Families, extended families and clans have traditionally been very important. Individuals often identify themselves as members of these an other groups rather than as individuals.

Pakistani social life revolves around family and kin. Even among members of the most Westernized elite, family retains its overarching significance. The family is the basis of social organization, providing its members with both identity and protection. Rarely does an individual live apart from relatives; even male urban migrants usually live with relatives or friends of kin. Children live with their parents until marriage, and sons often stay with their parents after marriage, forming a joint family. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The household is the primary kinship unit. In its ideal, or extended, form, it includes a married couple, their sons, their sons' wives and children, and unmarried offspring. Sons establish separate households upon their father's death. Whether or not an extended household endures depends on the preferences of the individuals involved. Quarrels and divisiveness, particularly among the women (mother-in-law and daughters-in-law), can lead to the premature dissolution of a joint household. *

According to “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: “Relations within the family follow traditional Islamic values. The father is responsible for family's economic needs and for protecting the women in the family. The mother attends to domestic affairs and cares for the children. Sunni women observe purdah, or seclusion from males not part of their immediate kin.” [Source:“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices,” Thomson Gale, 2006]

Inheritance. Women have inheritance rights in Pakistan, so that inheritance benefits can go to women and children after the death of the husband and father. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Traditional Kinship Patterns

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: A Muslim marriage is seen as uniting the families of both the bride and groom, so the kin group is expanded after a marriage. In some tribes there can be neither a cross-cultural marriage nor a dual ethnic one, so therefore the kin groups are and basically remain identical ethnically and culturally. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Descent is reckoned patrilineally, so only those related through male ancestors are considered relatives. The biradari, or group of male kin (the patrilineage), plays a significant role in social relations. Its members neither hold movable property in common nor share earnings, but the honor or shame of individual members affects the general standing of the biradari within the community. A common proverb expresses this view: "One does not share the bread, but one shares the shame." [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In theory, members of a biradari are coresidents of a single village. In some areas, however, land fragmentation and generations of out-migration have led to the dispersal of many members of the biradari among various villages, regions, and cities. Patrilineal kin continue to maintain ties with their natal village and enjoy the legal right of first refusal in any biradari land sale.*

Members of a biradari celebrate the major life events together. Patrilineal kin are expected to contribute food and to help with guests in the ceremonies accompanying birth, marriage, death, and major religious holidays. The biradari has traditionally served as a combined mutual aid society and welfare agency, arranging loans to members, assisting in finding employment, and contributing to the dowries of poorer families.*

There is considerable pressure for patrilineal kin to maintain good relations with one another. Biradari members who quarrel will try to resolve their differences before major social occasions so that the patrilineage can present a united front to the village. People with sons and daughters of marriageable age keenly feel the necessity to maintain good relations because a person whose family is at odds with his or her biradari is considered a poor marriage prospect.*

Although descent is reckoned patrilineally, women maintain relations with their natal families throughout life. The degree of involvement with maternal kin varies among ethnic groups and among regions of the country. The tie between brother and sister is typically strong and affectionate; a woman looks to her brothers for support in case of divorce or widowhood early in her marriage. In those regions where families maintain considerable contact with maternal kin, children, even though they are members of their father's patrilineage, are indulged by their mother s kin. Just as a family's relations with its biradari are considered in evaluating a potential spouse, so in these regions may the mother's kin be assessed.

Wives and Mother-in-Laws in a Pakistani Family

A woman's life is difficult during the early years of marriage. A young bride has very little status in her husband s household; she is subservient to her mother-in-law and must negotiate relations with her sisters-in-law. Her situation is made easier if she has married a cousin and her mother-in-law is also her aunt. The proper performance of all the elaborate marriage ceremonies and the accompanying exchange of gifts also serve to enhance the new bride's status. Likewise, a rich dowry serves as a trousseau; the household goods, clothing, jewelry, and furniture included remain the property of the bride after she has married. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

A wife gains status and power as she bears sons. Sons will bring wives for her to supervise and provide for her in her old age. Daughters are a liability, to be given away in an expensive marriage with their virginity intact. Therefore, mothers favor their sons. In later life, the relationship between a mother and her son remains intimate, in all likelihood with the mother retaining far more influence over her son than his wife has. *

