Caste in Pakistan: The Elephant in the Room

By Shahbano Aliani

A pregnant woman from a remote rural village in Tharparkar goes to a private hospital in Hyderabad. The medical staff refuse to attend to her, saying they do not want to pollute their instruments and dirty their hands. Feeling humiliated and angry, she returns to her village without having received the services she needed.

A 20 year old woman from Peshawar is brutally murdered by her brothers and father for attempting to marry outside the biradari and bringing shame to the family honour.

A young Kolhi girl is abducted while working in the cotton fields of a landlord outside Mirpurkhas. She is forced to convert to Islam and marry her abductor. The police refuse to register a case and her family is advised to remain silent for the sake of their own safety.

In a village in Southern Punjab, a young boy from a “lower-caste” is accused of dishonouring the “high caste” tribe by having an affair with one of their women. The village panchayat orders the gang rape of the boy’s sister by the “high caste” men so that they may restore the honour of their tribe[i].

These stories have a familiar ring. Variants occur with alarming regularity in Pakistan; some covered by the media, but most covered up by the silence, fear and helplessness of the victims; and the indifference of the rest of society.

What do these stories have in common? Gender, surely; all the victims are women. But there is another common thread as well. In the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan”, both Dalit Hindu and Muslim women are subject to humiliation, control and violence because of their gender as well as their caste.

Most activists, development workers and policy makers may not immediately recognize caste as an important social justice and social policy issue, especially for Muslims in the country. However, almost everyone in Pakistan will readily admit that caste – or biradari, quom, zaat or jaat – is an important part of social identity, especially in the rural areas. Most adults will have encountered questions about their caste or zaat when in a new village or town. Many have married in their own caste, never having considered the option of marrying outside their Biradari, Quom or Zaat. Almost everyone will have heard or used derogatory references to caste such as “Bhangi” (janitor). As Haris Gazdar argues, “In fact, the kinship group, known vari­ously as ‘zaat’, ‘biraderi’ and ‘quom’ in different parts of the country, remains a key – perhaps the key – dimension of economic, social and political interaction.” A contesting formulation has been presented by Arif Hasan through his writings on social change (see, for example, "The Silent Revolution"). His view is supported by Akbar Zaidi (though his take on feudalism is a bit radical) and Raza Ali (through his work on Urbanization). The main argument is that because of technological changes (e.g. tractors in fields and Suzuki pickups on farm-to-market roads), traditional social structures are becoming weaker; a new class of middlemen has emerged that controls the market; urbanization is gradually embracing modernity. As far as I understand, both Arif Hasan and Haris Gazdar are partly correct: things are changing (albeit slowly) but the coercive structures are still there.

When questioned, however, if caste is a problem, most Pakistanis will disagree. Many will argue, quite heatedly, that it’s a problem only for Hindus across the border. Using circular reasoning, they will insist that the caste-system is not Islamic and since the majority of us are Muslims, therefore, there is no caste problem in Pakistan. The caste system practiced by the Muslims of north India is based on three tiers: ashraaf, ajlaaf and arzal.

Public denial is so ingrained and widespread that there is no official legislation that acknowledges and addresses caste-based discrimination. Inadequate legislation, yes. Non-existent, no. After the partition of British India in 1947, Pakistan had inherited the list of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and the constitution of Pakistan (like the 1935 constitution) forbids discrimination on the basis of caste. Beyond lip service, there was a 6% quota in government jobs for scheduled castes from 1948 to 1998. This was sadly never fully utilized. However, we do not have progressive legislation (like they have in India; though they have issues of their own). And apart from a few articles and studies (many of the recent ones referred to in this paper), there is virtually no documentation and data on “lower caste” peoples, including Dalit Hindus in Pakistan.

In my own work, development workers and researchers have argued that caste is not relevant to either development (poverty alleviation) or to research on social and economic issues. My colleagues, who work in districts with about 40% - 50% Hindus (the majority of them Dalit) have insisted that we cannot include caste in survey questionnaires, arguing that (1) we will get so many castes that the data will be difficult to handle, or (2) we will be accused of working for a specific caste[ii]. This resistance has been expressed by both Hindus and Muslims, though more notably by Muslim colleagues. When I have included caste in questionnaires, despite heated arguments, the indicator has been removed in final research instruments by the managers in charge of overseeing the research. I think that some clarification is needed here. The question on caste was included in the PEWC baseline survey and during tabulation we found that we had a very long list of responses because many respondents had mentioned their subcastes instead of caste. For many of these subcastes, some of us didn't know their castes. A list of castes and subcastes from responses was given to CRU staff for preparing a proper list. This was not done and at some point in time we decided to go ahead without it. It should also be noted that most of the non-Muslim respondents in Tharparkar belonged to the Meghar community as our social mobilisers knew them through their PDCs, etc. I should also stress that the baseline wasn't looking at the coorelation between caste and child work -- we could have done that but then our methodology would have been different: propotionate sample for various castes instead of settlements.

It appears that caste is the elephant in the room. Everyone knows its there, but no one wants to talk about it, let alone address. As Haris Gazdar[iii] puts it, “The public silencing on caste contrasts with an obsession with it in private dealings and transactions.”

