Anthropology: The Socio-Cultural Perspective of Being a Woman In Pakistan


Women’s march in Kharchi, Pakistan  2019 credit: The Diplomat
Women’s march in Karachi, Pakistan 2019 credit: The Diplomat

In the complexities of modern life, there is a stack of political and cultural issues that intertwine with daily life. Being a woman, in any culture of the world, presents an entirely new additional stack of challenges. In Pakistan, a south Asian country, these challenges are specific to gender and limit women from reaching their fullest potential. The conservative influence in Pakistan’s culture perpetuates a system that seeks to regulate women’s bodily autonomy. It also sets them up to fail if they deviate from society’s mold of what a “good” woman looks and acts like. This desire to control and repress women in the nation, stems largely from the deeply embedded roots of  patriarchy. Women’s movements in Pakistan actively work to advocate for women’s liberation within culture. The various levels of oppression are also greatly impacted by class and living situations. In order to fully grasp the concept of inequality in Pakistan, it is crucial to examine the culture itself, the laws that allow it to run rampant, and all the spaces that actively reject women. 

Pakistan and Women’s Rights Movements in History

Map of Pakistan
Geographical map of Pakistan

On August 14th 1947, Pakistan gained independence from the long standing rule of the British Indian Empire. It established itself as an independent sovereign country, followed closely by India’s declaration of independence a day later. During this era of newfound freedom, women’s rights movements began to form under the leadership of the founder’s daughter, Fatima Jinnah. Jinnah aimed to formulate a plan to rid the country of its socio-economic biases reserved for the women exclusively. It was said that her father supported her endeavors and had an overall positive attitude towards the women’s rights movement. At the time, the movement led by wives and daughters of politicians. Additionally, women in Pakistan gained the right to vote in 1947 but were not officially allowed to vote in national elections till 1956. That was the year their right to vote was formally restated and given validity by the impromptu constitution. 

Accordingly, Fatima Jinnah was set to become the first woman president of Pakistan until a political coup took place. General Ayub Khan was a five star Pakistani Army general who took the presidency by force in 1958. He plotted to overthrow the first president, Iskander Mirza, in what was known as the first successful coup of the country’s history. While this was a missed opportunity for Jinnah, proposals highlighting pro women’s initiatives were acknowledged and implemented during the 1950s-60s.  

In the 1970s, under the rule of Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto, the ninth prime minister of Pakistan, all government services were being opened to women. They were promised ten percent of seats in the national assembly and five percent of provisional assemblies were to be reserved for women. However, the implementation of this rule to include women in more places in government was weakly upheld. This was due to the ongoing war between Pakistan and India, and the financial crisis that overcame the nation. While past endeavors regarding the progress of women’s rights seemed futile, future ventures proved to be more successful. 

Anthropology and Culture  

The anthropological and cultural atmosphere of Pakistan can most commonly be credited to two distinct parts. First, the uncompromising conservative attitude extracted from religion. Then, the overwhelming amount of microaggressions women face both at home and in the workplace. The combination of these acts drive Pakistani society and the people within its culture. The patriarchy plays an important role in preserving the violence of oppression. According to Gerda Lerner, an acclaimed woman’s history author, the patriarchy can be best defined as “the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society in general”. While it is true that some areas in Pakistan are more liberal, the majority of the country remains the same.  


sithouette of masjid dome (mosque) on red sky background   

While religion on its own is not inherently destructive, when misinterpreted it can prove to be a damaging influence. In Pakistan, the primary religion practiced is Islam with over 90 percent of the population being Muslims. Islam at its absolute core, is a religion centered around peacefulness. It highlights the ways in which human beings can extend themselves past material gain in this life. It teaches people ways to be kinder, more respectful, and be in tune with their spirituality through mindful prayers and other religious obligations. Islam has a very clear stance on humankind: everyone, regardless of race or gender, is equal. 


Often, people who are not familiar with the ways of Islam attempt to weaponize its supposedly unethical view of women. Outsiders perceive the position of women in Islam to be infinitely low, based on what they’ve seen and that men are told by religion that they have the right to rule over their women. This is an entirely false narrative maintained by the ignorant. In reality, Islam regards women with the utmost respect and validity. Women are considered equal to men in all areas of life and their independence and free will is encouraged. However, there are those that claim to be practicing the word of God while completely disregarding the law of religion. For example, men that truly believe they are in charge of women in a marriage. The kind of men that dictate where and when their wife can go, what she wears and who she talks to. Additionally, the type of man that believes violence against women is justified by religion. It’s not always abuse that’s physical, it can also be verbal and emotional. 


