Pakistan: A Society in Flux

Published in Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan on 13 June 2001

Teenage solid waste managers pedaling bikes, ferrying collected stuff in satchels. Neatly dressed executives driving air-conditioned Honda Civic. Green-turbaned, bearded, lanky young men, walking towards seminaries. Common womenfolk attired in shalwar qameez and duppata on their way to market, offices, educational institutions. Small traders talking on mobiles, steering Suzuki pick-ups. Young boys chatting at cyber cafes. Girls in designer’s jeans strolling in select areas. Women with hijab congregating at home or in five star hotels for dars. These are but few outer manifestations of lifestyles of contemporary Pakistani society, to be exact, contemporary urban Pakistani society.

Lifestyle is the way we live, as individuals, as groups. Lifestyle is not just how we dress, what we eat, how we interact with family, friends, and with community at large. Lifestyle is the way we think, the way we hold our world view, nurture our values, the way we are driven by desires and by dreams. Variety, heterogeneity, conflict and change characterize the mosaic of contemporary Pakistani society at this particular point in time. A complex interplay of global, social, economic and politico-historical forces determine the changing lifestyles of a society. Among the central forces at work in contemporary Pakistani society urbanization, liberalization of economy and globalization are most prominent: the catalystic agent of change is information and communication technology.

Social organisations—or the way a community is organised—are historically explained in terms of logical constructs of rural and urban, based on the division of labour and the modes of production. Rural is the way of life where ties were based on kinship. In contrast, urban society is based on common economic, political and other interests. In real life, social transformation is much more a complex phenomenon and cannot be totally explained in terms of simple constructs of rural and urban. In contemporary Pakistani society where the pace of social change is momentous, urbanism is no more territorially limited to certain geographical areas. Lifestyles of small and big towns, of ribbons areas along highways and of the villages located within a radius of 15 to 20 kilometers from highways, are changing in response to the changing market forces and the emerging social values.

Social Structures and Values

Traditional structures and strictures that in the past supported and guided the individual’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour are disintegrating, being replaced by new forms of structures and guiding principles. The 1998 census indicate that the number of nuclear families has increased in the last two decades. Though the prevalent form of nuclear family still includes paternal parents, the structure where married brothers lived under one roof and ate from a single kitchen is almost a relic of the past in urban scenario. The kinship ties and tribal bonds have weakened. Social interaction among, and influence of, extended family members have declined considerably.

The key element of detribalization is literacy. The most important determinant of changing values is the immense demand for education for both girls and boys, particularly in urban areas. According to 1998 census, the literacy rate in Karachi in the age group 10 to 14 is 74.71 per cent for males and 74.14 for females. In a society where for decades female literacy has remained abysmally low, the closing gender gap in education is indicative of a brewing social revolution.

Another related change is the increasing demand for vocational education. Awareness of the need for purposeful education has increased, cutting across strata. While in upper and upper-middle classes there is a rush to acquire professional degrees, local or foreign, in business administration, computer sciences, medicine, engineering, middle and lower strata families do their utmost to get their offspring acquire technical or information technology related skills from computer centers and vocational institutes that have mushroomed all over.

The increasing value of education and technical expertise has changed the dynamics of social mobility. Previously, it was political, bureaucratic, family or clan connections—or ‘source’, in common parlance—that was the top vehicle of social mobility. It still works, in the (greatly shrunk) government sector, and to some extent in multi-national corporate sector, but its rank has slid behind that to the demand for expertise, especially in the larger formal and informal service sectors, and particularly in IT-related service sector.

Gender Relations

Though Pakistani society is still very much a male-dominated, patriarchal society, the traditional man-woman relations are under tremendous strain as the sphere of public domain, accessible to women, is expanding and the private domain—where women have been traditionally relegated—is shrinking in size (from clan to extended family to nuclear family). Women’s increasing induction in the formal and informal sector labour force, out of economic compulsions, is gradually empowering them and changing their psychological composition across strata. The break from the traditional stereotypes is more pronounced in middle and lower-middle strata. Women are no more submissive, meek or without a voice of their own. Women are learning to assert themselves in both private and public domains. Women are acquiring their own worldview, a worldview shaped by the ideals of inherent justice and equity between the genders. Women are no more willing to compromise beyond a point in marital relationships. Hence the number of divorce is increasing in contemporary Pakistani society. Young women are questioning the traditions that they find demeaning and unjust. Educated young girls have come to scorn the traditional way of arranging marriages. They hate to parade before the potential suitor’s families.

However, the changing worldview of women is not being complemented by similar changes in the men’s worldview. Pakistani man, no matter how liberal he outwardly appears to be, deep down in his psyche, is still clung to the notions of male supremacy. Increasing disharmony in marital relations, the rising incidence of domestic violence and the violence against women, are indicative of this clash of worldviews between the genders.

