to work, they were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight and were only allowed to read and study the Quran.

Additionally, under the rule of the Taliban, women were forced to attend underground schools in an effort to get an education. Both students and teachers risked execution if they were ever caught, but this did not deter them. Also, women were not allowed to be treated by male doctors unless they had a male chaperone. This was another rule with a devastating impact, as many illnesses among women went untreated because they lacked a proper chaperone. In terms of marriage, the Taliban sometimes encourage marriage for girls under the age of sixteen. According to Amnesty International, 80% of Afghan marriages were forced. Furthermore, any violations of the Taliban’s laws led to flogging and execution.

For a more in depth look at women’s rights in Afghanistan read  Looking Through the Veil: A History of Afghan Women’s Rights.

There is a branch of this military and religious group in Pakistan that greatly affects the educational conditions for women. The presence of Taliban groups in Pakistan has existed since 2002. They reside under an umbrella organization called Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Throughout its history of existence there, the government of Pakistan has reportedly supported the group’s efforts to bring religious values back into the nation. They supported them through funding and supplying other resources. However, publicly, Pakistan has always denied supporting the group, and in 2014 made some remarkable efforts to rid all traces of the Taliban from the country. In addition, while this branch of the group is different from the Afghan Taliban, they share the same values and attitudes towards women. The Pakistani Taliban has accused and killed women for “un-Islamic” behavior and forcibly married girls after publicly flogging them for having romantic relationships.

Malala’s Impact

Portrait of Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai Credit:

Malala Yousafzai, most commonly referred to as Malala, is a Pakistani women’s rights activist.  She is known for her human rights advocacy, specifically the education of women and children, and is also the youngest Nobel Prize winner. Her advocacy is specifically directed at her home in the Swat Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Northwestern Pakistan. This is the same location where the local Taliban group had banned girls from attending school. Her work in activism for women’s rights has grown into an international movement.

On October 9th 2012, Malala was on a bus after taking a school exam. When the bus came to a stop, a masked man entered the bus and asked “who is Malala?”. This man turned out to be a member of the Pakistani Taliban and attempted to assassinate her because of her activism. She and two other girls were shot on that bus. Yousafzai was hit in the left side of her head and remained unconscious and in critical condition, until she was stable enough to move to a hospital in Birmingham, UK. After her recovery, she and her family moved to the U.K permanently. The news of her attempted assassination made international headlines and soon people from all over the world were showing their support for Malala. The TTP was denounced internationally by governments, feminist groups, and human rights organizations. The TTP officials responded to this international attention by further denouncing Yousafzai and her family, hinting at a possible second attempt at her assassination. They believed they were justified because this was a religious obligation. Their response only caused further international backlash.

Moreover, the press and attention given to Malala threw a spotlight on the oppression of women in Pakistan, and those who insist the women there are not oppressed at all. This representation in Western media was a turning point for the women’s rights movement as they now had international support. Additionally, while it was a very important moment for Malala, it also spoke to every brown girl who could not receive an education due to the Taliban’s threats. Since then, Malala has accomplished a great deal. She spoke before the United Nations (UN) in July 2013, spoke at Harvard University and had an audience with Queen Elizabeth॥ in Buckingham Palace. She even met with former United States President Barack Obama and his family.

In October 2014, she donated 50,000 dollars to the reconstruction of schools in the Gaza Strip. In 2015, she opened a school in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, near the Syrian border, for Syrian refugees. In addition to all her accomplishments, she established the Malala Fund, a non-profit fund that offers education and training to girls aged fourteen to eighteen. Furthermore, Malala has acknowledged the role Pakistani culture plays in the systematic oppression of women. In a critique of the apparent permanence of these sexist rules, she stated, “Traditions are not sent from heaven, they are not sent from God. It is we who make cultures and we have the right to change it and we should change it”. It is clear that culture and traditions play a huge part in the social conditioning and roles assigned to women in Pakistan.

Current Conditions

Currently, there are 32% of primary school aged girls out of school, compared to the 21% of boys in Pakistan. By sixth grade, about 59% of girls are out of school, compared to 49% of boys. In addition, only 13% of girls are still in school by the ninth grade. The education in Pakistan is severely underfunded and while both girls and boys are left at a disadvantage, girls are more likely to be greatly affected. The numbers also vary greatly from region to region, depending on whether the area is rural or urban. Rural areas have higher percentages of girls dropping out of school. Mainly, because women aren’t allowed to work for a living, so parents see no point in sending them to school. Additionally, there are many reasons for these high numbers of dropouts. Political instability, the strong influence of extremist military forces on the government, and religious tensions throughout the nation are all valid explanations. These uncontrollable forces distract the government from its obligation of equal access to quality education in all parts of the country.

The Anthropological Significance

From an anthropological standpoint, the progress of women’s education and rights in Pakistan and other countries is important to discuss. There needs to be more awareness brought to the topic of the disproportion of gender within education. Especially, as it allows for the opportunity to discuss ways to improve that situation. Examining the different forces, such as culture and tradition, enables people to thoroughly consider the subtle ways in which their own education has been influenced. Furthermore, understanding the different socio-cultural aspects of the stigma around education for women in Pakistan, helps us better understand the anthropology of other similar cultures.

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 Dupree, N.  ‘Afghan Women under the Taliban’ in William Maley (2001) ISBN 0-7864-1090-6. Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban. London: Hurst and Company, ISBN 0-8147-5586-0 pp145-166.

J. Gohari (2000). The Taliban: Ascent to Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-579560-1 pp. 108-110.

Noureen, Ghazala & Awan, Riffat-Un-Nisa. (2011). Women’s Education in Pakistan: Hidden Fences on Open Frontiers. Asian Social Science. 7. 10.5539/ass.v7n2p79.

PAKISTAN: Taliban Restrict Women’s Education in Pakistan. (2015, February 03). Retrieved from

“Shall I Feed My Daughter, or Educate Her?” (2018, November 13). Retrieved from

Top 10 Facts About Girls’ Education in Pakistan. (2019, April 02). Retrieved from

Yousafzai, M. (n.d.). Malala’s Story. Retrieved from


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