Furthermore, this kind of control over women is institutionalized through a series of acts. Such as: restrictive behavior, dress code, gender segregation from a young age and the emphasis of family honor associated with a woman’s virtue. The harmful acts disguised as traditional with hints of religious overtones, aim to preserve the submissive role of women. Husbands that dole out punishment, their friends that say nothing to interject, the brothers that are aware but stay silent, are all complicit in this damaging and amoral culture prevalent in Pakistan. The repulsive acts of some, look like definitive markers of religion to others. This is where the distinct difference between culture and religion must be made.


 Countries where patriarchy is systematic, like in Pakistan, the culture around telling women how to behave is dominant. Therefore, the culture of controlling and abusing wives, forcing daughters in arranged marriages, belittling and mocking women’s experiences are all symptoms of culture not religion. However, these rules of culture are often taught generationally. To the point where people genuinely believe they are part of religion. 


Consequently, other forms of Pakistani cultural practices include honor killing, dowry violence, and forced marriages (usually through coercion and sometimes ultimatums). While not regarded as popular these days, they are still normalized in a culture that regards women as naturally and biologically inferior to men. All of this has never been condoned by Islam. The behavior of people who actively follow patriarchal societal rules, is a direct paradox to the religion they supposedly follow. 


Currently, there is a large circulation of verses from the holy book, the Quran, that are taken out of context. These misconceptions are then thrown into the vast virtual void that is the internet. Once posted online, people easily fall victim to believing these false explanations. Even worse, before fact checking for themselves people spread this false information around until it is considered a religious fact for generations. More to the point, men have historically cited religion as their cause to assign women the more submissive role. However, further reflection finds that the religion these men cite does not exist. 


Examples of racial and gender based microaggressions credit:
Examples of racial and gender-based microaggressions credit:

The term “microaggression” is defined as a statement or action that implies subtle, indirect or unintentional discrimination. In Pakistan, gender based microaggressions thrive in its patriarchal culture. These incivilities are not exempt from home and work spaces.   


In most, if not all, Pakistani households, daughters are primarily taught household chores and cooking skills. Learning these skills out of free will is not a problem. However, forcing daughters to exclusively train in domestic labor from a young age is most definitely immoral. Even more so, when it is emphasized that these skills will be useful to their future husbands. This essentially tells girls that ultimately their lives will lead to servitude when they get married. That this is normal and to be expected regardless of their individual aspirations for their lives. These topics of domestic labor are given more priority, rather than teaching them about car engines or how to safely use construction tools. These more “masculine” subjects are typically reserved for the boys of the house. This inequity does a great disservice to both girls and boys, as both now lack a comprehensive understanding of life skills. 

Another example is telling girls to change the way they dress. This strict dress code implemented at home and outside, is normally reserved for the women. Commonly, girls in Pakistani households are forced to examine and analyze their outfits before they leave the house and even what they wear at home. This conditioning has cultural roots as it is common in Pakistani culture for the women to be dressed conservatively. Some may even link religion to the restrictive dress codes. To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with dressing modestly for the sake of religion. However, Islam only dictates women and men dress in a way that they are not committing public indecency. Other than that, there are no explicit rules in Islam for women exclusively to be dressed modestly, as that expectation extends to the men as well. However, in Pakistani culture, men face no such pressure on their appearance or dress. The idea of modesty in both dress and behavior is not emphasized towards men at the same level it is for women. They are free to dictate their own clothing and require nobody’s approval. It is a common pattern that dressing conservatively is required more of the women than it is of the men.  

Gender Inequality in the Law

As a Muslim country that prides itself on being lead by religious morals, laws protecting women should, in theory, be effective. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While there are laws in place with the intent of protecting women, they are ultimately useless and provide no protection. For example, the establishment of the Anti-Women Practices Bill aimed to protect women from discriminatory social acts, such as forced marriages. However, this bill also had a backdoor implication that stripped women of their inheritance rights. So women were forced to marry a stranger in order to keep their inheritance. If they refused to marry, they were doomed to lose all of their belongings and financial savings. 

Another example can be seen after the rise of acid attacks on women in Pakistan. In an effort to present themselves as anti-acid attack, the government introduced The Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention bill. While this bill disguised itself as a solution to women being attacked, it did not actually focus on its prevention. The bill focused more on controlling the production, transportation and sale of acid, rather than women being harmed by it. Although it did provide legal help to acid burn victims, it did not set any legitimate long term consequences for the attackers. Those who got caught would potentially pay a fine or serve some jail time but this was not heavily enforced. Even more so for the perpetrators who got away. The bill did not emphasize any advanced protocols for investigating these acid attacks on women. It was ultimately branded as a tool for the government to keep an eye on the commercial side of acid production, rather than protecting the victims.   

