Society and Norms: Gender Roles - Overview

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There is a wide range of standards accepted for female behavior, as well as differences in male attitudes toward the correct treatment of women. Differences arise between tribal and ethnic practices, many of which are alien to the spirit of Islam. Further, the dictates of Islam are subject to diverse interpretation among reformists, traditionalists and ultraconservatives. Debates between these groups can be highly volatile. Westerners who try to urge Pakistani women to assert their rights are likely to simply confuse or frighten the women. Moreover, the men in the community will very likely take such urgings as an insult to their honor and will withdraw their cooperation. Finally, secular practice which allows for more flexible gender roles also comes into conflict with Islamic and ethnic ideologies.

In tribal Pashtun areas the concept of Purdah [PUR-dah] (meaning veiled or behind the curtain) is historically practiced. Purdah establishes and represents the physical boundaries between men and women. Ultimately, it manifests as female seclusion -- considered necessary for the protection of the woman's and her family's honor. Purdah can range from separate rooms for living and entertaining in the home to wearing a burka or chadri [chad-REE] (the garment covering the body from head to toe which women wear when in public). Contrary to the assumptions of many Western people, some Pakistani and Muslim women prefer to be covered in public. It affords anonymity, gives comfort, allows for modesty, and precludes social judgments like: How is one dressed? Is one wealthy? etc. Unlike Pashtun populations, the majority of Pakistan does not adhere to the concept of Purdah. However, the majority of the population does support the idea of separate spheres of interaction for men and women.

In reality, part of a family's social position and honor depends on the public behavior of its female members. Publicly stepping outside of prescribed societal norms results in moral condemnation and social exclusion thereby placing a burden on both men and women to conform. Under these circumstances, gender roles generally follow defined paths. Male roles reside in family economic welfare, politics, and relationships with outsiders. Within the family they are expected to be disciplinarians and providers for aged parents. Female roles stress motherhood, child rearing and family nurturing. Even among professional career women, family responsibilities remain a top priority.

None dispute the centrality of women in Islamic societies. Respect for women is a notable characteristic and few wish to destroy this esteemed status, nor deny what Islam commands or Pakistani culture values. The debate rages over precisely what constitutes honorable behavior for women in terms of modern realities, especially when women are needed to work outside the home to provide additional income.

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