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.