Do laws in Pakistan make women feel safe?

Despite historical laws being passed in Pakistan to protect the rights of women, nothing much has changed for them. They are still subjugated, face harassment, discrimination, and daily violence, writes Muhammad Abbas Khaskheli for South Asia Monitor

Muhammad Abbas Khaskheli Dec 07, 2020

The World Bank’s last year data shows that the ratio of the female population in Pakistan is 48.54 percent with an annual growth rate of 2.0 which is said to be one of the highest in South Asia. But for such a large women population, they prone to discrimination of all forms – from social, political to economic.

Since the inception of the country, a number of laws have been made/introduced to protect women’s rights but they are not implemented by the concerned authorities, and consequently, Pakistani women are still bearing the brunt of almost all social inequalities and restrictions in this postmodern era.  

Laws to protect women in Pakistan

Soon after independence in 1947, the first law that was passed was the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961. It had crucial segments like registration of marriages, according to Islamic Sharia, which addressed the core issues like divorce and Khula (a procedure through which a woman can divorce her husband in Islam), and guardianship/custody of children after divorce. The law aimed to provide due protection to Pakistani women as it made them legally entitled to seek justice in case of any harassment or violence, they face at the hands of their life partners.  

In 1961, another law was introduced which is known as West Pakistan Rules Under the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961. The law was actually a sequel of the Muslim Family Law Ordinance but during General Ayub Khan’s regime, Pakistan was administratively divided into East and West Pakistan government. Under this ordinance unmitigated polygamy was abolished, consent of the current wife was made mandatory for a second marriage, brakes were also placed on the practice of instant divorce where men could divorce women by saying, "I divorce you three times under Islamic tradition.

The Family Courts Act 1964 also dealt with the protection of women’s rights. It made it mandatory for men to bear the financial burden of the women they have divorced. It was the first time in the history of Pakistan that some noticeable changes occurred in the state’s justice and judicial system as the courts were divided into various parts and hence a separate court was set up to handle family matters. Then came the Dowry and Bridal Gifts Act 1976. 

The law is called a ‘forgotten law’ as it was never taken seriously by anyone. According to the law, no one is allowed to spend more than PKR 5,000 on marriage arrangements and seek a dowry of more than PKR 2,500. If any party fails to obey such a law, it would be bound on them to pay PKR 10,000 as a penalty and the involved people could also land in jail for six months. In other words, the law provided protection to the families of poor girls whose parents could not bear the cost of marriage and dowry demands.  

In the year 2004, a much-needed amendment was carried out in the Criminal Law Act (Amendment) 2004 in which one of the worst kind of social practice honor killing was brought into the ambit of the law. If anyone practices Karo-Kari (a term used in Pakistan to describe honour killing), they are punished under this law. In 2010, another amendment was introduced to this law with the government including harassment under its purview. Shockingly, there wasn’t any law that addressed such a serious issue in Pakistan before this law. Earlier, whenever a woman used to register an official complaint the police couldn’t take any action against the accused or provide safety and security to the woman from her harasser because there was no law for police to act on.

Two acts namely The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010 and The Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act 2010 shows that the government understood the seriousness of the matter and tried to bring in laws to protect women from violence.

According to the first Act, all workplaces where women work should form a committee comprising women members with a woman as head to oversee cases and complaints of harassment and take immediate action against the guilty person/persons. But still, more is needed to make women in Pakistan feel safe to work, especially for those working in the skill, agriculture, and other labour-intensive industries.

Another milestone was achieved in 2011 when two acts he Women Distress and Dentation Fund Act 2011 and Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act 2011 were passed. According to these laws, women cannot be discriminated against as unequal to men at any place. In case of any domestic, social, and financial need the same laws will provide needful assistance to women so that they can also get equal status and respect as men in society.

Commitment to gender equality

Despite historical laws being passed in Pakistan to protect the rights of women, nothing much has changed for them. They are still subjugated, face harassment, discrimination, and daily violence. Many non-governmental organizations have been working on women’s rights to create awareness. With Pakistan adopting a number of key international commitments to gender equality and women’s human rights, the government at least has taken serious steps to safeguard and protect women’s rights.

However, despite these commitments, Pakistan’s ranking for gender equality remains one of the lowest in the world. Women in Pakistan face discrimination as a result of conservative patriarchal society.  As per the Global Gender Gap Index report of 2020, Pakistan was ranked 151 out of the total 153 countries. A survey carried out by Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) ranked Pakistan as sixth most dangerous country for women. But women, of late, are finding their voice. Every year, Pakistani women have come out during Aurat March – that coincides with International Women’s Day on March 8 -  to talk about violence, abuse, rape, sexual harassment, forced marriages, honour killings, acid attacks, pay disparity, and inheritance rights among other issues.

Are women actually safe?

But the important question here is how many women in Pakistan felt safe or were protected by these laws that have been passed from time to time? Have the number of incidents of domestic violence and sexual abuse of women reduced? Have child marriages stopped? Are we ready to send our daughters to educational institutions? Are women safe to go out for work? Are they treated equally as men in society?

All these and many other questions related to women’s empowerment and rights cannot be easily answered. But it’s a reality too that the time to ask these questions has come and the next generation should take these up and act.

(The writer is a Pakistan-based columnist on environmental and social issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at

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