The Law of Evidence

Furthermore, on October 26th 1984, The Law of Evidence (also known as Qanun-e-Shahadat) was put into effect. This law claims that a woman’s testimony is worth only half of that of men’s in specific cases. It further expresses that a woman’s testimony alone would not be permitted as evidence in cases of Islamic law (Hadd). Some examples of Hadd court cases include theft, robbery, adultery, and rape. This directly contradicts Pakistan’s constitution, which claims to revoke any laws of discrimination based on sex or gender. These discrepancies in Pakistan’s laws and the government that implements them, further highlights the toxic patriarchal culture within the country. It proves that women are not safe or supported by their government and are left to suffer the consequences alone. 

More recently, there has been some progress made in the improvement of Pakistani law. For example, in 2021 the Lahore High Court officially banned virginity tests in court cases of rape. This is a small step forward, as it no longer forces women to endure invasive and humiliating testing. Especially when they have just experienced something as traumatic as sexual assault. Forcing women to do these barbaric “virginity” tests only further discredits their personal testimonies of events. It tells the public that when a woman is brave enough to come forward, they should assume she’s lying until further “proof” of assault comes out. Hopefully moving forward, changes in the laws become more frequent as the protection of women becomes a priority.

Gender Based Violence and Victim Blaming

Women in Pakistan protest after a gang rape leaves police blaming the victim
Women in Pakistan protest after a gang rape leaves police blaming the victim credit: The Guardian, photographer: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

The cultural values that originate from the patriarchy have severe side effects for the women in the country. Gender based violence has many forms, all of which reduce women’s quality of life by limiting their security and safety. Additionally, intimate partner violence is a form of domestic abuse where a spouse is forced to endure physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. 

In Pakistan, intimate partner violence is so common that it is considered a “private matter” between man and wife. No one is willing to fully call out abusive behavior because the culture dictates this to be a personal family matter and therefore condones it. In addition, it is considered the norm for women to live through physical abuse by the hands of their husbands. Mainly because all the women in a family have experienced similar savagery. Moreover, due to extended family being common in Pakistan, in-laws usually further perpetuate the violence. This is due to the overall vulnerable status of women and the ways in which the law overlooks them. Violence is used by men to break their wives down into more traditional submissive roles. It emphasizes their power over their women, and cements the idea that women are there to serve men. Equally important to note, women who internalize misogyny pass on the custom of silence to their daughters. Their daughters then keep quiet and endure further abuse from their spouse, this kind of behavior eventually becomes generational. This violence is embedded in culture because it is this brutality that keeps the flames of the patriarchy alive.  

Adding to the toxic masculinity and culture, is the immense pressure put on women to hold themselves accountable when something happens to them. For example, if a woman is raped it is the knee jerk reaction in this culture to ask her what she did wrong. To blame the victim and demand they own up to the mistakes that led them to being assaulted. This tradition of victim blaming women is counterproductive and places the negativity solely on the victim. Rather than acknowledging the trauma the victim went through and helping them catch their attacker.  

Consequently, this focus on the victim allows for the actual rapist or perpetrator to escape the scrutiny and criticism of the public. In situations such as this, a woman’s clothing is brought up in conversation. Questioning whether she was dressed modestly enough is seen as a legitimate argument against the victim in court cases. This point of view completely disregards women as human beings with rights. Instead, it solidifies the idea that even in cases of assault it was and always will be the woman’s fault because men can’t control themselves. Men are said to have uncontrollable hormonal urges and yet interestingly, women are the ones deemed “overemotional”. 

This regressive political view isn’t ancient, but rather something that is still to this day a popular opinion. Even among educated men in positions of political power. For example, in 2021, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, made headlines as he was asked to comment on the increase of sexual violence against women in the country. He was asked what he planned to do about it and in response Khan claimed that there were bills and laws in place to protect women. However, he also continued to say that women need to dress more modestly because there is only so much the government can do. He stated, “in any society where vulgarity is prevalent, there are consequences”. Khan essentially stated on live television that he believes women need to hold themselves accountable for the violent nature of men. That women should expect to be sexually harassed if they dress in a way others perceive to be provocative. 

