IS Pakistan in the middle of a moral crisis? Is cultural breakdown afflicting all aspects of social life? Have Pakistanis, as a collective entity, moved away from their roots? If public statements and actions are anything to go by, these are pressing questions occupying the mind of the prime minister since he stepped into office in 2018.
The latest step to stem the tide of this proclaimed moral decay is the establishment of a religious authority, designated as a gift to the young people of Pakistan. Its job, from what little reporting exists on it, is to catalyse research on Islam in universities, spread religious and culturally appropriate moral messages to a domestic audience, and present the real face of Islam to the outside world. Whether this takes shape or not remains to be seen; what also remains to be seen is the actual ordinance the president promulgated this past week.
Leaving aside the wholesale equivalence drawn between Pakistani culture and Islam, and the general ignorance of doctrinal and ritualistic differences that dot this society, one can still assess important aspects that the PM draws on to declare a state of moral decay. In repeated interviews, the PM mentions rising divorce rates, breakdown of the family system, and spread and consumption of fahaashi in entertainment and elsewhere. It is worth evaluating whether such cultural shifts are new and sudden, happening at a scale large enough to have impact, unilateral/linear in their direction.
The PM and others perhaps see decay through the growth of entertainment and fashion industries.
Divorce rates are the easiest to measure, with the availability of fresh census data. The story there is not quite as pervasive as the scale at which moral panic is being generated. In 20 years, the divorce rate among population aged 15 and above has gone up from 0.34 per cent to 0.40pc. The change seems even more nominal if one factors in improved reporting, greater awareness about Islamic marital rights, and better data coverage that has likely taken place in the interim period. Given the time frame and the extremely low baseline, this change hardly comes across as one indicating the death of marriage as a social institution.
What is also interesting to note is that the rate of marriage has also increased during this time period (1998-2017) from 63.7pc to 64.9pc among Pakistanis above the age of 15. If the people of Pakistan are marginally more likely to get divorced these days, they are also marginally more likely to get married as well. The latter is a more worthwhile indicator of large-scale cultural behaviour, as marriage rate decline is usually associated with the historical evolution of Western societies. From these two data points, at least, it doesn’t seem Pakistan is even remotely on that trajectory.
The second statistic frequently mentioned is the breakdown of the family system. We have no way of knowing whether sons and daughters talk back to their parents or fight with them at ever higher rates, or whether they’re getting married without parental consent. The census, unfortunately, does not record such data. What we do have though is average household size and composition, which is a reasonably good measure of who all are cohabiting in one residence and sharing household finances.
Since 1998, average household size has decreased from 6.8 persons to 6.4 persons per household. This reduction of 5pc over 20 years has taken place alongside declining fertility rates that are associated with economic growth, and alongside expanding urbanisation and intra-household migration. Once these factors are taken into account, there is likely nothing left behind that needs to be explained by supposed cultural shifts of children leaving parents or kicking out grandparents or any such drastic act that conservative minds in South Asia usually associate with Western immorality.
Finally, the third variable of moral decay is the spread of sexualised immorality through entertainment consumption and other associated avenues. This remains the hardest to measure, given its intangibility. Given their average age, the PM and others engaged in spreading moral panic likely see decay through the growth and proliferation of private entertainment media and the rise of a fashion industry, as well as the associated change in dressing and consumption patterns among some segments (usually women).
Such indicators are a good example of selective assessment based on prior notions. For every example of ‘fahaashi’ that some may draw on, one can find at least two more of increased religiosity and conservative cultural consumption.
Since the early 2000s, if Pakistan has seen growth in various fashion and entertainment segments, it has also witnessed the concurrent rise of regressive themes in television dramas; the growth of religious televangelism in private media; the spread of conservative, spiritual movements such as Dawat-i-Islami, Tableeghi Jamaat and Al Huda; and the associated increase in consumption of religious commodities. This is well documented in anthropologist Ammara Maqsood’s excellent book on Pakistan’s middle class where she shows how Quranic study circles have proliferated in urban centres and how upwardly mobile men and women are likely to consume products associated with religious piety (in dressing, entertainment and other acts of leisure).
If we take the unintelligent conflation of Pakistani culture solely with religion as true, there is mounting evidence that society has actually gone closer to such supposed roots than drifting away from it. On top of this, for the past two decades, the country has been in the midst of a large-scale Barelvi as well as Deobandi revival, with ever more violence around the blasphemy law, and associated suppression of minority rights in its name. And perhaps this is precisely the problem that requires the state’s attention and resources, which currently are being devoted to countering problems that don’t actually exist.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2021