How the mobile phone is transforming Pakistan

How are we navigating our daily lives, connecting with our surroundings, equipped with the mobile phone?
Published December 2, 2018

The generation of Pakistanis that grew up just as the information technology revolution reached Pakistan in the early 1990s is now moving and shaking the country. But while the early 1990s were about the transition from Commodore 64 to Nintendo and Sega consoles, a new Pakistan is being built by 200 million people in Pakistan through the power of their mobile phones. Step aside, mongers of change. Change is already here.

According to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), whereas mobile connections are significantly higher in urban centers, semi-urban areas such as Bahawalpur, Sadiqabad, Hyderabad, Abbottabad and Mardan lead the growth in mobile phone penetration in terms of percentage. And increased connectivity via cell phones enables to bring communities together.

In Thar, for example, camel owners used to put a bell around their animals’ necks so that in case it was lost, the owners could hear where the camel is in the desert quiet of Thar. Nowadays, the bells have disappeared. Instead, the owner’s mobile phone number is either hung around each camel’s neck or the number is carved onto the camel’s hide. If a camel has wandered too far from its owner, whoever spots the camel can call their owner on their mobile number and tell him the location of the animal.

Pakistani society is changing but some of the most significant impacts on it — in terms of access to information, facilitation of businesses and how we interact with each other — are taking place imperceptibly because of ubiquitous cellular technology

The phone memory very much reflects our own memory. We use it to record moments, make reminders or set alarms, access information from the internet and basically store all kinds of personal details, leaving a digital footprint automatically. How are we navigating our daily lives, connecting with our surroundings, as consumers and citizens equipped with the mobile phone?


Sultana Khan and her mother come from different generations but share something in common: getting married through a ‘rishta aunty’ (matchmaker). But while her mother only saw the picture of the groom-to-be, Sultana was blessed with a conversation over WhatsApp.

“The prospective groom was based in Saudi Arabia, working as a manager at a clothing store,” says Sultana, herself an employee at a fast food restaurant in Karachi. “It was like any other arranged marriage. The prospective in-laws came over, along with the ‘rishta aunty’. It was assumed as a done deal but I hadn’t seen or spoken to the man that I was supposed to marry. And so, we dialed his WhatsApp number on the ‘rishta aunty’s’ phone and had a video chat there.”

Notwithstanding the awkwardness of having to have a somewhat intimate conversation in front of absolute strangers, Sultana thanks her lucky stars that she spoke to the man.

“It took me all of two minutes to realise this wasn’t the right match,” she says. “He wouldn’t even look me in the eye while talking. It was as if he had something more important to tend to.”

Body language, facial expressions and quality of conversation is what was crucial to Sultana’s decision, something that could not have been ascertained through a photograph. It’s a luxury that her mother, Zeenat Khan, did not have. After all, Zeenat got married even before the age of chat rooms and MSN or Yahoo chat.

Komal Karim, a rishta aunty based in Lahore, says that younger women in this day and age aren’t making decisions purely on a photograph or two. “I have an album of clients but business has become quicker because two or three stages of match making can now be accelerated,” she says. “If someone likes a woman or a man, we can schedule a WhatsApp conversation there and then. There is no hassle of waiting for a few days for various people’s schedules to align. Now, it is simply a WhatsApp call and we are done.”

A driving force behind managing her business is the employment of women who have talent but are house-bound. “The phone has facilitated us living in such an area where women are not allowed to leave their houses.

But in this little story is a tale of our times: things that were done in 2D are now done in 3D. Static images have been replaced with live conversations. Rishta aunties now have a better product to sell while those looking for relationships can evaluate the basics before jumping into the more serious aspects.


The chador and the chaar divari [confines of the home] has traditionally been used to keep women trapped inside homes. But even beyond this notion, many times, even highly-educated women are faced with the choice of continuing with their careers or raise a family. Not many have been able to do both until recently.

Mehreen Kashif from Larkana, for example, manages a business of hand-embroidered apparel and bed linen without leaving her home. It has been four years since she launched her work-from-home enterprise through a Facebook page and then contacting clients through WhatsApp.

“Women are not allowed to leave home here,” she explains. Owning a mobile phone has been a game-changer, though, as she has been able to expand her business over only four years and that, too, countrywide. Most of her clients are from Punjab, where she also orders fabric from. She has it shipped from Al Karam textile mills in Faisalabad. She simply puts up new designs and items on her WhatsApp status and the orders from her phone contacts pour in. She estimates about 4,000 repeat customers but also claims that they are “unlimited” and “it is almost getting hard to keep up with the orders.”

Mehreen caters to customised orders as well. She has 30 women working for her, and has provided two of them with mobile phones as, “it is easier to share pictures of the designs they work with.” Her effort is to seek out embroiderers with skill but also those who are truly in need of money. And this is a driving force behind managing her business; the ability to employ women who have talent but are house-bound under the dictates of rural traditions.

“They just come to my house for work,” she says of her employees. “The phone has facilitated us living in such an area where women are not allowed to leave their houses. It has helped me because I also do not have permission to go out.”

