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
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
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
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