PAKISTAN: Domestic violence is the most under-reported crime and condoned by social customs

Farzana Ali Khan

Violence against women is a major health and human rights concern in Pakistan. Women can experience sexual, physical or mental abuse throughout their life cycle, in infancy, childhood and during adulthood or older age. Violence against women has severe physical and psychological consequences and as a social problem warrants an immediate coordinated response from multiple sectors.

According to the United Nations General Assembly resolution the word “violence” is defined as “any act of gender-bias that results in or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”

The above definition encompasses, inter alia, “physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family and in the general community. The definition also includes battering, sexual abuse of children, dowry- related violence, rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women. The other forms of violence could be violence related to exploitation, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, as well as trafficking in women, forced prostitution, and violence perpetrated or condoned by the state agencies.”

Worldwide the most common form of violence against women is abuse by their husbands or other intimate partner, generally referred to as ‘wife beating’, ‘battering’ or domestic violence’, intimate partner violence is often part of a pattern abusive behavior and control rather than isolated acts of physical aggression.

A few years ago at least in Pakistan, sexual harassment and battered women were just called “part of life”. It is only recently that the media attention has increased public awareness, to quite an extent. Nevertheless, it seems, sexual harassment; rape and battering are still not considered as serious problem. However, when a woman is sexually harassed her clothes are to be blamed. On the other hand, where a woman is raped it is argued that she has asked for it. Apart from above if a woman is beaten the reason is that she couldn’t take care of her husband’s needs. In contrast, the aggressor may be perceived as behaving ‘like a normal male’ and often receives a little blame.

Sexual harassment, rape and battering can be traced to traditional masculine and feminine socialization. Males are supposed to be aggressive, dominant and in control of the situation. Women are supposed to be ‘submissive’, yielding, unassertive. In a sense all these represent a tragic exaggeration of traditional gender roles.

Violence, whether domestic or otherwise, includes physical/verbal abuse, rape, acid throwing, burning and killing and forced prostitution is widespread in Pakistan. Few women would complain under legal provisions relating to physical injury.

In the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, violence within home is inflicted in various ways, including mental torture, by denying women food, often by threat of divorce or by taking another wife, separating the woman from her infants, forced marriages, exchange marriages, or selling woman in marriage, especially to much older man.

It is not only the husband who inflicts violence in the home, often in extended families, the wife is violated by her in-laws. The girl child or the women may be subjected to incest and rape in her own home, and even forced to keep her lips sealed. Women can suffer violence in the home from the men of the family, father, brother, husband, uncles, cousins, and at times from women of the family, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, mother and sisters.

Domestic violence is the most under-reported crime because it is generally condoned by social customs and considered as private family matter,

Violence against women is a global phenomenon which cuts across class, race, ethnic, religious and cultural boundaries. It is multifaceted and affects all aspects of women’s lives. It is very hard to say, when, where and how it started? It is happening and it has happened in almost all societies, irrespective of race, color or creed.

The oppression of Pashtun women is rooted within the system itself. In ancient times the women produced food for the family. In that era women had learned how to cultivate the land. Men used to hunt only. That is why women had a particular recognition in society. And over a period of time she became the head of the family.

With a passage of time men learned the cultivation procedure and became dominant in the productive process. Thus matriarchal society, a society where women dominated, withered away. The new forms of property changed the inheritance to men and hence established male domination. After the introduction of this system of private ownership women gradually became a commodity and hence possessed as private property. These forms developed over time and the exploitation of women continued in different patterns.

Women who report rape or sexual assault encounter a series of obstacles. These include not only the police, who resist filing their claims and mis-record their statements, but also medico-legal doctors, who focus on their virginity status and lack the training and expertise to conduct adequate examinations. As for the trial in rape cases, the past sexual history of the victim is thrown around and touted in court to the maximum.

Furthermore, women who file rape charges open themselves up to the possibility of being prosecuted for illicit relationship, if they fail to prove themselves innocent. As a result, when women victims of violence resort to the judicial system for redress, they are more likely to find further abuse and victimization.

The concept of women as an object or commodity, not a human being endowed with dignity and rights equal to those of men, is deeply rooted in tribal culture.

In the rural areas women are like slaves subject to drudgery. They are there just to obey their father, brother and husband. They do not have the right to decide about themselves because women are considered foolish creature.
According to the dominant and cultural norms a common view is that comparatively Pashtun women are more protected, they are more honored but the point is that their physical weakness, child bearing function an economic dependence all combined to assigned to men the role of protectors and providers evolving a superior status of the male over the female. A woman’s right to liberty is restricted in the name of modesty, protection and prevention of immoral activity.