Consumption Patterns

Liberalization of economy, with the induction of multi-national corporations in local economy, information technology and electronic media, has brought about a pronounced change in consumption patterns. Low-priced, South East Asian manufactured electronic gadgets and household items have changed the traditional kitchen and food processing practices. Western food chains—MacDonald, KFC, Pizza Hut—spread out in all districts in Karachi, has given a push to eating out as the sole ‘public entertainment’ for the masses in contemporary Pakistani society, in the absence of forums of artistic and cultural expressions (cinema, theatre, music) in the public domain.  In the private domain, however, the satellite dish, cable TV, VCR and internet have opened doors to a wide range of entertainment ranging from local, western and Indian soap operas, pop music, talk shows, quiz programmes. There is a growing interest in chatting online whereby entering your ASL (age, sex, location) and falsifying it–if need be–you can engage in exciting conversation with a Parisian girl or an Italian man.

The glut of information and the images of bold and glamorous foreign lifestyles and social values projected are making an impact on the psyche of the younger generation in an unprecedented way. This flooding of images is bringing in its tide all kinds of new notions, good, bad and ugly, and sweeping away good, bad and ugly old values. The younger generation has become bold, aggressive, straightforward and is becoming hedonistic, self-centered, unconcerned with familial and communal codes of conduct.

Conflicts and Contradictions

The socio-economic, global and political forces at work are increasing the class divide, accentuating the ideological gulf, widening the generation gap and drawing a wedge between male-female perspectives. Privatization, down-sizing of the public sector, increasing unemployment, flight of the capital and economic recession are some of the factors severely impacting the common household. Shrinking resources of the family stand in sharp contrast to the rising aspirations of the younger generation fed on images and dreams spewed out by the electronic and multi-media. The result is stress, increase in psychosomatic disorders and a growing suicide rate.

Contemporary society is strewn with contradictions. Inside every affluent area, there are pockets of katchi abadis with barefoot children playing in the dirt. Behind every commercial street with rows of shops loaded with alluring imported items, or lined with glass-paned, towering offices, are narrow lanes and labyrinthine alleys littered with dark and dinghy service kiosks and trade shops in the informal sector run by young men and boys.

Contrasting Ideologies

Most families have now members with contrasting ideological leanings. The emergence of religious groups, a process initiated as an offshoot of national and regional politics of the 1980s, has gained momentum. There are religious groups of all shades and hues, followers of different religious personalities, sects and ideologies. There are different jihadi groups—for Afghanistan and Kashmir. Variation in ideologies can be gauged by different interpretations of purdah and status of women advocated by these groups. While some subscribe to a headscarf and allow mobility in the public domain to women, others advocate abaayah and restricted mobility. A few rigidly prescribe total veiling of the female body—with gloves and socks a must, and no movement at all in the public domain without a male mahram escort!

It is not uncommon in the families to have one son belonging to a jihadi group, the other to Tableeghi Jamaat, the third son aspiring to join a music band, a daughter without veil and working, another daughter married to an irreverently secular man, the mother observing some form of purdah and the father going about his business for the last 50 years or so! But the second generation nuclear families, that is, couples in their 30s or 40s, do not face such variations. For one thing, their family size is small, restricted to at most three or four kids. And if the children are learning to memorize the Quran in a madressah, then all the children attend madressah, irrespective of sex or age or inclination!

This lifestyle contrasts vividly with those families whose religiosity has remained within traditional, normal range and who have given their second and third generation the space, willingly or unwillingly, to adapt to changing times and modern realities. If you happen to drop by at McDonald or KFC, you will find these food joints – in middle-class areas (districts central and east in Karachi) – thronged by young students, courting as couples, at lunch time. (Upper class youngsters have other venues, often private, for courtship).

Role of the State

The most glaring – and the most damaging to the fabric of society – are the contradictions between the micro and the macro levels, between the individual and the community, between society and the state. There is more tolerance for differing ideologies and varying lifestyles at the individual and the family level. However, intolerance at the community level and at the state level is increasing dangerously. As succinctly captured by Arif Hasan, well-known architect, development practitioner and social analyst, the “reality on the ground and a comparison between the two census figures (1981 and 1998)…tell us that we are definitely post-feudal society, but state culture promote irrationality, obscurantism and dogmatism.”

According to him, the contemporary society is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan but politics is still dominated by ethnicity and tribalism. In a recent paper that he presented at a symposium at the University of California, Berkeley, Arif Hasan has analyzed the impact of global restructuring and liberalization on the informal sector and indicated a worsening of the “rich-poor divide leading to violence and crime”.

The state has obviously failed in its prime responsibility to facilitate evolution of social structures and mechanisms corresponding to the emerging socio-economic realities. Academic institutions, primarily sustained by the state in our society, have also failed in their responsibility to analyze the crumbling sociological structures and the emerging systems, and in facilitating and strengthening viable alternatives through research. No valuable sociological research has surfaced from the Pakistan universities and research institutes during the last turbulent decade of the 1990s. Even now, with a mine-field of socio-economic information available through the 1998 census, no analysis or research – with the exception of a few demographic studies – has come forth from the academia.

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