Despite the egalitarian principals of Islam, Pakistani culture has not been able to shake the influence of India and ancient Indian customs. Status, caste, and religion all play a big part in Pakistani life and society. Pakistan is a patriarchal society. Young people are taught to have respect and obey their fathers and elders.

Pakistan society is highly stratified. Pakistan has a tradition of feudalism, oppression, corruption and tribalism. The countryside is still largely controlled by wealthy landowners known as feudals, while the cities are more dynamic and offer more opportunities for social mobility. Lahore is considered the intellectual and cultural center of Pakistan. The Sindh is where the feudal landowners have the strongest power. The assassinated prime minister Benazir Bhutto came from a wealthy land-owning Sindhi family.

The military is one of the strongest institutions in Pakistan. It has traditionally controlled the government and been a vehicle for people of a poor background to advance although its officer core is dominated by those of elite or middle class background.

Pakistani society is ethnically diverse yet overwhelmingly Muslim. It is largely rural yet beset by the problems of hyperurbanization. It is a male-dominated society in which social development has lagged considerably behind economic change, as revealed by such critical indicators as sanitation, access to health care, and literacy, especially among females. Increasing population pressure on limited resources, together with this pattern of social and economic inequity, was causing increased disquietude within the society in the early 1990s. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]

Pakistani society is largely multilingual with high regard for traditional family values, although urban families have grown into a nuclear family system due to the socio-economic constraints imposed by the traditional joint family system. Recent decades have seen the emergence of a middle class in cities like Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Hyderabad, Faisalabad, Sukkur and Peshawar that wish to move in a more liberal direction, as opposed to the northwestern regions bordering Afghanistan that remain highly conservative and dominated by centuries-old regional tribal customs. Increasing globalization has increased the influence of "Western culture" with Pakistan ranking 46th on the Kearney/FP Globalization Index. [Source: Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. ]

Human Development Index 154 (rank out of 189 countries): (compared to 1 for Norway, 13 for the United States and 189 for Niger). The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income per capita indicators. A country scores higher HDI when the life expectancy at birth is longer, the education period is longer, and the income per capita is higher [Source: United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report, Wikipedia]

Diversity in Pakistan Society

There is immense regional diversity in Pakistan. Pashtuns, Baloch, Punjabis, and Sindhis are all Muslim, yet they have diverse cultural traditions and speak different languages. Ethnic, regional, and — above all — family loyalties figure far more prominently for the average individual than do national loyalties. Punjabis, the most numerous ethnic group, predominate in the central government and the military. Baloch, Pashtuns, and Sindhis find the Punjabi preponderance at odds with their own aspirations for provincial autonomy. Ethnic mixing within each province further complicates social and political relations. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Pakistan is a rich tapestry of ethnic groups, tribes and social groups who are mainly bound together by religion, although the way each groups goes about practicing Islam is as different as the groups themselves. The six major ethnic groups in Pakistan are the Punjabis (44.7 percent), Pashtuns, or Pathans (15.4 percent); Sindhi (14.1 percent); Saraiki (8.4 percent); Muhajirs or Muhajirs (7.6 percent); and Balochi, or Baloch (3.6 percent). Other groups (6.3 percent) include the Brahui (0.9 percent), Gujarati (0.6 percent. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

The Punjabis live primarily in the northeastern, central, eastern part of the country. The Sindhis live primarily in the Sindh in the southeast part of Pakistan. The Sindhis however are outnumbered in Karachi, a city they established, by Muhajirs (literally "refugees"). The Muhajirs are Urdu-speaking immigrants from India and their descendants. They live mostly in the cities and came to Pakistan during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and took over many of the administrative jobs previously held by Hindus.

The Pashtuns are tribal groups that also lives in Afghanistan. Pashtuns are known for their size, code of honor and strength. They have traditionally lived in the mountains in the northwest but now are are scattered in other parts of the country. The Pashtuns have long resisted advances by invaders and that has at times sought to establish an autonomous state within Pakistan.The Baloch have traditionally lived in the deserts of Balochistan of southwest Pakistan, which extend into Iran, and, like the Pashtuns, they are known for their fiercely independent ways. Baloch have also pressed for the creation of a state that would incorporate parts of Afghanistan and Iran.

Among the more interesting groups in the north are the Burusho (Hunzakuts, believed to be one of longest-living people in the world), the Kalash (who many believe are descendants of warriors of Alexander the Great) and the Baltis (a Muslim group that descended from Tibetans). There are also Kashmiris, Hazaras, Gojars, Kohistanis, Chitralis, and a dozen or so Dardic languages-speaking ethnic groups.

