The family forms the foundation of society in Pakistan and encompasses a wide breadth of relationships. One’s extended relatives have great significance on a daily basis and a vast majority of Pakistanis live in multigenerational households whereby three, four or sometimes five generations reside together (including grandparents, uncles, siblings and cousins). Due to the low socioeconomic condition of most of Pakistan's population, family ties are essential for people to survive economically.
The concept of ‘wasta’ – relationship forming – becomes central to this family dynamic. People generally rely on their relatives more than anyone else for financial, social and employment opportunities (see ‘Interdependence and Wasta’ in the Core Concepts). Furthermore, considering how big the average household is, most of the income is spent on the upkeep of the family home. Generally, only the privileged elite classes or families who have migrated to cities have adopted the nuclear family setup. Even then, most people’s relatives live close to each other and rely on one another for financial support.
The family, being such an intricate and supportive network, is kept quite private to outsiders. Significant precautions are taken to keep all problems, financial matters and gossip away from public knowledge. This is done as a way to protect one’s family honour and avoid the reputation of the family being shamed (see ‘Honour (Izzat)’ in Core Concepts for further explanation on this).
Traditionally, Pakistani families are patriarchal and patrilineal. In this way, the senior male is the head of the household, followed by the senior female, and finally, the children. Individuals are associated with their father's family primarily and, upon marriage, a woman will move in with her husband's family and be considered one of them.
Men are generally the main source of income in households throughout Pakistan. According to Islamic custom, in the case that both a husband and wife are employed, the woman's income is considered to be rightfully her own and does not necessarily have to be spent on the upkeep of the home. In traditional homes, it is believed to be a man's sole responsibility to provide for his wife, children and any extended family who reside with them or live elsewhere. This will depend on the economic status of the family, but generally across Pakistan, men are expected to earn for the family while women look after the home and general well-being of the family.
Some families still practise the seclusion of women (purdah) by which females can only leave the domestic realm when veiled and accompanied by a man. This custom varies significantly between ethnicities and social backgrounds. For example, Balochis in the highlands generally observe purdah while urban middle-class Pakistanis appear to have stopped doing so.
However, women generally still occupy a subordinate status in Pakistani society. This is somewhat due to the fact that they carry greater expectations of social compliance and are sometimes seen as particularly vulnerable targets that need to be protected. Culturally, women are seen as being more liable to bring dishonour on a family. A mistake or an instance of loss of control by a woman is considered particularly shameful and can be sometimes interpreted as a failure of the patriarch of the family to protect her from doing so.
In some cases, an act of dishonour by a woman has had tragic consequences by which a male relative or community member has murdered her for bringing shame upon the family/group. While acceptance of this practice of ‘honour killing’ is rapidly diminishing in society, it reflects the challenges women face against the strong traditionalists. It still remains a somewhat easy excuse to blame a mistake or problem on a woman.
Ultimately, a woman’s independence and freedom to make choices for herself (i.e. to work, get an education, marry, divorce, bear children or not) varies significantly depending on the attitude of her husband or closest male relative. For example, traditional rural homes in areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab are generally more conservative regarding women’s public participation and social roles. Nevertheless, gender equality is progressing and becoming more widespread across many regions of Pakistan. While stratification between the genders is visible, the increase in education is playing a large role in changing this. Through the prevalence of education in urban areas, there is an increase in female employment, and it is more common to see both husband and wife heading the household. Many women are among the country's leading politicians and journalists.
Marriage and Dating
Casual dating is strongly disapproved of among the older generation of Pakistanis. There remains a lot of protectionism and paternalism surrounding women especially, and conservatism regarding their relationships. Some of the younger generation have more liberal understandings of relationships and begin dating during or after they finish their tertiary studies. However, the sight of two people from the opposite gender alone in public is likely to draw varying degrees of judgment. This may range from unspoken curiosity to ambivalence depending on where you are. As privacy is a rarity in the public areas of Pakistan, most people are likely to stare.
Many Pakistani marriages are arranged, brokered by the family elders. As nuclear family households are becoming more common in the urban areas of Pakistan, many young adults are now choosing whom they marry. However, even in these circumstances, it is often necessary to receive parents’ full approval and consent of their choice of partner. Marriages are considered to be the responsibility of the parents; they pay for the event itself to a large extent.
Generally, protection of the family and honour plays a key role in determining prospective partners. Potential wives/husbands are usually chosen from within the same socioeconomic bracket. Marriages are rarely approved between people of different socioeconomic tiers. Interethnic marriages are also not very common; however, they are sometimes approved if all other social standings of the families coincided.
Marriage is often considered to be a healthy way to expand the family ties among relatives. Therefore, it is very common to marry someone within the extended family, such as a cousin. These endogamous marriages are considered to be compatible and, because the larger extended family is implicated if they fail, the couple is usually strongly supported by relatives to ensure it doesn’t. Additionally, such marriages help keep family property consolidated.