The Changing Status of Karachi’s Women
In a traditionally segregated society, a change in the status of women alters every aspect of society — from local governance, to trade and commerce, to politics and gender relations.
Pakistan is passing through this phase, and there are those who, like the authors of this article, believe that the coming two decades are going to be the ‘decades of Pakistani women.’
In this context, this article tries to identify the changes that are taking place in Karachi. It draws upon the observations and experiences of Arif Hasan during his 30 years of work in Orangi and with the Urban Resource Centre (URC) Karachi, in addition to numerous surveys, reports, interviews and studies done by his office; an analysis of present-day trends within the youth and grassroots movements by Dhuha Alvi; an ongoing anthropological study of her family by Khadija Imran; and discussions with visitors, of every category, to Arif Hasan over a period of 40 years.
The trends discussed in this article apply to individuals and groups in all of Karachi, including low-income settlements — except for new settlements on the fringe of the city or groups of juggis [shacks] scattered all over the city. Even within the settlements, individuals and groups have varying levels of exposure to the world around them and, as such, generalisation is difficult.
The people, neighbourhoods and public spaces of Karachi have undergone a radical transformation over the past seven decades. These social changes are most pronounced among the lives of the city’s women. What impact does that have on society?
THE KARACHI THAT WAS
Forty years ago, society in Karachi was very different from what it is now. Pre-Partition settlements were ethnically and caste-wise homogenous. People of the same caste or tribe, irrespective of their income, lived together. Examples of these settlements are Sheedi Para, Rama Swami, and Gazdarabad.
The Muhajir settlements that emerged after Partition contained neighbourhoods made up of extended families and people from the same region of India. They were settled in these localities of Karachi by informal developers, in an attempt to create homogeneous neighbourhoods.
Although they were ethnically different, these settlements, in many ways, shared a common gender- and family-related culture. Young men could not choose their professions but had to conform to what their fathers decided, nor could they or their sisters marry out of their clan or caste structures.
More often than not, they married within the extended family, with marriages being arranged by the elders. Interaction between the genders before marriage was rare, and even after marriage, it was limited to being between the spouses and their extended families.
In keeping with the mainstream interpretation of the Hadith and Islamic scholars’ preachings, women could not leave the house alone or meet men, including friends of their husbands. It was because of women not being allowed to go out of the house alone that most women of that time had never visited other places outside of Karachi. Even in Karachi, many had never been out of their neighbourhoods or even seen the ocean; this holds true today as well for many — and, as a result, men are better acquainted with the landscape of the city and the country as a whole.
However, there was a class which was the product of colonial education and had acquired a veneer of Western culture. This was a pre-Partition class, to which post-Partition convent-educated young men and women were added. Much of the bureaucracy that governed Karachi came from this class, and there was a class both above and below them which tried to emulate their culture and their use of the English language.
These classes were responsible for the image that is portrayed of post-Independence Karachi: an image of bars and nightclubs (some of which also catered to the working and middle classes), numerous bookshops, and a liberal society that tolerated diversity and dissent. It was this class that not only dominated but ruled the city as well, as populist politics of votes and constituencies, that challenged its power, had not yet emerged.
In society, there are always generational differences, and it is generally agreed that these are a result of the difference between the values and ethos of the parents on the one hand, and on the other, the aspirations of the younger generation and the larger socio-political context in which it grows up. In a more liberal environment, these differences can be accommodated through discussion and understanding. However, where they are at loggerheads, it often leads to verbal and/or physical violence.
The parents of the ‘90s grew up in Gen Zia ul Haq’s Pakistan, governed by a reactionary political interpretation of Islam. In schools, the teaching of global history and geography was discontinued and the teaching of Islamiat was reduced to that of rituals. Classical dancing and music was discontinued on radio and television, and so was the presence of progressive Pakistani poets and thinkers. Attempts at introducing the chopping of hands for theft and stoning for ‘adultery’ were made and blasphemy and Hudood laws were formulated. Every attempt was made to take society back and fossilise it, but change can never be fully arrested.