Divisions in Pakistan Society

Salman Masood wrote in the New York Times: “Pakistan is, in a sense, two countries. There is urban, and urbane, Pakistan, where Western mores are more accepted, although nudity would never be seen on television or scantily clad women on billboards. And then there is rural Pakistan, where Islam is generally practiced with more fervor.” [Source: Salman Masood, New York Times, January 3, 2007]

Often it seems like there is constant upheaval in Pakistan. Religion, ethnic group, education levels, income and party affiliation are all sources of division and conflict. [Source: Griff Witte, Washington Post, January 7, 2008]

According to “Governments of the World”: In Pakistan “perhaps the most significant cleavage is between urban and rural citizens. The quality of life in Pakistan is heavily correlated with the urban-rural divide: On every important dimension, urban citizens are better off than their rural counterparts. Urban residents are more likely to be literate, their children are more likely to be enrolled in school, and they are more likely to have access to safe drinking water and reliable electricity. The majority of Pakistan's middle class lives in urban areas, whereas a disproportionate number of its poor live in the countryside. This urban-rural difference presents a major challenge to the government in formulating and implementing development policies. For example, although overall literacy in Pakistan is 44 percent, this figure masks a disparity of approximately 26 percent between urban and rural residents. Similarly, the overall poverty rate is 33 percent, but a 10 percent difference exists between urban and rural poverty rates. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Islamic Versus Western Values in Pakistan

On an an article on the banning of Valentine’s Day in Pakistan, Pamela Constable wrote in Washington Post: “Pakistan, is becoming both more Western and more Islamic at the same time. As it moves into the Internet era and the global economy, the lines are being drawn more sharply. As more professionals in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi adopt Western dress and tastes, more members of the vast religious faithful are hewing to the anti-Western rhetoric of radical clerics. But the contradictions go much deeper than a debate over permissible public displays of love and affection, a sensitive topic in many majority-Muslim countries and a source of growing conflict in those with both deeply conservative religious traditions and modernizing urban populations. [Source: Pamela Constable, Washington Post, February 14, 2017]

“Pakistan is a country where love is often punished and hatred allowed to flourish. Its media is brimming with televised hate speech against secular liberals, and its family life is often poisoned by “honor killings” of young women who elope with their sweethearts or try to resist forced marriages.

“It is a war between the historical, tolerant South Asian version of Islam and the harsher, Middle Eastern schools that have been imported in recent years. It is a war between modern international norms and rights, and ancient tribal mores of patriarchy, honor and revenge. It is a war between weak political institutions that fail to serve or protect the poor, and strong religious emotions that can easily escalate into violence.

“When it comes to love and marriage, mainstream Pakistani society remains deeply traditional. Even among the well-to-do, most marriages are still arranged between families to some degree, and dowry demands are often exorbitant. Western-style dating is not common, and young people rarely live alone between leaving home and getting married. In poorer and more rural regions, especially where tribal custom holds sway, girls and young women who run off with their boyfriends or who resist arranged marriages — some betrothed to much older men, others bartered in compensation for disputes — are often attacked and killed by their own relatives for having dishonored their families.

“In comparison, the dispute over Valentine’s Day might seem silly to outsiders, and some secular leaders scoffed at the court ruling. One of Pakistan’s leading human rights activists, Asma Jahangir, commented that the judge who banned the romantic holiday “should be the prayer leader in a mosque.” But as many Pakistani commentators have said, their society urgently needs to find a middle ground between punitive and permissive versions of Islam, between abusive and licentious notions of romantic relations, between self-defeating hostility toward the Western world and slavish emulation of it. Finding an acceptable way to observe the international day of love might not be a bad place to start, they say.

Inequality and Income Disparity in Pakistan Society

Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has enjoyed a robust and expanding economy — the average per capita income in the mid-1990s approached the transition line separating low-income from middle-income countries — but wealth is poorly distributed. A middle-class is emerging, but a narrow stratum of elite families maintains extremely disproportionate control over the nation's wealth, and almost one-third of all Pakistanis live in poverty. Family or personal interest and status take precedence over public good in Pakistan. Thus traffic laws are often enforced solely according to a person's political clout rather than due process, and admission to school depends more upon connections or wealth than on ability. Salaries, as compared with bribes, are so inconsequential a privilege of employment that people sometimes plead to be given appointments without pay. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]

About third of the population of Pakistan lives below the poverty line (29.5 percent in 2013). The lowest 10 percent of the population has a share of only 4.1 percent of Pakistan’s wealth. In Karachi ten percent of the population is considered to be wealthy, 25 percent medium and the rest "hand to mouth." [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002; Library of Congress 1994]