This is not only an outdated, violently sexist take on this situation, it is also telling to the nature of men in Pakistan. It speaks to the perpetuation of rape culture and the overwhelming majority of men who are rape apologists. More specifically, the men in charge of overseeing and implementing laws that directly impact women. It also connects to harmful environments in most patriarchal countries, where women are told how they should dress in order to be respected by men. There is a consistent pattern of control and restrictiveness prevalent in Pakistan. To keep women doubting themselves, to keep their self-esteem low, to constantly view other women as competition, because all of this makes it easier to control them.

The First Women’s March in Pakistan

Women’s march in Islamabad March 8th during the global pandemic
Women’s march in Islamabad March 8th during the global pandemic Credit: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty

The first women’s march was dubbed the “Aurat” march and it took place in the city of Karachi in 2018. Aurat means “woman” in Urdu, the official national language of Pakistan. Since then, the march has taken place annually on March 8th, which is also international women’s day. The march was endorsed by multiple women’s rights organizations in Pakistan. It aimed to call out the violence against women. Also, to show solidarity to all the women who faced violence and harassment at the hands of police and other forces, both in public and private spheres. 

The latest women’s march took place during the global COVID-19 pandemic, and those who attended said it was vital to march especially now. This is because there has been a spike in domestic violence cases in Pakistan since the start of the pandemic. Along with an increased emotional and physical domestic workload. Additionally, the pandemic exposed the lack of available health care for women in poorer, more marginalized areas of the country. The recent women’s marches strive to bring awareness to the lack of accessibility of health care and the extent of its affordability. The women’s movements in Pakistan are also demanding a fairer distribution of the COVID vaccinations. As without fair distribution the social inequalities are further deepened.  

The strength and resilience of these women shines through as they defy every obstacle that seeks to restrain them. The pandemic contributed to major setbacks for women’s rights in the country, mainly because women couldn’t leave their homes safely to advocate. Therefore now, women in the nation are marching and protesting despite all the police officers trying to ban them from marching. They endured tear gas, batons, and various other objects thrown at them, along with online abuse, in order to keep the movement alive. Right wing politicians who labelled  the women’s movements as “un-Islamic” perpetuated rumors in an attempt at a full scale smear campaign. They linked women’s liberation to the rising anti-Muslim attitudes in Europe, claiming that is the source of this ideology.  However, this ultimately failed as the attack was seen as transparent in its intention.  

In recent years, the feminist movement within Pakistan has gained national attention and continues to build rapidly in a way that has never been seen before in the nation’s history. In the past, women’s movements would gain momentum only to lose it just as easily. Now, the traction that the movement gains solidifies itself into something more permanent. Issues that were never uttered out loud before are now being screamed and brought into the limelight. Matters such as, domestic violence, women’s right to a higher education, sexual violence against women, demanding the acknowledgement of emotional and domestic labor, women’s right to contraception and full bodily autonomy, and so much more. The patriarchal roots that are embedded in the country are slowly dying out. It is only a matter of time before structural changes and systematic transformations take hold. Especially considering that the cultural shift, which was thought to be impossible decades ago, has already begun. 

Significance in Anthropology

It is important that we become aware of the gender inequality across the world. The more we study anthropology and culture of how gender’s treat each other, we can learn to devise protocols and methods in order to instill gender equality. This article is a specific perspective from Pakistan and shows how the foundation of society down to the socio cultural, religion, and treatment in the home can lead to gender inequality. 

Click here for more articles like this.


Bari, F. (2000). Women in Pakistan: Country Briefing Paper. Philippines: Asian Development Bank, Programs Dept. (West) and Office of Environment and Social Development.

Blackstock, MD, U. (2021, January 21). Simple Strategies for Combating Microaggressions in the Workplace. Retrieved March & april, 2021, from 

Bukhari, A. (2021, March 16). Once Again, Pakistan’s Women’s March Is Targeted With a Vicious Smear Campaign. Retrieved from

Cerra, E. (2019, July 23). Gender-Based Microaggressions in the Workplace. Retrieved from

Hadi, A. (2017). Patriarchy and Gender-Based Violence in Pakistan. European Journal of Social Sciences Education and Research, 10(2), 297. doi:10.26417/ejser.v10i2.p297-304

Hadi, A. (2018). Intimate partner Violence and Its Under-Reporting in Pakistan. European Journal of Social Science Education and Research, 5(1), 239-245. doi:10.2478/ejser-2018-0027

Hoodbhoy, P. (2020, March 22). In Pakistan, women are upending centuries of patriarchy – and men must catch up. Retrieved from

Imran Khan criticised for rape ‘victim blaming’. (2021, April 07). Retrieved from

Leave a Reply