This challenging of societal attitudes is also supported by the emergence of social media as an outlet of women’s expression. Women are increasingly taking to social media groups, including many all-women Facebook groups, with tens of thousands of members each, to express their thoughts and feelings
A SOCIETY IN TRANSITION
The major change that took place was the beginning of the demise of the extended family. There were many reasons for this.
For one, since the 1970s, there was a mass migration of Pakistanis to the Gulf and they sent back money to their extended families — as a result of which, disputes and conflicts on the use and ownership of the money arose. In addition, the better-off families migrated to locations of new public and commercial housing schemes.
Due to a shortage of housing, settlements also densified and, for these reasons, they became multi-ethnic, with new families having to befriend and socialise with each other. Clan-based marriages slowly came to be replaced by marriages between neighbouring families, irrespective of caste. This also led to the women of the new nuclear families demanding a separate kitchen for themselves.
There is sufficient evidence to show that the break-up of the extended family had at least two major repercussions. One was that close family friendships, in which cousins shared their problems and secrets with each other, ended, resulting in loneliness and a desire for new friendships.
It also led to the creation of an ambience where the education of women became relatively easier. Consequently, while only 48.8 percent of the women in Karachi were literate in 1981, 62.9 percent of them were literate in 1998, and the figure further increased to 71 percent in 2017, as per the population census.
This was aided by the fact that, in the market, the need for writing and reading skills became a requirement for even low grade jobs. Education became an important factor in choosing a spouse, for both men and women, especially for the lower-middle class. All this changed the culture of marriage, and the custom of the to-be bride and groom meeting before a decision could be taken became acceptable in certain quarters.
This change was accompanied by an increase in women’s employment in the industrial sector, in garment, pharmaceutical and packaging factories. This meant an interaction between the sexes at work and during transportation, although men insisted, as many still do, that the woman’s journey should be specifically to work and back home. In the process, the rules of segregation softened, and at marriages where segregation was enforced, it often disappeared towards the end of the function, even in working class areas.
Apart from the emergence of marriage out of the clan or extended family, the concept of free-will marriage also emerged, and with it the reported increase in karo kari [so-called ‘honour killing’].
Music was also frowned upon and forbidden in many cases, as it still is in many households. As a result, aspiring musicians and singers practised their craft secretly, without informing their parents. Along with that, many women in hijab at public sector universities took it off for evening functions. Meanwhile, young men started asserting their right to choose their subject of education and many qualifying in engineering or medicine went on to choose the subject of their specialisation and financed their own education by part-time work.
This period also saw the emergence of private sector universities, which charged exorbitant fees that only the rich could afford. Those who could not afford it took on part-time jobs and their parents struggled to raise the required funds. Costs at public sector universities also increased but the creation of private sector universities created a new division in society, with two different cultures — with the private universities having a fairly heavy Western orientation in lifestyles and behavioural patterns.
A NEW GENERATION EMERGES
Those becoming parents today are the product of a very different culture and have been moulded by globalisation, social media, and the state attempts to balance itself between traditional values and emerging global trends.
One of the important factors in this struggle has been the Pakistani electronic media and its contents, which continues in its television dramas to reinforce the stereotypical world of a woman, consisting mainly of her mother-in-law, love triangles, and the father and sister-in-law. However, previously taboo subjects, such as ‘illicit’ love affairs, children born out of marriage, and the expression of emotions in a more open manner, have been added to many dramas. The public reaction to these has been mixed.
Regardless of the presence of modern ideas in these dramas, though, it is the traditional values that eventually emerge victorious. In contrast, on YouTube, celebrities openly discuss their personal lives, including their love life, marriages, divorces, body image issues, health complications and, sometimes, also their affairs. All this material is viewed and discussed by the Pakistani younger generation. It is noteworthy that a few television advertisements are also beginning to promote values that reflect the changing nature of society, especially related to women.
