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Gender Disparities, Economic Growth and Islamization in Pakistan

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
July 2004
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars


This text has been copied from original publication and reformatted in Microsoft Word. Only Chapter 6 is included here.


Ishrat Husain
Khurshid Ahmad
Shahid Javed Burki
Parvez Hasan
Omar Noman
Isobel Coleman
Vali Nasr
Charles H. Kennedy
Saeed Shafqat

Edited by
Robert M. Hathaway
Wilson Lee

©2004 Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.


Gender Disparities, Economic Growth and Islamization in Pakistan


Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she focuses on the Middle East and Southwest Asia, including Pakistan. She is also the director of the U.S. Foreign Policy and Women program at the Council. Prior to joining the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. Coleman was CEO of a health care services company and a partner with McKinsey & Co. She was formerly a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and an adjunct professor at American University, where she taught U.S. foreign policy. She received her doctorate from Oxford University.

Pakistan’s economy has not sustained the growth rates required to reduce the country’s dire poverty. Today, nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, an increase from a decade ago. Several factors contributing to Pakistan’s disappointing economic performance are well known: excessive defense spending at the expense of human capital development, weak governance, corruption, instability, sectarian violence and the draining Kashmir conflict. Another factor which has received less attention is Pakistan’s persistent, and in some cases growing, gender disparities. The critical link between the status of women in society, particularly literacy levels, and a nation’s economic growth is now well understood. The low socio-economic status of women in Pakistan is beginning to be recognized as a potentially significant drag on the country’s growth.[1]

What impact has Islamization— meaning, broadly, the economic, political and social policies designed to promote an Islamic state— had on the role of women in Pakistan? Gender roles in developing economies are largely determined by strongly held cultural norms and traditions. In Pakistan, this reality is reflected in the significant regional gender differences that exist across the country.[2] However, within Pakistan, the impact of Islamization on women is a topic of debate and political friction. Many Islamists claim that their policies are women-friendly and egalitarian. Leaders of the Islamist coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) note active female participation in the party, their emphasis on social welfare, and their pledge to “protect the rights of women guaranteed by Islam and the restoration of their honor and prestige.”[3] Many critics of Islamization disagree. They claim that Islamization restricts opportunities in the public sphere for women, and thus has had a negative impact. Pakistani journalist Jugnu Mohsin sums up this perspective:“ ‘Islamisation’ has its own logic. It appropriates more and more space and leaves no room for societies to grow organically and in synch with the rest of the world. Secular culture is a victim and women bear the brunt of this.”[4]

Gender roles in Pakistan today reflect the weight of culture and tradition, but Islam is an important and influential overlay. In general, Islamization tends to reinforce conservative ideas regarding the role that women should play in society. At a minimum, this slows down policies and programs designed to bring women more into the public sphere, and thereby exacts an economic cost. This paper focuses narrowly on the potential economic consequences of Islamization’s impact on women.


Despite numerous commitments to gender equality during past decades, Pakistan has made insufficient progress on a range of important gender measurements. The country’s skewed sex ratio of 108 men to 100 women is a reflection, in part, of higher female infant mortality and the overall more privileged treatment of boys. Given female biological advantage at birth, male mortality rates are expected to be higher than female rates. The sex ratio in a country is thus a first indication of gender discrimination. [5] Two areas of gender disparity in particular warrant examination because of their linkage to economic growth: female literacy and workforce participation.

Pakistan has for decades grossly underinvested in education, and in particular, girls’ education. Education spending is mired at roughly 1 percent of GDP, and in this environment of resource constraints, girls tend to be short-changed. Overall literacy is only 44 percent while adult female literacy is less than 30 percent. Moreover, the gap between male and female literacy rates has widened. In 1975, the literacy gap between men and women in Pakistan was 25 points (11 percent literacy for women vs. 36 percent literacy for men). By 2001, that gap had inched upward to 29 points (29 percent literacy for women versus 58 percent for men).[6] Every one of Pakistan’s governments has launched an educational initiative, most with the clear objective of closing gender gaps, and every one has failed to make notable progress. The number of illiterate Pakistanis has doubled since 1951, while the number of illiterate women has tripled, due to population increases.[7] In fact, Pakistan’s high fertility rates are now understood to be strongly correlated with its low level of female literacy.[8]

Given the connection between female literacy and economic development, educating girls in Pakistan should be a national obsession. Successful poverty reduction depends on myriad complex, interrelated factors, and there is clearly no silver bullet. However, a compelling body of evidence has emerged in recent years demonstrating that investing in girls’ education is the most effective way to pursue a broad range of critical development objectives. Educated women have fewer children, provide better nutrition and health for their families, experience significantly lower child mortality, generate more income and are far more likely to educate their children than women with little or no schooling, creating a virtuous cycle for the community and the country. Several studies have shown that female education can also contribute significantly to agricultural productivity.[9] Given that agriculture comprises roughly a quarter of Pakistan’s GDP, this is an area that deserves more attention. Mounting empirical data now indicate that the returns to educating girls are greater than the returns from educating boys.[10] The bigger the gender gap in primary education, the higher the return of investing in girls’ literacy.