Income Inequality: 1) World Bank R/P 10 percent: 6.5 (The ratio of the average income of the richest 10% to the poorest 10%.); 20 percent: 4.8 (The ratio of the average income of the richest 20% to the poorest 20%). 2) World Bank Gini Index: 33.5 (2015) (a quantified representation of a nation's Lorenz curve. A Gini index of 0 percent expresses perfect equality, while index of 100 percent expresses maximal inequality). 3) CIA R/P 10 percent: 6.6 (2002) (The ratio of the average income of the richest 10% to the poorest 10%); 4) CIA Gini Index: 29.6 (2011). [Source: United Nations Development Programme, World Bank, CIA World Factbook, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

“Distribution of Income or Consumption by Percentage Share: Pakistan: Lowest 10 percent 4.1; Lowest 20 percent 9.5; Second 20 percent 12.9; Third 20 percent 16.0; Fourth 20 percent 20.5; Highest 20 percent 41.1; Highest 10 percent 27.6; Survey year: 1996-97 [Source: Source: 2000 World Development Indicators]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: In the overall household income and consumption, the richest 10 percent of the population has a share of 27.6 percent. There is a compelling need for a clear strategy focusing on reviving and sustaining high economic growth in a stable macroeconomic environment that includes the provision of quality basic social services — particularly education, health, and drinking water — and an efficient and responsive social safety net program for the very poor. Low inflation in the prices of food and other mass consumption goods are also very important for the welfare of the poor. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002;

“Pakistan's human development indicators, especially those for women, fall significantly below those of countries with comparable levels of per-capita income. Only 40 percent of the population is literate (28 percent of women), compared with 49 percent in South Asia and 53 percent in low-income countries. About two-fifths of the population has no access to safe drinking water, and more than half has no access to sanitation. The infant mortality rate of 88 per 1,000 live births is higher than the average of 73 in South Asian countries and 83 for low-income countries. Pakistan's population growth rate of 2.6 percent remains among the highest in the world and frustrates efforts to increase the coverage of social services.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: There have been and continue to be a number of social development shortcomings in Pakistan, but in recognition of them, the government in 1992–1993 initiated the Social Action Program (SAP) to make social development and social services available to all levels of the Pakistanis. Reports show that while some had benefited, the rural people who were meant to benefit mostly did not. Some of the program's expenditures were for elementary education, primary health, welfare, and rural water supply and sanitation. It is believed that many people do not understand the purpose and scope of the SAP and that substantial changes must be made in the program if it is to be successful. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

To make further progress in the social sectors, the second phase of the SAP was initiated in 1997-98. A key part of the poverty reduction strategy is the provision of adequate basic social services — particularly elementary education and basic health services — to a much higher proportion of the poor. Only through better education and improved health can the life-long earning capacity of the poor be enhanced.

Failure of Pakistan to Create the Society Intended at Its Birth

Pamela Constable wrote in Washington Post: “Although Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a tolerant Muslim democracy where all citizens are free to worship as they wish, its citizens are often victimized by violent sectarian groups who torch or lynch religious minority members, and by terrorists from radical Islamist groups that randomly slaughter fellow Muslims.” In February 2107 in Lahore, a suicide bomber “detonated explosives amid a peaceful protest rally by pharmacists outside the provincial parliament. People screamed and tried to flee. Bloody limbs and clothing were strewn across the scene. By evening, 13 people were confirmed dead and more than 80 wounded, almost all probably” Muslims. “An Islamist militia, allied with the Islamic State, asserted responsibility for the blast and warned that more attacks would follow against “apostate” government agencies, including the police.” [Source: Pamela Constable, Washington Post, February 14, 2017]

Pakistan was created in 1947, as a homeland for Muslims in South Asia, and about 97 percent of Pakistanis are Muslim. The founders of Pakistan hoped that religion would provide a coherent focus for national identity, a focus that would supersede the country's considerable ethnic and linguistic variations. Although this aspiration has not been completely fulfilled, Islam has been a pervasive presence in Pakistani society, and debate continues about its appropriate role in national civic life. During the 1990s, Islamic discourse has been less prominent in political controversy, but the role that Islamic law should play in the country's affairs and governance remains an important issue. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]

Expectations had been raised by the return of democracy to Pakistan in 1988 after the death of Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, by the continued economic expansion in the 1990s, and by some observable improvement in the volatile relations among ethnic groups that had so divided the country in years past. Also in the early 1990s, previously peripheralized social movements, particularly those concerning women and the environment, assumed a more central role in public life. As bilateral and multilateral development assistance has dwindled, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) committed to economic and social development have emerged and begun to take on important responsibilities. Nonetheless, the problems that confront Pakistan pose a significant threat to its cohesion and future.