Everything that one can possibly need is now in the palm of your hand
Everything that one can possibly need is now in the palm of your hand

A similar story is echoed by Salma Ilyas, who runs a kitchen business in Karachi to provide home-cooked meals to “a young professional class”. Mother to four young ones, her husband owned a small business of selling paper. One fine day, the business got wrapped up as the owner of the building housing the paper shop decided to remove all businessmen from the building. With no backup plan, with no storage space for the bundles of paper already bought in wholesale, the Ilyases were in trouble.

“One day, I just cooked achaar gosht and put up pictures on my Facebook wall,” narrates Salma. “People started liking the photos and asked how much for a plate. That sparked an idea to sell what I cook. That week I made almost as much as my husband would make every week in his paper business.”

Things suddenly changed financially for the Ilyases as Salma dragged the family out of its quagmire. With some savings, she upgraded her cooking range, bought better utensils, and went full-time. Her husband now receives orders on WhatsApp and handles the food delivery component of the business. The paper from the old business was sold onwards to someone else. And as Salma puts it, her marriage and domestic harmony seems to be at an all-time high because of WhatsApp.

What is interesting is how travel and restaurant deliveries — 31 percent and 24 percent consumers respectively purchasing within the category — are driving the growth for the evolving mobile industry in Pakistan.”

As with the Ilyases, the mobile phone has brought together the service provider and client, almost eliminating the middleman entirely. Business cards used to be a thing of yesteryear, now it’s the WhatsApp number. The service provider, such as an electrician, a cook, or a car mechanic, gives their mobile number to clients along with a fair bit of reliability. As clients have a mobile number of the electrician or AC repairman, they can catch a hold of him pretty much anytime during working hours. In other words, phones have broadened opportunities for recreation and business alike.

This quick access has changed the entire process of seeking labour of any kind.

One such example is from a woman working with far-flung communities for the preservation of heritage and culture. For her, the phone is a crucial tool of communication as she liaises with the provincial government, donors, development organisations and a community ensconced in the high-altitude mountains of northern Pakistan.

“The Kalasha people use WhatsApp frequently to share pictures and videos and they now also exclusively use the WhatsApp call feature because it’s free.” Not responding to calls or messages is considered offensive to them, she observes. “The phone is vital to this job but it is also quite overwhelming to not be able to disconnect during the weekdays for a second. My downtime from technology, if I ever get any, comes with a heavy price of alienating my stakeholders.”


Providing a private space for accessing information and communicating with others has had a life-altering impact for individuals and groups. Writer and activist Sadia Khatri reiterates: “Since we live in a society where women’s movements are curtailed and controlled, the cell phone becomes an important tool of agency. Without physically having to go anywhere, without worrying about what we are wearing, we can participate and access all kinds of conversations. WhatsApp groups become excellent support systems, apps provide a way to engage with whatever is happening in the world.”

Purchasing a smartphone is often a fairly expensive undertaking and many spend  on buying a phone protector | White Star
Purchasing a smartphone is often a fairly expensive undertaking and many spend on buying a phone protector | White Star

In many ways, it is a form of communication with the outside world that is freeing or liberating particularly for women.

“The cell phone allows us to move as and when we want, without worrying about [how society will view us], it affords us some modicum of privacy,” Khatri says. “For women specifically, it allows us to have a life outside of what is prescribed to us from our families. We can take all sorts of selfies and share them with our friends; we can access porn sites and learn more about sexuality without censorship; we can roam the internet without any filters.”

Khatri says most of the WhatsApp groups she is part of or creates are used for “discussing politics and planning our various campaigns and events,.” But every now and then, barriers are broken and these chat groups turn into “spaces of support”.

“A while ago, I was helping someone find a place where they could get a safe abortion in Karachi. It’s not exactly the kind of question you can put up on your Facebook timeline. I reached out to all these feminist groups I was a part of on WhatsApp, and they assisted immediately and helped us find some options,” she shares.

The revolution has been absolute for those who are connected to the internet via the phone. Human rights activist Jibran Nasir says: “The phone has revolutionised everything from economy to politics. Distance is not a matter to be considered anymore.” For example, he says, “If you want to raise funds for Thar, just create a Facebook event page while sitting in your home.”

“Our entire sense of community has changed. We would first meet friends in clubs, or in college or parks or events. Now we meet them on SWOT, Soul Sisters, #WeveHadEnough [Facebook groups]’”

Low-priced Chinese products have been flooding the market to provide cheaper solutions to consumers
Low-priced Chinese products have been flooding the market to provide cheaper solutions to consumers

With access to social media at the tip of your fingers, the phone is a smoking gun in the hands of ordinary citizens, the eyes and ears that records things beyond the ken of the law or the media.

“Mobile phones have connected us to places where mainstream does not have presence or is heavily censored,” stresses Usama Khilji, director of digital rights organisation Bolo Bhi. “Activists from peripheral areas where state censorship is heavily enforced have been able to share photos and videos of human rights abuse that urban activists with clout have been able to disseminate further.”

“Mobile phones are an effective weapon that citizens now have to report on events that are ignored or not accessible to mainstream media. Citizen journalism through mobile phones makes it possible for anyone to document human rights abuses and share them instantly with the world, with many instances of such evidence going viral and inciting swift action from those in government owing to the pressure,” he says.