Islamization is clearly not the reason for Pakistan’s low female literacy rates. Most Islamists are careful to stress their support for female education. However their emphasis on a traditional role for women and the need to protect women’s honor reinforces cultural norms that limit female mobility and access to the public sphere. This compounds the already large challenges of getting and keeping girls in school. It also limits the economic returns from girls’ education, reducing incentives for parents to invest in their daughters’ education.

Pakistan also has a very low level of female workforce participation. The economic benefits of female employment are clear: more women working increases a nation’s output and is an important contributor to household income. Moreover, recent studies indicate that women’s and men’s relative control of resources has significant and different impacts on household consumption patterns. When women control resources, more of those resources are devoted to family welfare— especially nutrition, education and health— than when men control the resources. Less is devoted to alcohol and cigarettes.[11] At the margin, female control of resources results in a greater positive impact on child survival, nutrition, and school enrollments than does male control of resources. Simply, women tend to invest more in the human capital of their children than do men. The impact on long-term development is obvious.

Today, Pakistan’s female formal labor force participation rate hovers around 15 percent.[12] While that represents a tripling over the past 20 years, female labor force participation is still low in an absolute sense and relative to other countries with similar per capita GDP. In Bangladesh, for example, female labor force participation is 57 percent.[13] Increasing women in the workforce is both a challenge and an opportunity for Pakistan. Clearly, Pakistan’s low rate of female literacy is an obstacle to workforce participation. But as education levels rise, labor force participation must also rise for Pakistan to capture fully its return on investment in girls’ education. Creating employment for women in a country with high unemployment rates, in some areas as high as 40 percent, is an obstacle. Policymakers express concern that increasing female workforce participation would raise unemployment levels. However, microeconomic data show those fears to be unfounded. In fact, data indicate that an economy that is more inclusive of women in the labor force is also likely to enjoy lower unemployment.[14] Foreign direct investment in export-oriented sectors such as textiles is also positively correlated with rises in female labor force participation. While economists are unclear whether this is cause or effect, Pakistan has largely missed out on foreign investment in light manufacturing and service industries that today employ large numbers of women from Mexico to Bangladesh. These jobs represent a ticket to the middle class for the female employees and their families.

For Pakistan to significantly improve its female labor force participation rates, it will have to address a range of structural barriers and social constraints, many of which are reinforced by Islamization. With its emphasis on women as keepers of the family honor, promotion of gender segregation and institutionalization of gender disparities, Islamization has not encouraged formal employment for women in Pakistan. Religious extremism, as perceived by multinational corporations (defacing posters of women make international headlines), also makes Pakistan a less attractive destination for foreign direct investment. Pakistan’s government is beginning to support microfinance initiatives in a serious fashion, which helps the poor, particularly women, start their own businesses. The government, with a $150 million loan from the ADB, established the Kushali Bank in 2000. In 2002, Kushali lent $15 million to 65,000 customers, one-third of whom are women. Other organizations like the Kashf Foundation are focused exclusively on women. Kashf is scaling up quickly and is on target to have 100,000 clients by the end of 2004. To date, Islamization has not impeded the spread of microfinance, but elimination of interest rates in banking, as proposed by some Islamists, would seriously impact the whole financial sector.[15]


Pakistan clearly has significant gender disparities, and economists are beginning to document the constraints these impose on economic growth. What is less clear is the impact of Islamization. To what extent have Islamization policies contributed to Pakistan’s gender disparities? As stated up front, gender roles are largely determined by culture, but Islamization plays a role in reinforcing traditional culture. Proponents of Islamization position their policies as being a positive force for women, emphasizing that they serve to protect women’s dignity and honor. The main Islamic parties in Pakistan today are careful to put a “women friendly” face on their actions, stressing that they are not interested in a program of “Talibanization.” Instead, they focus on the perceived social benefits of maintaining a more traditional role for women in society as being profamily. Others see things differently. They label policies as reactionary and anti-female. Usually their focus is on the discriminatory legal environment stemming from Shari’a, but other policies catch their ire too, such as gender segregation and the Islamists’ hostility towards family planning.