Sociologists speak of a loss of a sense of social contract among Pakistanis that has adversely affected the country's infrastructure: the economy, the education system, the government bureaucracy, and even the arts. As population pressure increases, the failure of the populace to develop a sense of publicly committed citizenship becomes more and more significant. The self-centeredness about which educator Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi complained soon after independence is increasingly noticeable in many areas of social life. Although many people once imagined that economic development would by itself improve the quality of life, few any longer believe this to be true.

Failure to develop civic-minded citizenship is also evident in public administration and imbalanced government spending. For example, military expenditures vastly exceed combined expenditures on health and education. The bureaucracy, a legacy of the British colonial period, has not modernized sufficiently to incorporate new technologies and innovations despite efforts by the government staff colleges.

Material Culture in Pakistan

Household Consumption in Pakistan in PPP Terms (late 1990s): 1) All food: 45 percent compared to 13 percent in the U.S.: 2) Clothing and footwear: 7 percent compared to 9 percent in the U.S.; 3) Fuel and power 19 percent compared to 9 percent in the U.S.; 4) Health care: 6 percent compared to 4 percent in the U.S.); 5) Education: 5 percent compared to 6 percent in the U.S.: 6) Transport and Communications: 7 percent compared to 8 percent in the U.S.): and 7) Other 11 percent compared to 13 percent in the U.S.): [Source: World Bank. World Development Indicators 2000' Purchasing power parity (PPP) is a measurement of prices in different countries that uses the prices of specific goods to compare the absolute purchasing power of the countries' currencies]

Although in the mid-1980s the World Bank forecast the advancement of Pakistan to the ranks of middle-income countries, the nation had not quite achieved this transition in the mid-1990s. Many blame this fact on Pakistan's failure to make significant progress in human development despite consistently high rates of economic growth. The annual population growth rate, which hovered between 3.1 and 3.3 percent in the mid-1990s, threatens to precipitate increased social unrest as greater numbers of people scurry after diminishing resources. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]

An anonymous Pakistani writer has said that three things symbolized Pakistan's material culture in the 1990s: videocassette recorders (for playing Hindi films), locally manufactured Japanese Suzuki cars, and Kalashnikov rifles. Although the majority of the people still reside in villages, they increasingly take social cues from cities. Videocassette tapes can be rented in many small villages, where residents also watch Cable News Network (CNN) — censored through Islamabad — on televisions that are as numerous as radios were in the 1970s. The cities are more crowded than ever; parts of Karachi and Lahore are more densely populated even than Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. In many areas, tiny Suzuki automobiles have replaced the bicycles and motorcycles that were in great demand merely a decade earlier. Whereas urban violence was traditionally related to blood feuds, it has become more random and has escalated dramatically.

Living with Violence in Pakistan

Fatima Bhutto wrote a novel, “The Shadow of the Crescent Moon” about the discrimination women experience in Pakistan and the pervasive violence there. She wrote in The Times: “My novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, was born out of the notion of this pervasive violence and how it has disturbed the lives and imaginations of young Pakistanis. When I began writing, I thought I was telling the story of three brothers who set out towards the mosque for Friday prayers separately, they cannot go together. It’s too dangerous, too violent and they do not want to take the chance of the family being together in case the mosque is attacked. But like real life, somewhere in the process, two women characters took over. No one suffers Pakistan’s violence and alienation more than the country’s youth, especially its women. And it is ordinary women, and the trials they must suffer and struggle through, that are the heart of my novel. [Source: Fatima Bhutto, The Times, December 2, 2013]

“It has not always been like this. There have been moments when young people here lived perfectly ordinary, banal lives. Those who can shut off the poverty and the violence and cordon their life off from the rest of the country still do. But whoever you are, there’s no doubt that life has changed immeasurably. Pakistan is, after all, in the crosshairs of the War on Terror. Since 2004 America has launched 380 drone strikes against Pakistan, our cities are plagued by countless suicide attacks and there are quasi civil wars being fought across the northern frontiers. Karachi, where I live, has 12-hour electricity outages, water shortages, gas shortages. YouTube has been blocked by the State for the past 14 months, on account of “un-Islamic content” — this is in a country where more than two thirds of the population are under 30 (I’m 31).

“To live in a country haunted by fear and violence poisons one’s imagination, as the Sri Lankan novelist Romesh Gunesekera would say. You learn how to distinguish between gunfire — Kalashnikovs fired into the midnight sky to celebrate a wedding or a birth have a different melody to machinegun bursts meant to kill. Rubble, dirt and debris scattered along the city are no longer symptoms of a lazy and inefficient Government, they can only be the remnants of terrible destruction. The mind cannot process data any differently. “Look! A bomb went off here!” a friend screamed one day, pointing at routine roadworks on Shahrah-e-Faisal [a main road in Karachi]. He did not believe me when I told him otherwise.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (, Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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