Pakistani Women’s Rights

A country hostile toward women, Pakistan faced a reckoning on March 8 when thousands took to the streets to commemorate International Women’s Day—a demonstration of how Pakistani women grow stronger in their resolve to challenge the many forms of isolation and exclusion that give Pakistan one of the world’s poorest records of gender equality.

Signs protestors made decried all forms of discrimination, from severe physical violence endured by rape survivors and honor killings to the unequal division of labor inside the home. The march provoked backlash from various segments of Pakistani society that believed the gathering threatened prevailing cultural values.

The conflation of women’s rights advocacy and preserving culture predates Pakistan’s formation in 1947. Muslim political leaders vying for an independent Pakistan promoted the idea that women in a modern and Islamic state could advance society by serving as good mothers, daughters, and wives. Prior to independence, pushing beyond boundaries occurred, but typically only among women of the economic elite. Once Pakistan became independent in 1947, women often faced dire consequences for “unacceptable” behavior veering outside of those categories.

What started as a way to engage women in the Pakistan movement has evolved throughout the country’s history up until today, with violent manifestations in both the legal and cultural dimensions of women’s rights. In 1979, Pakistan’s military ruler General Zia ul-Haq began a process of Islamization, incorporating conservative interpretations of Islamic law into Pakistani political and social life. This process led to the creation of the Hadood Ordinances, laws related to adultery and fornication that disfavored female testimonies. For example, in instances of rape, a female victim would often be punished for committing adultery—a consequence of the Ordinances’ practice which links rape and adultery. Placing rape under the jurisdiction of  Islamic law courts, instead of civil authorities, has challenged efforts to achieve justice for female victims of sexual abuse.

In 2006, however, the Pakistani government passed the Women’s Protection Act, removing rape from the jurisdiction of Islamic law and placing it under the country’s criminal code. While a legal milestone for the women’s rights movement in Pakistan, the Act did not apply to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where communities prefer to resolve cases of violence against women via the use of tribal jirgas, councils of community elders empowered to make decisions outside of British-era civil courts or other law enforcement mechanisms of the state. The problem with jirgas is that they do not consistently guarantee justice for victims. Instead, they act easy exits from, and ways around, the formal legal system for perpetrators. For example, if financial compensation is paid to the victim’s family or if the family forgives the perpetrator, the issue is considered “resolved.” Ironically, the civil courts and the police often resort to the very same measure, discontinuing prosecution in cases of payment or forgiveness.

The tendency to solve cases of violence against women outside of the legal system is reinforced by cultural and familial pressures reacting to the reality that many of the cases actually originate within extended families. And despite the critical work done by legislators and women’s rights activists to date, state and family structures remain complicit in the oppression of women.

 Of the abuses where state and family pressure converge, most significant are those of honor killings and murders by family members of women and girls who believe they brought the family dishonor through their actions. Some experts estimate that, of the up to 5,000 honor killings that occur throughout the world every year, 1,000 occur in Pakistan.

The high proportion of such crimes inside Pakistan, coupled with a particular spate of killings in 2016, drew the attention of the country’s conservative-leaning Council on Islamic Ideology (CII). The CII, which advises the government, decreed that citizens should not act in an extra-judicial manner if they believe someone violated Islamic laws. This view in the context of honor killings represented an unexpected role reversal for the CII, which is known for its proposals to legalize a husband’s right to beat his wife. The nod from the CII was one of several forms of support that facilitated the government’s ability to subsequently pass a law later that year banning honor killings. The legislation eliminated loopholes that allowed killers to go free, such as the pretext of family forgiveness. Now, those convicted of honor killings receive a mandatory twenty-five-year prison sentence.

Honor killings increasingly capture Pakistani and international attention, no doubt a byproduct of the increased use of social media platforms and mobile phones, both of which bring greater visibility to the issue. Still, very few cases offer victims justice. Behind the inconsistency between the laws on the books and how justice is carried out lies a complex cultural narrative about a country struggling to reconcile aspects of its religious identity with its secular and political life.

The possibility that women’s rights movements can be gaining momentum alongside increasingly powerful Islamist forces that seek to undo such movements further reflects the inherent tensions between religion, politics, and the role of women in Pakistan. Even though groups like the CII can be helpful in facilitating the state’s ability to pass laws protecting women, they can equally be influential in pressuring the state to accept its views of women’s rights, in particular because of their undeniable street power and ability to mobilize Pakistan’s Islamists. Too often and for too many governments, this dynamic has resulted in the state’s use of women’s rights as bargaining chips for dealing with Islamist parties.

The challenges of politics and law enforcement notwithstanding, the Pakistani government’s legislation on honor killings and women’s protection speaks to a turning tide in the country on the issue. Within the law enforcement space, the government must find an opportunity to show that the new laws in place actually work—making a very public example of their effectiveness can lead to cultural shifts in how people perceive honor killings (and, quite possibly, in their deterrence).

The government should also allocate more resources for strengthening grassroots dialogue and advocacy. In 2016, the government in Pakistan’s Punjab province passed an act to protect the rights of abused women, as well as to seek future rehabilitation for victims. The law mandated the creation of a District Women Protection Committee to serve as advocates and caretakers for abused women by providing them with housing and various forms of financial support. Given the successes of the Punjab model, the government should consider the possibility of applying aspects of the model at the national level, or of working with provincial governments to pursue their own versions of the Punjab model.

To be clear, any new steps to address violence against women at the national or local levels will face multiple challenges from religious institutions, advocacy groups, family and cultural pressures, as well as elected officials. For a country so strongly tethered to its Islamic identity, Pakistani society is equally strong in its multifaceted views on gender norms, cultural practice, and application of religious belief. Considering this, it is no wonder the protests of March 8 revealed that the majority of Pakistani women felt underrepresented by the conversation on women’s rights—for too long, the dialogue and the fight remained among women of the political and economic elite, as well as at a national level. Pakistani women appear ready to represent themselves. However, their families, the elite, the Islamists, and the government have yet to fully accept that.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is a Senior South Asia Fellow at New America and Senior Advisor to Dean Vali Nasr at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She specializes in American foreign policy and national security with a concentration on South Asia and Pakistan. She served over twelve years in the U.S. government, including at the State Department where she advised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke on Afghanistan and Pakistan. She also served in White House as Director for Pakistan and Afghanistan on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. She now also runs a website: