To Be a Woman in Pakistan: Six Stories of Abuse, Shame, and Survival

Interviews with a handful of the country's 88 million women and girls

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Brides-to-be wait during a mass wedding ceremony in Karachi. Reuters

According to a 2011 poll of experts by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Poll, Pakistan is the third most dangerous country for women in the world. It cited the more than 1,000 women and girls murdered in "honor killings" every year and reported that 90 percent of Pakistani women suffer from domestic violence.

Westerners usually associate the plight of Pakistani women with religious oppression, but the reality is far more complicated. A certain mentality is deeply ingrained in strictly patriarchal societies like Pakistan. Poor and uneducated women must struggle daily for basic rights, recognition, and respect. They must live in a culture that defines them by the male figures in their lives, even though these women are often the breadwinners for their families.

Quietly, slowly, in piecemeal legal reforms, female empowerment is coming in Pakistan. You meet inspiring women daily here. Sympathetic employers sometimes give protection and assistance, as do other women who've fared better. NGOs and charitable organizations try to help empower women, but not all women take advantage of these resources. They fear their husbands, attracting unwanted attention, somehow hurting the honor of their families, or, often, they simply do not know that help exists. With female literacy at 36%, many women are too uneducated to know their rights.

A difficult irony for women in Pakistan is that, should a victim speak up about physical or sexual abuse, she is seen as having lost her and her family's dignity. Many rapes go unreported as the victim fears she will become worthless in Pakistani society. Often, women will turn to their employers; families they can trust. It's a typically unnoticed form of charity but one that can be crucial to their survival.

These are the stories of six poor, working women of different ages, backgrounds, and life experiences in the Pakistani city of Karachi, where I grew up and where I met them. In interviews, which I have translated, edited, and condensed below, they told me about their lives and struggles within a cycle of poverty and, often times, violence.

These women have consented to share the stories and photos so that the world might better understand the challenges they face. For their safety, I have not used their full names.

Ayesha, age 18


Every poor girl wishes for more education, for the opportunity to learn and go to school; for a childhood. But many of us are not that fortunate. The day my brother was born was bittersweet; I was no longer allowed to go to school. Due to the increased household responsibilities, my father told me that I must stay home and eventually begin to work.

On the night of his birth, while my whole family was celebrating, I went to my uncle's house to get more bread. I didn't know a young man was there. In the empty home, he took advantage of me; he did things that I didn't understand; he touched my chest. Before I could realize, there was a cloth over my mouth and I was being raped. I was having trouble walking back home; I felt faint and I had a headache. This happens a lot in villages. Young girls are raped, murdered, and buried. No one is able to trace them after their disappearance. If a woman is not chaste, she is unworthy of marriage. All he did is ask for forgiveness and they let him go as it was best to avoid having others find out what had happened. He didn't receive any punishment even though he ruined me. People may have forgotten what he did, but I never forgot. Now, he is married and living his life happily. I blame my own fate; I am just unlucky that this happened to me.

When I began working, I was afraid. I guess it was natural, I was only ten. I consider myself lucky though. In the homes where I worked, I was responsible taking care of the children; getting them ready, feeding them and playing with them. I used to have so much fun. I felt like I was a child among them. I was able to relive my own childhood. Soon, I became so used to working that I began feeling safer and happier at work than in my own home and village. Our village is full of intoxication and indecent and disrespectful men; men like my own father.

At the moment, we live in Karachi in a small home with one room and the floor is broken. Whenever I would visit my parents, either I would witness abusive arguments between them or something far more disturbing. Since I was young, my father had always beaten my mother shamelessly. My entire family is aware of my father's abuse; it is no secret. My mother is very obedient; she never says no to my father. She leaves home for work at 8 am and only returns at midnight. Even if she is tired, she does everything to make him happy; she runs our home and cooks whatever he wishes. All the men in our village beat their wives, it is a norm and women continue to let it happen. Maybe it is fear, maybe it is desperation, I never quite understood.

As sad as it may sound, part of me does not fear the physical abuse anymore. I fear much bigger things. As I grew older, my father changed. He began smoking, drinking, and maybe even using drugs with my income. He began sleeping next to me. In the middle of the night, he would touch me inappropriately and remove my clothes. Because I was afraid, I would act like I was sleeping and would turn the other way. After his first time sexually abusing me, every night I slept in my home in fear. I kept dreaming that my father is raping me. I get so scared. I have heard that if you don't share your dream with someone else, then it never happens. So I never shared what happened to me.

After these incidents, the only person I could turn to was my employer. She is aware of what happens in my home and I know I can trust her. In January, I feared I may have been pregnant, and she took care of all my medical expenses without letting anyone find out. Thankfully, I was not, but she was ready to take care of me if I was. A woman's reputation is so fragile in Pakistani society. I have requested for her not to let me go for vacation time, and to keep me in her home where I feel safe. Without judging me, she accepted me, and has given me a place in her home like a daughter; a place even my own parents could not give me.

Rehana, age 37

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My life is no different than that of any other woman living in poverty in Pakistan. My husband is abusive and I am the primary breadwinner. I am striving to get my children educated as they are my last hope. The only difference in my story is that I could have maybe had it all if one incident had not occurred in my life.

I grew up in a home where my parents were barely earning enough to support our family of 14. My father used to make medication boxes while my mother worked in homes as the help. We learned to survive on very little.

When I was about 14, I was engaged to Nasir. Being with him was the best time of my life. He was a kind man and earned a decent living. Even though we never really spent much time together, I felt like I loved him. I guess no one ever forgets their first love.

Then, one dreadful night before I got married, a few young men snuck into our home in the middle of the night, around 3 am. They tied up my parents and beat them. I was sleeping with my two sisters in the next room. As I was the eldest, they took me out of my bed and tied me up my legs. I knew they wanted to rape me. I explained that I would lose everything if something happened to me. I grabbed a knife and told them that I would kill myself if they continued. Finally, they decided to let me go. I was saved, but the damage was already done. When Nasir and his family heard the news, I was considered "used" and was no longer worthy of him. Just last night, six boys snuck in to a home and stole everything they could. When the parents resisted, they threatened to take the daughter with them. This is very common in our neighborhood. It is so easy for a young girl to lose her dignity and to stain her reputation because of uncontrollable circumstances.

When I turned 15, I married my husband, Fakhir, out of desperation. His mother asked for my hand in marriage as there was no one to cook in their home. I married for their convenience. I am Fakhir's second wife. He said he loves his first wife, Rukhsana, and has two children with her. I think he uses my salary to support her as well. Fakhir is unreliable, he goes to work sometimes, and takes the rest of my salary for gambling.

We fight over money all the time. I want to educate my children. My time to spend on myself is gone. Now I just earn for my children and our home. On pay day, if I do not give my husband my salary, he won't let me leave my home and he will beat me. However, I secretly keep the fees and rent because I don't trust what he would do with it. I am the primary breadwinner. When I had my last baby, she was only seven months old, and I had to get back to work. Even though doctors have told me to stop working because I have a worm in my stomach, I know I cannot rely on Fakhir. The medication I was prescribed costs 3000 rupees [$33 U.S.], so I cannot afford to treat myself either.

The domestic violence started two months after my marriage, and hasn't stopped even fourteen years later. Broken limbs, broken teeth and miscarriages became a routine for me. Why he beats me, I don't know. Maybe he sees me as an animal with no rights, or a punching bag for his frustrations. He surely does not see me as a living and breathing human being. Wherever I have worked, I have felt as though I have been treated like a person, not the way I am treated at my home. I realize that I deserve to be considered a human being.

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Zara Jamal is a Canadian writer studying at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

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