Often the mother-in-law (the mother of the husband) runs the house. In a story about family planning workers making visits to remote villages, Karin Brulliard wrote in the Washington Post: If a health educator stops by, the mother-in-law must first be approached, as Shahid experienced in Mirwah.“So what? I will take care of the children,” the mother-in-law, her arms covered in bangles, said when Shahid expressed concern that the daughter-in-law, still a teenager, was not using birth control. Husbands, mullahs, mothers-in-law — still prize many children, particularly boys. husbands and mothers-in-law, as well as the inability of many women to make decisions for themselves. “Our mothers, they are the deciding figures,” one man said. “Our wife? What does she know?” mother-in-law, a woman in ornate silver jewelry, who matter-of-factly stated that the newborn should be the first of at least eight children. [Source: Karin Brulliard, Washington Post, December 14, 2011]

Gender Relations in Pakistan

Gender relations in Pakistan rest on two basic perceptions: that women are subordinate to men, and that a man's honor resides in the actions of the women of his family. Thus, as in other orthodox Muslim societies, women are responsible for maintaining the family honor. To ensure that they do not dishonor their families, society limits women's mobility, places restrictions on their behavior and activities, and permits them only limited contact with the opposite sex. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Most of the people you see on the streets are men. As true in other Islamic societies, men are revered and seen as their heirs of family titles, property and legacies.

Space is allocated to and used differently by men and women. For their protection and respectability, women have traditionally been expected to live under the constraints of purdah (purdah is Persian for curtain), most obvious in veiling. By separating women from the activities of men, both physically and symbolically, purdah creates differentiated male and female spheres. Most women spend the major part of their lives physically within their homes and courtyards and go out only for serious and approved reasons. Outside the home, social life generally revolves around the activities of men. In most parts of the country, except perhaps in Islamabad, Karachi, and wealthier parts of a few other cities, people consider a woman — and her family — to be shameless if no restrictions are placed on her mobility.*

The traditional division of space between the sexes is perpetuated in the broadcast media. Women's subservience is consistently shown on television and in films. And, although popular television dramas raise controversial issues such as women working, seeking divorce, or even having a say in family politics, the programs often suggest that the woman who strays from traditional norms faces insurmountable problems and becomes alienated from her family. *


Purdah is practiced in various ways, depending on family tradition, region, class, and rural or urban residence, but nowhere do unrelated men and women mix freely. The most extreme restraints are found in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) and Balochistan, where women almost never leave their homes except when they marry and almost never meet unrelated men. They may not be allowed contact with male cousins on their mother's side, for these men are not classed as relatives in a strongly patrilineal society. Similarly, they have only very formal relations with those men they are allowed to meet, such as the father-in-law, paternal uncles, and brothers-in-law.*

Poor rural women, especially in Punjab and Sindh, where gender relations are generally somewhat more relaxed, have greater mobility because they are responsible for transplanting rice seedlings, weeding crops, raising chickens and selling eggs, and stuffing wool or cotton into comforters (razais). When a family becomes more prosperous and begins to aspire to higher status, it commonly requires stricter purdah among its women as a first social change.*

Poor urban women in close-knit communities, such as the old cities of Lahore and Rawalpindi, generally wear either a burqa (fitted body veil) or a chador (loosely draped cotton cloth used as a head covering and body veil) when they leave their homes. In these localities, multistory dwellings (havelis) were constructed to accommodate large extended families. Many havelis have now been sectioned off into smaller living units to economize. It is common for one nuclear family (with an average of seven members) to live in one or two rooms on each small floor. In less densely populated areas, where people generally do not know their neighbors, there are fewer restrictions on women's mobility.*

The shared understanding that women should remain within their homes so neighbors do not gossip about their respectability has important implications for their productive activities. As with public life in general, work appears to be the domain of men. Rural women work for consumption or for exchange at the subsistence level. Others, both rural and urban, do piecework for very low wages in their homes. Their earnings are generally recorded as part of the family income that is credited to men. Census data and other accounts of economic activity in urban areas support such conclusions. For example, the 1981 census reported that 5.6 percent of all women were employed, as opposed to 72.4 percent of men; less than 4 percent of all urban women were engaged in some form of salaried work. By 1988 this figure had increased significantly, but still only 10.2 percent of women were reported as participating in the labor force.*