There are shows on Pakistani media such as Geo’s Hasna Mana Hai, where the host questions the audience about their personal lives in a thinly veiled flirtatious manner. It is something that the audience, consisting primarily of young men and women, participate in happily and enjoy immensely (although it is true that much of this audience is invited by the programme producers themselves).
In addition, there are also other shows, such as Rewind by Samina Peerzada, where well-known personalities discuss their love lives with the anchor. There are also YouTube shows in which a wandering host discusses the marriage preferences and other personal matters of random people in a bazaar — mainly working class men and women.
It can also be safely said that Netflix and YouTube have normalised, or at least made acceptable to a large section of the population, non-marital love stories, platonic relationships between men and women, and humanised sexualities and gender identities that fall outside of mainstream consciousness. This has, however, further antagonised the conservative sections of the population.
Social media platforms have also helped enormously in developing and promoting local musicians and artists, who are to be found in every working class and lower middle class neighbourhood.
Post-Zia era parents have seen the emergence of the Pakistan women’s cricket team, women mountaineers, female bureaucrats, and a substantial increase of women in the police force, as well as a women’s hockey team whose uniform came under severe attack from conservatives because it exposed the knees of the hockey players. However, the uniform has stayed.
It is important to note here that, in a survey of schools and colleges in the katchi abadi [informal settlement] of Sultanabad (carried out by the Department of Architecture at Dawood University), women were asked as to what they would want in a park. To the surprise of the persons who had initiated the survey, they wanted a space to play cricket, gym machines, a space for yoga, and an open air library — very different from earlier surveys.
Anthropological discussions and observations show that the difference is not only between generations but also within them. In many cases, older siblings were required to cover their heads and not meet with men, but these restrictions were withdrawn for the younger ones.
In the above processes, self-willed marriages have been reluctantly accepted by an increasing number of parents, along with the meeting of the bride and groom before the marriage. The concept of “girlfriend”/“boyfriend” has also been accepted by the younger generation, even in the working class, and so has the concept of “dating” and getting married through a dating application.
This is despite the Pakistani state’s and religious right-wing’s attempts at curbing the mingling of men and women, such as the government’s ban on five dating apps (including the globally renowned Tinder) in 2020 and the Jamaat-e-Islami’s rebranding of Valentine’s Day as ‘Haya Day.’
Prior to the aforementioned ban on these apps, they had a sizable market in the country, which is reflected by the fact that Tinder had been downloaded 440,000 times in Pakistan during the one year before being banned. Even after this ban, other apps have been quick to fill the gap — such as Bumble, Muzz, and Dil Ka Rishta.
Some of them (such as Bumble) come with safety features that exclusively allow women to send the first message to any ‘match’, to ward off cyberharassment from unknown men. Muzz, which was previously called ‘MuzMatch’, is marketed as an app for Muslims and has additional privacy features in place; as of June 2022, it had 400,000 members in Pakistan and had led to 4,000 marriages, according to its British-Pakistani CEO.
Similarly, the relatively new Dil Ka Rishta app reached 100,000 users within just the first two weeks of its launch in late 2022. These are major and irreversible trends, which will continue to transform Pakistani society’s relationship with romance, both inside and outside of marriage.
BREAKING THE SHACKLES
Twenty years ago, it was not possible for a single girl to rent an independent accommodation for herself, and the same was true for unmarried couples. However, because of increasing demand, things are changing.
Many university-going girls and formally employed women are choosing to live in hostels or shared accommodation, with other similar people in the city. Organisations and apps such as ‘MyGhar’ and ‘Hostayl’ as well as social media groups dedicated to this cause have also sprung up to cater to this demand for independent living.
More women are also doing paid work, which gives them greater autonomy to have a say in decisions about their lives, including the option to part ways from their spouse if they so wish, or to move out of their parental home without being married. Young migrant workers who earlier lived with senior members of their clan in Karachi now get together and rent accommodation, giving them the freedom for recreation and entertainment.