Right from the very beginning or it will be more realistic to say even before conception it is the wish of all the families that a woman should give birth to a male child. Here it is from where discrimination starts. Then in almost all spheres of life, in rearing, in education, priorities are given to a male child. Majority of parents do not send their daughters to schools. This schooling is another deprivation. And after reaching puberty they are told to wear Hejabs and observe pardah and not to mingle with other men except their father, brothers or very near relatives.

In fact, it is the historical settings coupled with social and cultural norms, religious values and domination of political institutions by men, which has relegated Pashtun women to an underprivileged and vulnerable position.

It is without doubt that women had been the object of violence in all ages and almost every society. In the first instance while she is living with her parents and secondly when she is married and living with her in laws.

There is a dire need of launching an awareness campaign that Pashtun woman first must understand their position where they are. Then take steps to improve the situation in such a way that the traditional family system remains undisturbed but women start enjoying their fundamental rights of choice, expression and movement and education.

Government, the fundamentalist; these may be some of the reasons of the downtrodden condition of Pashtun woman but to me women themselves are the biggest obstacle in the way of improving their situation by underestimating their strong position in the society and till they are reluctant no one can help them get their actual recognition.

On religious front there is a need of reformation and telling the Pashtun women that they can participate in day to day activities like the wives of the Prophet and his companions. On Pashtunwali front Pashtun men should be educated that woman is not the sole depositary for his honor and Pashtunwali.

The emancipation of Pashtun women has political dimension but its more a religious, cultural, educational, psychological, legal and social issue. Our society, family, culture, laws, misinterpretation of religion and less opportunities of education are the main factors for the downtrodden situation of Pashtun women.

A Russian proverb says that it is easier to destroy than to create. Just as every life needs to be carefully nurtured and preserved it can also be destroyed and lost in an instant.  Perhaps due to the lack of sufficient knowledge in this field, scientists seem strangely unable to grasp, foresee and adopt the necessary solution to prevent violence on a large scale.

We need to build our society from bottom up and that a proper background has to be set for any change that we want to see in our society. We must bring the change in a pragmatic and effective way.

Pragmatism with idealism and realism with vision and imagination should be used to solve all problems and in this context the solution to the problems of Pashtun women lies in the panacea of great ideas of democracy with its implementation in all social and political spheres and the implementation of the philosophical concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity by modern education and religious reformation and reinterpretation.

As they say “charity begins at home.” We may take start from own homes If a man’s wife, sister, mother, or daughter goes around and does some business, participates in social , political and economic or educational activities he should not feel mortified that his woman is talking to others or doing business with others and that this is against his, honor (ghairat).

Though a very small percentage of Pashtun women who have had access to education, family support systems and help, have excelled in every profession they have entered, still they are denied opportunity, their status is totally subservient to men and  the laws of the land against them. How can a society even pretend that it even has a shred of morality when the women of the land are reviled for demanding rights, justice and freedom?

Some people think that only women belonging to a lower class face the brutality on part of men but I have come across well to do and educated young and middle aged women bitterly complaining of being severely thrashed by their husbands even lawyers, doctors, executives and businessmen have beaten up their wives.

In many well to do families husband if develops extramarital affair the wife and children get used to luxurious life that they do not wish to leave. Especially grown sons do become a protection against their father depriving their mother of their rights. But still as a result woman has to suffer the trauma of hurt and pain.

The question there remain as how best to proceed with the struggle to achieve equal rights for women in Pashtun society? There is need of schooling, education and vocational training for women. Better facilities to health and maternity centres, awareness about health and child rearing.
The ultimate goal should be to make women emancipated and this can be achieved by making them financially independent, she should have right in decision making in family affairs– child spacing and child rearing etc.
If there is a will and firm determination; things can be changed in a very cautious and gradual process. But sudden change will not be tolerated and will fire back.

Let’s start a movement to liberate those Pashtun women who are prisoners in their own homes. They are born within the four walls and die there without knowing their importance as human beings either. They are sentenced with life time imprisonment. How can we liberate Pashtun women from this life time imprisonment? Let’s think and act in the right direction.


About the author: Farzana Ali Khan is a journalist working for The News International. She has written the above article for the AHRC. She can be reached at 

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-060-2011
Countries : Pakistan,
Issues : Violence against women,