Among wealthier Pakistanis, urban or rural residence is less important than family tradition in influencing whether women observe strict purdah and the type of veil they wear. In some areas, women simply observe "eye purdah": they tend not to mix with men, but when they do, they avert their eyes when interacting with them. Bazaars in wealthier areas of Punjabi cities differ from those in poorer areas by having a greater proportion of unveiled women. In cities throughout Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province), Balochistan, and the interior of Sindh, bazaars are markedly devoid of women, and when a woman does venture forth, she always wears some sort of veil.*

Pashtun Families

The Pashtuns (Pathans) are an ethnic group that live in western and southern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan and whose homeland is in the valleys of Hindu Kush.

A Pashtun household (“kor)” is generally defined as a group that shares a hearth or is comprised of a man and his sons,. The three main kinds of domestic units are: 1) the nuclear family; 2) a compound family made up a patriarch are his sons and their wives and children, all of whom share expenses; and 3) a joint family, the same as a compound family except that each family takes care of its own expenses. Property is inherited equally among sons, with he oldest son given a little extra property in return for taking care of the family guest house. Rivalry and even blood feuds develop between brothers and, in the next generation, cousins over the inheritance of land. In opposition to Muslim law, neither wives nor daughters inherit property. [Source: Akbar S. Ahmed with Paul Titus “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1996 |~|]

Men value "insouciant mountain man machismo." They are expected to stand up for themselves and not be pushed around or insulted by anyone. Children boys are scolded harshly. This is viewed as a way of training them for the rigors of the Pashtun code for adults, when the slightest sign of disrespect can be grounds for killing, and teaching them to be tough so they won’t be pushed around. Akbar S. Ahmed wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ With the separation of the sexes inherent in Islam, children are raised primarily by their mother and elder sisters. In the segregated atmosphere that prevails there is a great deal of competition for attention and affection, though men tend to be indulgent toward children. Boys are circumcised by their seventh year.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: The Pashtun extended family “household normally consists of the patriarch and his wife, his unmarried children, and his married sons and their wives and children. It is a patrilineal system in that descent is through the paternal side, and family loyalty is to the paternal line. A married woman must transfer complete allegiance to her husband's family. Married sons live in their father's household rather than establishing homes of their own. The eldest male possesses complete authority over the extended family. [Source: revised by M. Kerr, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

“Economically, the Pashtun family is a single unit. Wealthy family members contribute to the support of those who are poorer, and the family maintains an appearance of well-being. Old people depend on their children for care and support, and the whole family shares the expense of a child away at school. Obedience and respect for elders are the main points of an Pashtun child's upbringing. Almost everything an individual does is a matter of concern to the family, for in Pashtun society the family is judged by the behavior of its individual members.” *\

Sindhi Family

Sindhis are the natives of the Sindh province, which includes Karachi, the lower part of the Indus River, the southeast coast of Pakistan and a lot of desert.“Sindhi society is predominantly Muslim. However, it shows the influence of its Hindu past in its organization into zats. Th ese are hereditary, occupational groupings (e.g., cultivators, blacksmiths, weavers, barbers) that function very much like Hindu castes. Zats are further subdivided into biradaris, groups of individuals within the zat who can trace their lineage on the male side to a common ancestor. The biradari is an important social unit within the village. *\

“The family is the basic unit in Sindhi society. It is organized along the lines of the patriarchal joint family. The male head of the family is the dominant authority, responsible for the family's affairs. His wife or wives, as Sindhis may have more than one, run the household. The wives of sons reside in the household, while daughters live with their husband's family after marriage.

“Three ceremonies are associated with birth in Sindhi life: naming, head-shaving, and circumcision. Naming takes place soon after birth, immediately after the father or an elderly male relation has whispered the Call to Prayer into the baby's ear. The head-shaving ceremony is held in the first few weeks after birth. Goats are sacrificed (one for a girl and two for a boy), and the meat is cooked and given to relatives. The goats' bones are buried with the infant's hair. Circumcision (sunnat) usually takes place in early boyhood. The boy is garlanded and taken around the town in procession before the circumcision is performed by a barber at the family home. When the boy has recovered, a celebration is held for family and friends. *\

Baloch Family and Children

The Baloch, also know the Balochi, Baluch or Baluchi, are an ethnic group that live primarily in the sandy plains, deserts and barren mountains of southeast Iran, southwest Pakistan and southern Afghanistan.