Mobility and walkability are major points of concern for women, and bike-riding is emerging as a means of transport for them in the absence of an efficient public transportation system. Pink Riders Pakistan is an organisation that provides bike-riding training to women across the country and, as more women are appearing on the roads driving motor vehicles, societal perceptions of what is respectable for people of certain genders to do is also being challenged. During the five years of its existence, the organisation has trained 9,500 women all over the country, and the numbers are increasing rapidly.
This challenging of societal attitudes is also supported by the emergence of social media as an outlet of women’s expression. Women are increasingly taking to social media groups, including many all-women Facebook groups, with tens of thousands of members each, to express their thoughts and feelings — from the mundane details of their everyday life to commenting on politics and world affairs.
Such platforms are also opening up avenues for women to dance and sing in front of the public. Many things written here are class-specific and difficult to generalise, but there is a constant exchange of ideas and lifestyle aspirations between all the classes. These aspirations include the education of children, a healthy physical environment, and prospects of upward mobility.
These requirements cannot be fulfilled, as a result of which an increasing number of young people want to leave Pakistan for greener pastures abroad, often illegally, and a whole system to provide such a facility illegally has also developed. Just during the first two months of 2023, data from the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment shows that a whopping 127,400 Pakistanis moved abroad.
A culture of gymming has also developed in urban areas, including mixed gender gyms, where people — young and old — come for physical training at the cost of a few thousand rupees every month. Along with this, personal grooming has also become important, and that explains the proliferation of beauty parlours, even in low-income settlements and katchi abadis. The women who operate them have learnt their craft through Indian and Pakistani TV programmes. Increasingly, the maids working in middle income and elite homes are starting to look like their employers.
Another aspect is the change in people’s eating habits and its connection with society. Any area where an international fast food outlet such as McDonald’s, KFC or Pizza Hut opens up, changes. The public space surrounding it commercialises, with the opening up of other mid-to-high end food outlets. Over time, it also comes to influence the culture of the city it is located in as a whole.
For example, young people prefer to dine at these outlets with their friends rather than invite them to their homes to get together, even if it is affordable only once or twice a month. Similarly, families — including joint ones — also dine in or get food delivered from there every once in a while.
For a society where certain sections used to look down upon the practice of eating food from outside the home until a few years ago, this is a sign of social change. The expansion of these fast food franchises to all corners of Pakistan also shows an increasing tilt towards urbanisation and upward mobility, which links in with the younger generation’s desire for a different lifestyle than what has been the tradition.
In the absence of the possibility of acquiring a house, the unaffordability of education for their children, the absence of transport and culture, and the high cost of entertainment, health and recreation, the aspirations of the Pakistani emerging lower middle and working classes cannot be fulfilled.
There is a fundamental conflict between these aspirations and thinking processes behind them on the one hand, and the lived reality on the other. Given the political and economic uncertainty, and the existence of an uncaring elite, it is unlikely that this can be resolved without a major conflict, which has already begun between and within the institutions of the state.
One of the ways to avoid this conflict is the development and effective management of physical and social infrastructure. An important part of this infrastructure is sports facilities, which the state has developed but which are inaccessible to young men and women. The design of parks, schools, public toilets and public spaces is being neglected and, where these spaces do exist, they do not cater to the needs of the younger generation, especially women.
Laws and notifications restricting the use of social media by the state increase this conflict and show how afraid the state is of the emancipation of the younger generation. This fear is also expressed in politics, especially with the enactment of the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act, 2023, and amendments to the Official Secrets Act, 1923. A sympathetic embrace by the state of the aspirations of the younger generation is essential for peace, stability and prosperity.
Dhuha Alvi is a writer whose research revolves around gender, class and politics.
She can be reached at email@example.com
Khadija Imran is a researcher working with Arif Hasan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 13th, 2023