The tension between Shari’a and established human rights standards and women’s rights is well documented. In general, this literature focuses on how the restoration of Shari’a as public law in Muslim countries erodes the status and rights that women have achieved under secular law.[16] Pakistan’s constitution guarantees women equal rights, and empowers the government to take affirmative action to protect and promote those rights. However, over the years, parallel Islamic legal systems have been promoted which undermine those rights, like the Federal Shari’a Court (FSC) established by General Zia ul-Haq in 1980. The gender bias of Shari’a is undeniable. Women have unequal rights to inheritance, termination of marriage, minimum age of marriage, and natural guardianship of children. Polygamy is allowed, and there are grossly inadequate provisions for women’s financial security after divorce. Pakistan’s controversial Hudood Ordinances, particularly with regard to Zina (sex), are also discriminatory. By blurring the line between rape and adultery, the Zina Ordinance creates the possibility that a woman can be convicted of adultery if she cannot prove rape.

Today, the MMA is working to strengthen the Federal Shari’a Court through constitutional amendments and by inducting more ulemas to the court. In the Northwest Frontier Province, where the MMA controls the provincial government, it has called for the implementation of the recommendations of the Council for Islamic Ideology (CII) in the province. The MMA have also established a 14 member Nifaz-e-Shariat Council (NSC) to help the provincial government implement Islamic rules and reforms recommended by the CII. On June 2, 2003, the NWFP government passed a bill to implement Shari’a in the province. Most controversially, some are pushing to establish a Taliban-esque Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which would carry out its mandate through a special “Hasba force” or vice squad.[17] The added challenge is that once religiously oriented laws are on the books, it is very difficult to remove or change them.

Women’s groups have campaigned strenuously against Islamization in general and specifically for repeal of the Hudood Ordinances because of their gender discrimination. Benazir Bhutto made the “anti-female” bias of General Zia ul-Haq’s Islamization policies a major theme of the 1988 national campaign.[18] More recently, the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) urged the government to repeal the Hudood laws in a much-publicized report in August 2003. The Commission noted that the Zina Ordinance in particular had been relentlessly used against women, particularly poor, illiterate rural women. Its final report asserted that as many as 88 percent of women in Pakistan’s jails are there because of ambiguities in the Zina Ordinance.[19] However, others believe these claims to be overstated.[20] The MMA has rejected outright the findings of the NCSW regarding the Hudood laws. The Musharraf government has also distanced itself from the report in the wake of the MMA’s support in late 2003 for the Legal Framework Order— a package of constitutional amendments legitimizing the military’s political control.

The discriminatory nature of Islamic legal reforms for women in Pakistan is clear, but the extent of their impact is hard to measure. Human rights activists are correct to focus on specific cases of discrimination, even if the number of actual cases is relatively small. But it is misleading to conclude that the overall impact is marginal. Indeed, Islamic legal reforms and the Hudood laws in particular have served to reinforce male social control over women, limiting female bargaining power within the family and their control of resources. This has also contributed to an environment where violence against women is not sufficiently discouraged.[21] The economic costs can be found in suboptimal resource allocation and lost female productivity.

Gender segregation is another area that makes modernists, secularists and women’s groups anxious about Islamization. It is easy to dismiss some of the Islamists’ recent actions toward women as frivolous: indeed, banning female mannequins and faces of women in advertisements might be high on rhetoric and low on impact. Enforcing restrictive dress codes and segregating higher education create more concerns, precisely because these policies reinforce traditional, conservative roles for women, particularly in rural settings where 70 percent of the population lives. As activist Bushra Gohar notes, “The women in (NWFP) are already backward because of the conservative social set-up. The MMA want to push women further back.”[22] Moderates worry that these steps will lead to broader segregation, in public spaces and the workplace. It is important to note that these actions are not just confined to the MMA stronghold in NWFP, which comprises only 13 percent of Pakistan’s population. Groups associated with Jamaat-i-Islami have disfigured billboards depicting women in the Punjab too, and in Karachi, the local Jamaat-run council has banned the depiction of women in advertisements as “obscene and vulgar.”[23]

The MMA has said that it is committed to achieving full literacy across society within 10 years, but it has also promised to ban co-education and create separate educational institutions for women.[24] Unfortunately, the two policies may collide, since the additional costs imposed by segregation will again likely be at the expense of female education. The widening gap between male and female literacy rates has already been noted. Women in Pakistan also have fewer higher educational opportunities. In 1997, out of 172 professional colleges, only 10 existed for women. Women can gain admission to others only against a reserved quota.[25] In 2000-2001, only 27 percent of enrollment in Pakistan’s professional colleges and universities was female.[26] The MMA commitment to build more women-only colleges worries many as a step toward a Saudi-inspired goal of complete segregation between men and women: first schools and health care facilities, then public spaces and the workplace.