The power of such technology, naturally, comes with the capacity to be misused. Hence, mobile users suffer the safety measure of citywide shutdown of mobile network services on occasions where a large gathering of people convenes to commemorate an event, such as processions during 9th and 10th Muharram. Although those the government wants to black out on mainstream media will use social media.

“Upon the arrest of TLP’s Khadim Rizvi,” Nasir points out, “Pir Afzal Qadri’s [incendiary] speech was not aired on mainstream media but we all had it shared on our phones.”

Academic Mansoor Raza says he has seen a dynamic shift in political engagement among the masses after the phone. “People used to follow broader ideology of one political party,” he says. “Politics has now become issue-based more than ideology. People are inclined towards the larger human rights irrespective of party ideology. Facebook warriors crop up often over any issue under discussion and people express their outrage immediately on social media over any issue and communicate with each other through social media platforms.”


Once we were told not to underestimate the power of the pen. Now, that translates into the power of a simple SMS or tweet or meme. The bedrock of all these, however, remains internet connectivity.

Reliable internet connections and affordable data packages is how relatively isolated communities of the country can participate in the country’s small- and medium-sized business. While connectivity options are plenty in the larger cities of the country, cellular operators have been successful in selling the modern amenity in smaller cities and towns as well as to lower-income groups. With affordable talk-time packages, even basic cell phone users can stay in touch with employers, middlemen or families they leave behind for the sake of livelihood.

But perhaps more importantly, the mobile phone has changed the way we think, we consume information, our habits and our interactions, and even the relationships we build.

Quratulain Ibrahim, Managing Director for Pakistan, Nielsen, tells Eos that in the 2018 Nielsen Connected Commerce Report, which looks at consumers’ online purchasing habits, “82 percent of consumers who have access to the internet (in urban areas) have made a purchase online, up six percent compared to 2017.”

“What is even more interesting is how categories such as travel and restaurant deliveries — 31 percent and 24 percent consumers respectively purchasing within the category — are driving the growth for the evolving mobile industry in Pakistan,” says Ibrahim. “We have seen this in the case of a significant shift towards app usage for Careem, Uber, Foodpanda etc.”

This and innovation in financial technology such as Easy Paisa, Jazz Cash and the like, reinforce how internet reliability has improved over the years.

Foodpanda, in particular, is an interesting case. Describing itself as the leading food delivery app, Foodpanda generated one billion rupees in additional sales for the restaurant industry in 2017. Also, last year, Foodpanda app users increased by 40 percent. Customers no longer need to search for restaurant phone numbers and wait on hold in order to place their order. If your location is switched on, you don’t even need to type in your address each time you place an order.

This and innovation in financial technology such as Easy Paisa, Jazz Cash and the like, reinforce how internet reliability has improved over the years. And as a result, the rise of e-commerce in the past few years, enabled through internet and smartphone penetration (especially) in urban areas of Pakistan, has considerably facilitated the online sale/transaction within certain categories. This argument is given weight by internet penetration statistics: back in 2013, out of 30 million internet users in the country, about half (15 million) browsed the web through mobile phones, according to a report by, a mobile survey company.

The PTA’s latest telecom indicators show that out of 152 million cellular subscribers, 60 million use 3G/4G internet and 62 million are broadband subscribers (as of October 2018). The new cell phone subscribers are mostly young and live in urban areas, they mainly use mobile internet for social media and video broadcasting.

The number of users for mobile data reportedly rose by an estimated 3.4 million data customers in the first quarter of this financial year, according to a report, showing a growing demand of data among the users throughout the country. Broadband internet penetration stands at 29.92 percent and 3G/4G internet penetration at 28.89 percent. There are three million basic telephone subscribers in Pakistan. But this year saw an increase of 1.42 million subscribers to cellular networks. In April 2018, according to PTA, social media users in Pakistan stood at 35 million, with a penetration of 18 percent at the end of January 2018.

Social media theorists warn, however, of the double-edged sword that is the world of the internet. In these fast-moving times, having information and options at the palm of your hands encourages convenience but has also resulted in our interactions, decisions and interpersonal relationships going digital, and perhaps as temporary and disposable in nature as Snapchat stories. For other segments of the population, such as those who migrate to urban centres in search of employment, a simple voice conversation mobile-to-mobile is still the most convenient method to stay in constant communication with their loved ones who live miles away. But undoubtedly, the winds have turned. Perhaps significantly, Pakistan’s smaller cities are changing as they get hooked to the internet. There is, of course, a digital divide in the country; 18 percent penetration of social media or 29 percent using 3G/4G still means that 82 percent don’t use social media and 71 percent don’t have 3G/4G. But, basic mobile users living in rural areas still witness a change even if they do not have internet connections and change reaches their communities at a slower pace than in the urban world. The digital divide is being narrowed, however slow that process might be. But ultimately, Pakistanis are finding newer ways to connect with society.

The writer is a member of staff.

Additional reporting by Ahmed Yusuf.
He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 2nd, 2018