Nancy E. Gratton wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Baloch kinship is patrilineal, tracing descent through one of several lineages, ultimately back to the putative apical ancestor, Amir Hamza. Clan membership is based on familial ties, while tribal membership has a more specifically territorial referent. For both males and females, one remains a member of one's patrilineal group for life — even after marriage, for example, a woman's "real" home is that of her father, and her position in her husband's house brings to her only very limited rights. All heritable property passes from father to sons”. A woman generally keeps only her personal belongings such as clothing, utensil and jewelry. [Source: Nancy E. Gratton,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992]

Children learn proper behavior through observing their elders and through being subject to taunt and gossip should they behave badly. The birth of a male child is taken as a source of p ride since he is though t to be the defender of this family and tribe. The naming of the child usually takes place on the sixth day after birth. Children may be named after deceased ancestors, days of the week, trees, plants, or animals.

According to the “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The birth of a child is greeted with rejoicing, music, and singing. Food and sweets are prepared and given out. The birth of a boy is cause for greater celebration, and some groups barely recognize the arrival of a girl. Names for Baloch include Lalla, Bijjar, Kannar, and Jihand. Other ceremonies mark occasions such as the circumcision of boys, the time when a child begins to walk, and the first wearing of trousers. This last event, occurring around the age of fifteeen, was traditionally an important stage in a boy's life. It marked his becoming an adult and the time when he took up arms and joined his people in warfare. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures,” The Gale Group, 1999]

Brahui Family

The Brahui are a Dravidian language group of tribes that live mostly in Balochistan and the Sindh. D. O. Lodrick wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “Family structure tends to reflect economic systems. The nuclear family predominates among nomadic Brahui, while extended families are common among village inhabitants.... In the past, adultery was punishable by death, although such practices are forbidden by Pakistani law. Widow remarriage is accepted. [Source: D. O. Lodrick, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

“The birth of a son is of utmost importance for a Brahui. A daughter is seen as little more than a gift to one's neighbor. Barrenness in a wife is a cause for reproach, and in the past female circumcision is reported to have been secretly practiced to try to remedy this situation. A craving for earth, and earth-eating, among pregnant women is also reported. When a son is born, the father announces it to the community by firing shots in the air. Various rituals are followed to protect the mother and child from the attention of witches and jinn (evil spirits). For the mother, the period of postnatal impurity lasts 40 days. Sheep are killed (two for a son and one for a daughter) and a feast held for relatives, friends, and neighbors. The child is then named, sometimes after a worthy ancestor. The head-shaving ritual (sar-kuti) is performed by the time the child is 2 years old, often at the shrine of a favored saint. A male child may undergo circumcision (sunnat) within 6 months, though the cost associated with the celebrations cause many to postpone it until as late as the age of 10 or 12. *\

“No particular ceremonies accompany the male reaching puberty. An unusual rite is reported to be followed when a girl begins to menstruate for the first time. At sunset, the mother arranges three stones in a triangular pattern on the ground and has her daughter leap over them three times. It is thought that this will ensure that the girl's periods during the rest of her life will last no more than three days. Childhood did not last long in traditional Brahui society. If a girl were not married as a child, she would be soon after puberty. *\

Burusho Men and Women and Family

The Bursusho, also known as Hunzakuts, are dominant ethnic group of the Hunza valley in far northern Pakistan. Some Burusho women used to have children from 12 to 30 spaced out evenly every four or five years. To achieve this one women said, "We leave our husbands until each child is weaned." This method is not practiced as much as it once was and as a result the population rate has soared. [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, November 1975]

Most chores are done by both men and women. Both sexes do winnowing, threshing and load carrying and child rearing. Women go unveiled and put a lot of time into working in the fields. Schoolgirls usually go to school until two, rest for an hour, and then work in the fields until sunset. After having dinner and helping with chores around the house they study and go to bed. Men do some heavier chores like plowing, wall building and irrigation maintenance.