Segregation in the health arena has already been pushed in NWFP. Last year, the MMA in the NWFP legislated that female patients could only be seen by a female doctor, and that men are not allowed in female hospitals. If broadly enforced, this could prove detrimental to women’s health in that province, given the lack of trained female healthcare professionals, particularly in rural areas. Pakistan’s high maternal mortality rates— one in 38 women dies from pregnancy-related causes— already impose a significant cost on society. [27] Only 20 percent of deliveries are attended by a trained professional today.[28]

Pakistan has rightly begun to focus its limited health resources on primary health and basic facilities in rural areas. However, to the extent that Islamization limits women’s ability to access resources, it could have a negative impact on Pakistan’s pressing need to improve community health and slow its population growth rate. A recent study by the Population Council shows how conservative norms already constrain female access to health care in rural Pakistan. Ninety-six percent of females aged 15-24 need permission to travel to a nearby health outlet. The primary reasons given for travel restrictions all relate to family reputation and family tradition.[29]

Another factor that could hinder Pakistan’s economic development is the Islamists’ antipathy to family planning. Providing Pakistan’s female population with access to basic family planning services is critical.Pakistan is the fastest growing large country in the world today. Its current population of 150 million is projected to grow to 350 million by 2050, which will make it at that point the fourth largest country in the world behind China, India and the United States. Population growth must be slowed if Pakistan is to deliver on raising per capita GDP, yet the Council for Islamic Ideology (CII) recommends that family planning should be withdrawn, as the Council claims that it is un-Islamic and that increasing population is not a burden on the country.[30]

The Islamists’ resistance to family planning in general puts them at odds with the government’s development agenda. It also creates challenges for many non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In Baluchistan and NWFP, NGOs have come under considerable pressure for their perceived pro-Western agendas. They have been asked to follow stringent screening and registration procedures.[31] NGOs are essential in the area of women’s health, where the government has largely neglected its responsibilities. If the MMA follows the recommendations of the CII and adopts a hostile attitude toward family planning services, NGO activities will inevitably be constrained. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have substantial programs in the NWFP with a heavy emphasis on improving the status of women. Both are monitoring the MMA’s direction. Marshuk Ali Shah, the ADB’s country director, notes that the ADB has “a major women’s reform agenda— the empowerment of women. If [the MMA] takes a stringent view, it will definitely affect our relationship.”[32]


Islamization has been tolerated or promoted for political purposes by every government in Pakistan since the nation’s founding. The impact on society, particularly on women, is hard to measure. The intent of this paper is not to draw a causal relationship between Islamization and the traditional role of women in Pakistan. Clearly, the status of women in society has been shaped by centuries of culture and tradition. The goal is simply to demonstrate that to the extent that Islamization promotes that traditionalist culture, it comes at an economic cost. Until Pakistan creates a more gender-neutral legal environment, closes its gender gaps in health and education, and reduces barriers to female labor force participation, its economic growth and development will lag. While it is impossible to quantify precisely the economic impact, other studies indicate that closing significant gender gaps can add as much as 1 percent annually to per capita GNP growth.[33] As Pakistan struggles to reduce poverty in the midst of fast population growth, the question it must contemplate is whether it can afford Islamization’s conservative notions of women.


[1] Farzana Bari, Women in Pakistan: Country Briefing Paper (Manila: Asian Development Bank, 2000).

[2] For example, Baluchistan, deeply tribal but not known historically for its religiosity, has perhaps the most restrictive environment for women in Pakistan. The cultural practice of “purdah,” the complete veiling of a woman’s face and body, is still widely practiced. The sex ratio is 114:100 (men to women) and the rural female literacy rate is less than 10 percent.

[3] MMA 15-Point Manifesto reprinted in Ashutosh Misra, “Rise of Religious Parties in Pakistan: Causes and Prospects,” Strategic Analysis 27, no. 2 (April/June 2003).

[4] Jugnu Mohsin, e-mail correspondence with author, December 27, 2003.

[5] Elizabeth King and Andrew Mason, Engendering Development through Gender Equality in Rights, Resources, and Voice (Oxford: World Bank / Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 47.

[6] World Bank EdStats Database, education/edstats/ (data query system; accessed January 15, 2004).

