LAHORE, Pakistan | Malaika Khan settles comfortably into a tan leather sofa in one of the multiple coffee shops mushrooming all over Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city.
After recently launching a line of formal designer wear, she has ambitious plans to delve into ready-to-wear clothes.
Judging by her straight pants and snugly fitted brown top, it’s hard to guess that Miss Khan comes from a Pashtun family in Mardan, a city in North West Frontier Province, where women are draped in burqas and girls schools insist that teachers and students wear veils to avoid attacks from Muslim extremists.
Miss Khan, 30, said she has little in common with the women with whom she was raised.
“The world is changing rapidly, and so am I,” she said, her multiple bangle bracelets clinking as she lifted her coffee cup. “I feel no need to cover my face, and I don’t think marriage can define who I am.”
Although Pakistani women still face enormous obstacles, including high levels of violence based on their sex, urban women are increasingly choosing careers, juggling motherhood with workplace requirements and opting for divorce. Others are choosing to stay single until their late 20s or even 30s.
The figures remains small by Western standards. According to the 2005 United Nations Human Development Report, women’s participation in the Pakistani labor force was 28 percent, three-fourths of which was inside the home or in other informal settings.
Still, change is evident.
“The numbers of women stepping into the corporate work force has definitely increased by about 30 percent,” said Sadia Haroon, a Karachi-based human relations consultant. “As women in Pakistan are becoming more financially independent, they are choosing not to get married until it feels right, or not to stay in a marriage which isn’t working out.” The trend is a bright spot in a picture clouded by discrimination and domestic violence.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch describes the other side of the picture.
“Violence against women and girls, including domestic violence, rape, acid attacks and forced marriages, remain serious problems,” the report said.
Precise figures on violence based on their sex are hard to obtain, but Human Rights Watch estimated that 50 percent to 90 percent of Pakistani women experience some form of violence. According to Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, there have been more than 4,100 “honor killings” since 2001. In these cases, male relatives kill women to avenge perceived slights against the family honor - which can amount to as little as a woman being seen walking with a man to whom she is not related by blood or marriage.
Miss Khan, who studied at a convent school and then obtained her bachelor of arts degree from Kinnaird College, a premier all-girls institution in Lahore, said domestic violence is only a problem when the woman isn’t educated or aware of her rights.
“I would probably dump my husband if he ever tried to beat me up,” she said with a laugh.
Miss Khan said she underwent a transformation almost 10 years ago when her 18-year-old sister went through a divorce.
“I saw her come back to her parents’ house helpless and completely defeated,” she said. That’s when she vowed to become an independent woman who “would be able to live without being a parasite on a man.” Education expert Zubaida Mustapha said the change in women’s attitudes was the product of several factors.
“I give credit to education, but even more importantly, to the women’s liberation movement, which began in the ‘80s and has been working hard to bring about awareness in women since then,” she said. There is also a domino effect.
“One woman in the work force tends to pull in more and more women, and so the numbers increase,” she said.
Data gathered by the Punjab Women Chamber of Commerce and Industries shows that most female entrepreneurs launch beauty salons or home-based fashion houses, while women in salaried jobs take up teaching or medicine. In the past few years, Pakistani women have also begun working in more demanding fields, such as business-unit heads in banks and executive producers at television channels.
Women in these professions still face social obstacles.
Miranda Hussain, 37, who works at a TV station in Lahore, said members of her family would be happy to see her married.
“Half my family thinks it’s a little selfish on my part not to be married,” she said. “The other half thinks it’s because I didn’t have any proposals.” Maulvi Zubair, a religious scholar at Jamia Ashrafia, a well-known Islamic school in Lahore, said such women are leading unnatural lifestyles.
“Islam mandates that both men and women should get married as soon as possible after reaching puberty,” he said. “Our prophet looked unfavorably upon those who don’t enter into ‘Al Nikah,’ ” or the marital contract. Islam also frowns upon divorce, although Muslim men and women have the right to annul a marriage.
Five years ago, divorces were few and far between in Pakistan, but data from the Islamabad Arbitration Council’s divorce registers indicate a change. From just 98 cases in 1995, the total number of registered divorces rose more than threefold to 314 in 2005. Significantly, woman-initiated divorces rose from 19 in 1995 to 151.
“It’s an exciting time to be a woman in Pakistan,” said Shehla Akram, president-elect of the newly formed Punjab Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“For the first time, it seems like women are determining what their role in society should be. It’s a slow change, but a definite one at that.” Dr. Akram said she has more than a thousand female entrepreneurs as members, many of whom are married but reluctant to stay at home.
“The women at the chamber are eager to have their own identities or some kind of an outlet for their aspirations,” she said.