Hugh R. Page, Jr. wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Burusho population contains four major clans and several minor ones. The major clans are centered on the city of Baltit while the minor clans are dispersed in other settlements. Small extended families (the procreated family of one individual in the senior generation and those of at least two in the next generation) with limited polygyny are the norm. [Source: Hugh R. Page, Jr. “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

“The socialization of children is a responsibility shared by both parents, with the bulk of it being assumed by the mother. Siblings also share in this task. In 1934, a public school system was donated and put into place by the Aga Khan, thus placing part of the burden for child rearing on teachers.” If a family with a son and a daughter are only allowed to send one of them to university they will usually send the daughter because, they say, the son will "always find a way to look after himself."

“The father of a family owns all of the family property. He may choose to divide his property among his off-spring before his death or it may be divided after he dies. Upon his death, his estate is divided equally among his sons. Sons may choose to work any land inherited together (i.e., as a group) or they may divide it among themselves. Sons by second wives inherit a grandson's share. The youngest son inherits the family dwelling. Provision is usually made so that the eldest son inherits the best land. A daughter is not permitted to inherit property. She may be allowed the use of certain property during her lifetime. Unmarried daughters must be cared for (including the provision of a dowry) by the estate of a deceased father. Apricot trees (and their produce) are often willed to daughters. |~|

Balti Men, Women and Family

The Baltis are the inhabitants of Baltistan in the area of K2 mountain in far northern Pakistan. They are interesting in that are a Muslim people of Tibetan descent. Balti men follow herds, work as porters or trade with other villages, while women cook, wash, carry water, milk goats, sew and do most of the work in the fields except for irrigation and plowing. Several generations usually live under one roof and no one is ever alone or unattended. Men take an active role in rearing their sons but if the first wife fails to produce a son, the man often takes a second wife. [Source: Galen Rowell, National Geographic, October 1987 ♦]

Many Balti villages observe the custom of purdah, which segregates women from unrelated men. When visitors come to a Balti house the husband acts as the host and the wife is veiled and never even introduced. A meal is prepared by the wife then handed to the husband who serves it. ♦

Children have no toys to speak of. If a child has a plow it is to use in the fields. Girls have real babies to take care of instead of dolls. One girl met by Barbara Rowell was 13 when her parents married her off to a man of 40.♦

Kalash Men and Women

The Kalash (Kalasha) is a tiny group of animists living in Pakistan near the Afghanistan border in the Birir, Bumburet and Rambur valleys off of the Chitral Valley in the North-West Frontier Province. Kalash men and boys wear the same kind of hat as their Afghani and Pakistani neighbors. They distinguish themselves from Muslims by putting flowers in their hats. Villages have traditionally had a man’s area identified by the skull of a ram. This is the place where animals are sacrificed.

Women enjoy more freedoms than their Muslim counterparts and do not wear the veil. They do most of the field work and are responsible for crops while men are responsible for animals. Women are initiated after their first menstruation and are preoccupied with their appearance and powers of seduction. .

The life of Kalash women is defined by tribal customs regarding purity. During menstruation they are banished to the “bashali” house where child births are also performed. Men can not even approach this house and Muslim are called in perform repairs. Women emerge after five days of menstruating and take a ritual bath and purify themselves and braid their hair.. Hair combing is regarded as unclean and women keep their combs by the river. Women are bared from temples and sacred sites. Only a sanctuary whose entrance is guarded by carvings of goats in the village of Brun admits them.

Women willingly embrace their state of inherent impurity. Often they eat separately so their impurity doesn’t pass on to the food eaten by pure men. Ironically the female fairies are the good ones and they inhabit the rocks and trees. The evil male spirits roam around and must be placated with sacrifice.

Marriages have traditionally been arranged during childhood and involve a payment fo money from the family of the groom to the family of the bride. The bride also receives a dowry from her family. It is common for an unhappy wife to elope and then negotiate a divorce with her husband for a divorce. There are many cases of marriage by elopement involving women who are already married. There have traditionally been many disputes regarding women.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (tourism.gov.pk), Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (pakistan.gov.pk), 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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