[7] Bari, Women in Pakistan.

[8] UNDP economist Omar Noman suggests that Pakistan’s population would be 30 million fewer than it is today (115 million vs. 145 million) if it had improved female literacy at the same rate as did Southeast, East and Central Asian countries over the past five decades. Omar Noman, Economy of Conflict, forthcoming.

[9] One World Bank study indicates that in areas where women have very low levels of education, providing all women with at least a year of primary education raises farm yields by as much as 24 percent. Increasing land area and fertilizer usage to male farmers’ levels increased women’s yields by only 10.5 percent and 1.6 percent respectively. While these results need to be viewed with caution, they are consistent with other research that shows that increases in female education lead to higher rates of technology adoption for female farmers— more so than increasing land size. The results were derived from simulations assuming constant elasticities and presupposing that changing levels of one input does not change the elasticities of other inputs. Agnes Quisumbing, Improving Women’s Agricultural Productivity as Farmers and Workers, ESP Discussion Paper Series No. 37 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1994).

[10] T. Paul Schultz, “Why Governments Should Invest More to Educate Girls,” Journal of World Development 30, no. 2 (2002): pp. 207-225.

[11] King and Mason, Engendering Development, pp. 158-159.

[12] UNPF and PRB, Country Profiles for Population and Reproductive Health: Policy Developments and Indicators (United Nations Population Fund / Population Reference Bureau, 2003), p.147.

[13] Ibid., p.101.

[14] World Bank data from OECD countries show a weak negative correlation between unemployment and female labor force participation. Data from the Middle East show a stronger negative correlation. See Nadereh Chamlou, Gender and Development in the Middle East and North Africa: Women in the Public Sphere (advance edition, World Bank, 2004), p. 68.

[15] Microfinance institutions charge interest of as much as 40 percent to cover their high costs of making small loans to the poor in rural areas.

[16] Abdullah Ahmed An-Na’im, Toward and Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990); Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001).

[17] The proposed law has yet to be presented to the provincial parliament.

[18] Charles Kennedy, “Islamization and Legal Reforms in Pakistan. 1979-1989,” Pacific Affairs 63, no. 1 (spring 1990): pp. 62-77.

[19] Because women have been held for extended periods of time on charges of Zina after they reported rape (but before conviction), the Commission concluded “that the majority of the women in jails are there due to the Zina Ordinance.” Commission report quoted by Khawar Ghumman,“88pc Women in Jails Due to Flaws in Hudood Ord,” DAWN, October 8, 2003.

[20] Charles Kennedy has argued that Zia’s Islamic reforms were largely “political noise.” Despite strong rhetoric, they were not forcefully implemented and in practice were largely “anemic.” Their impact on Pakistan’s institutions has therefore been minimal. He has also argued that there has been no significant discriminatory bias against women in the implementation of the Hudood Ordinances. See Kennedy, “Islamization and Legal Reforms in Pakistan, 1979-89”; Charles Kennedy, “Islamization in Pakistan: Implementation of the Hudood Ordinances,” Asian Survey 28, no. 3 (March 1988): pp. 307-316.

[21] UNPF and PRB, Country Profiles for Population and Reproductive Health, p. 146.

[22] Christopher Nadeem, “Pakistan: Activists Say ‘Virtue Police’ Will Resemble Taliban,” Global Information Network, June 9, 2003.

[23] ICG, Unfulfilled Promises: Pakistan’s Failure to Tackle Extremism, ICG Asia Report No. 73 (Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2004), p. 19.

[24] The banning of co-education did not feature prominently in the MMA’s manifesto, but from the statements of its leaders, is clearly a key component of its “hidden” agenda. Misra, “Rise of Religious Parties in Pakistan.”

[25] Bari, Women in Pakistan.

[26] Federal Bureau of Statistics, Government of Pakistan. Pakistan Statistical Year Book 2003 (Islamabad, 2003), p. 364.

[27] Bari, Women in Pakistan.

[28] UNPF and PRB, Country Profiles for Population and Reproductive Health, p. 147.

[29] Zeba A. Sathar et al., Adolescents and Youth in Pakistan 2001-02:A Nationally Representative Survey (Islamabad: Population Council, 2002), p. 30; United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2003 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 256.

[30] Misra,“Rise of Religious Parties in Pakistan.”

[31] Misra, ibid.

[32] Amy Waldman,“In One Pakistan Province, Reality Tempers Ideology,” New York Times, January 18, 2004.

[33] King and Mason, Engendering Development: Chamlou, Gender, and Development in the Middle East and North Africa.