The murder of Qandeel Baloch, allegedly for the sake of male honour, is symptomatic of a wider trend in Pakistan. Violence against women — or at least of its reporting — is on the rise. Be it the case of young Sumaira of Karachi or the social media star Fouzia Azeem alias Qandeel Baloch of Multan, there is an emerging pattern: violence will be used to deny three basic rights of women and indicators of empowerment — what to study, where to work and with whom to marry.

Yet despite all pressures women are actually increasingly claiming more space for those critical decisions of their lives. The causes of this change are interesting and even more interesting are the indicators of the evolving status of women of Pakistan.

Let us have a look at what some of these indicators are telling us.

The horror stories about the rise of violence against women may be masking a complementary trend: the increasing role of women in the public sphere


As per various census reports of the Federal Bureau of Statistics (FBS), around 48 million women were added between 1951 and 1998 (the census years). In 1951 the women population was recorded at 15.6 million where as in 1998 the women head count was approximately 63.5 million. Between the two census periods of 1981 and 1998, 23.5 million women were added to Pakistan’s population, a number that is greater than the actual female population reported in 1961: 20 million. Though the per annum growth rate is slowing down, women’s share in the total population has increased from 46.22 per cent in 1951 to 48.05 per cent in 1998. The population of young females (between the ages of 15 and 24) has increased from 6.8 million to 12 million between 1981 and 1998, a growth of almost 78 per cent between the two censuses. This gigantic addition obviously requires adjustments in policies of state, a task which is yet to be accomplished.


Female literacy rates have also shown a tremendous increase. There were 4.2 million literate women in 1981 while in 1998 the number of literate women had risen to 13.8 million, an addition of 9.6 million literate women, which translates into a per annum growth rate (PAGR) of over 14 per cent. The percentage of female literates 10 years or older rose from 15.60 per cent in 1981 to 32.60 per cent in 1998.

What these statistics reveal is that the achievements of women in educational attainment (enrolment from class one to university) over the last 47 years (from 1947 to 1998) showed remarkable improvement. There were only 1,335 girls enrolled in universities in 1951, while in 1998 the figure had gone up to 25,469. In 1998, women comprised almost 28 per cent of university students. This indicates a demand for better utilisation of educated females in the economic spheres as it can help reduce the dependency ratio. Of course, it also indicates a change in the entire socio-political fabric of the Pakistani society.


There has been a sharp decline in the percentage of married women. The percentage of married women with respect to the total women population of 15 years and above dropped by 4.2 points between 1981 and 1998. This decline was even more pronounced in the urban areas, where the percentage declined by almost 12 points.

The average age of marriage for women has also risen, with more women choosing to marry later, completing their education being the most often cited reason.

In 1981 there were 78,731 divorced women while in 1998 the figure rose to 154,343, an addition of 75,612 divorced women. The PAGR of divorce in women was observed as 4.04 per cent while in males it was 1.48 per cent. Divorce also appears to be more of an urban phenomenon in women, since the PAGR is 6.62 per cent in urban females as compared to 3.20 in rural females. Interestingly, despite false claims, divorce rates have actually declined since 1972.


The transition from a feudal culture — with its reliance on an agricultural modes of production, a barter system, dependence on landholdings and the responsibility on male members to feed the entire family, with primitive skills — to service capitalism puts more economic pressures on women to work and become earning partners. As a result, a high growth rate (in absolute numbers) is observed in the female labour force as compared to the male population.

In 1981 women’s share in the total labour force was only 2.14 per cent. By 1999-2000, although the overall percentage of the civilian labour force has gone down, female participation has gone up to 6.68 per cent of the total population of 10 and above. This shows more involvement of women in public spheres in order to earn a livelihood.

How do we interpret these statistics? Taken together, these changes in demographic indicators show that the actual transition that is taking place is in the priorities of the female population of Pakistan. The desire for job security is slowly replacing the earlier concept of security associated with marriage. Aspiration for mere literacy has been replaced, overwhelmingly, by the desire for higher achievements in the educational field. Attire has changed, vocabulary has transformed and the gender interaction has morphed. Women have become increasingly more assertive about their ambitions, far more than their preceding generation.

Stuck in residual feudal norms, the traditional mindset — with the help of the orthodox establishment — protests against the progress made by women but this is a failing proposition. Power is slipping away from them. One can think of it as the flailing, desperate attempts of a crumbling order. Urban women through education and technology have developed cultural linkages with globalisation that continue to dictate their choices in life. They are unwilling to let go of whatever freedoms they have achieved and aspire for more.

The unanswered question is actually whether institutions are geared up to accommodate this sea change? If they are not, in the days to come we are likely to see more violence against women.

*Figures worked out by the writer from census reports of FBS

Mansoor Raza is a freelance researcher and a visiting faculty member at SZABIST. His particular areas of interest are social change, minorities, demography and discriminatory laws. He can be reached at

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 7th, 2016



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