The Pakistani caste system has developed along lines similar to those in India[iv]. Syeds (also known as Shahs in Sindh) claim to be the descendants of the prophet Muhammad (SAW) and are the highest caste in most places. In Punjab, the Ranas (Rajpoots), Chaudhurys and Maliks are considered higher caste, whereas the Kammis (workers), Chuhras (“untouchable” sweepers who are mostly Christian), Mussali (Muslim shaikh menial workers) and Miraasi (musicians) are considered lower caste. In the NWFP, “lower castes” are referred to as Neech zaat (low caste) and Badnasal (of bad lineage). In Balochistan the “lower castes” include Ghulams (slaves), Lohris (musicians), and Lachhis (Dalits). In Sindh, “high-caste” Muslims, in addition to Shahs and Syeds, include the Akhunds, Effendis, Soomros, Talpurs, and Pirs. Hajjams (barbers), Dhobis (washers), Kumbhars (potters), Maachis/ Mallahs (fisherfolk) and Bhajeer (Dalit converts to Islam) are considered “low caste”. In places like Swat, the Quom system is comparative to the Hindu caste system. Here, groups are divided rigidly according to occupation. Quoms do not intermarry or live together. The fact that caste is an important social identity for Pakistani Muslims is reinforced in matchmaking/ marriage services, where caste is one of the key attributes mentioned by prospective brides and grooms. Caste based marriage preferences and associations are documented amongst Pakistanis in the Diaspora, especially in the UK.

Like in India and Nepal, “lower caste” Hindus and Muslims are excluded and persecuted by “upper castes”, especially men. According to the Joint NGO report submitted to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in February 2009[v], Pakistan is one of the few countries of the world where slavery still exists in the form of bonded labour. Most bonded labourers in Pakistan are the adults and children of Dalit and lower caste Muslim and Christian families.

The denial of the “caste problem” starts with statistics. The most recent 1998 census estimates the number of Dalit Hindus at just above 300,000; a minority amongst the estimated 2 million Pakistani Hindus. Dalit leaders and activists, including 5 former legislators estimate the figure to be closer to 2 million. They believe that both the “upper caste” Hindus and the Pakistani government do not want to recognize the actual numbers so no special legislation or programmes have to be designed to address the issues of Dalits and discrimination against them.

For the most part, Dalits are socially excluded, most of them forced to live on the outskirts of towns and villages or confined to their own paras or villages. Government and even NGOs working in their areas will often bypass Bheel and Kohli paras in Tharparkar altogether[vi]. Due to poverty and lack of assets, they are forced to take up farm and cleaning work that no one else will do; and excluded from community events such as weddings. If they are invited, they have to eat out of separate utensils. They are denied essential social services and equal treatment in public spaces, humiliated in hospitals, public buses and schools. Much of the land they have lived on for centuries belongs to the state; they have no legal claim to it[vii].

Undoubtedly, apart from their children perhaps, Dalit women are one of the poorest and most vulnerable and marginalized group of individuals in the country. They are politically and socially excluded from the mainstream and vulnerable to discrimination and violence due to their gender as well as their caste.

According to a Thari colleague, Kohli women are raped by men of higher castes (Hindus and Muslims) in Tharparkar, either while they work in the fields or when they are out in the desert herding livestock and hunting/ gathering. Kohli women are considered sub-human by the larger society, so any act of sexual or physical violence against them is not noteworthy. It is just a fact of life. The study of 750 Dalit households, Long Behind Schedule[viii], reports that many Dalit women have been raped or gang raped by Muslim men. Most of these rapes are unreported for fear of reprisal from the police and communities of the perpetrators.

There are frequent reports in the print media of the abduction, forced conversion and marriages of Hindu girls and young women. A Daily Dawn June 2006 editorial[ix] claims that “Young Hindu women from both the upper caste and Dalit families have been abducted with increasing frequency in recent years.” According to the editorial, in many cases when the parents have gone to the police, they have been informed that the girl has “eloped” with their Muslim “friend”, converted to Islam and married him. Some of the girls have later declared in court that they had converted of their own free will, though it is quite likely that they were forced to make these declarations under duress. The editorial goes on to speculate that in at least one case the “marriage” has ended in divorce and the girl has been “passed on” to another man. The International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN)’s Fact Sheet Pakistan argues that when such marriages end in divorce, the young women are left to fend for themselves on the streets.

Haris Gazdar reports violence against Christian, Muslim and Hindu “low caste” women across the country:

We documented cases across the coun­try – in Peshawar, Faisalabad, Quetta and Sanghar – of rapes perpetrated against “low-caste” women from chuhra, mussali, lachhi and scheduled caste Hindu commu­nities respectively. The perpetrators were all well known and there was a feeling that they committed these crimes because they could get away with it, knowing full well that the victims were socially and politi­cally weak. In fact, these rapes were only the most extreme instances of sexual vio­lation suffered by the marginalised groups. In the language of the dominant groups the “low castes” had no honour, and certainly no honour that could be defended. The Khans in Peshawar, who regarded them­selves as the racially pure descendents of 11th century Pashtun invader tribes from Afghanistan thought that the women of their ‘hamsayas’ (literally neighbours, but used as a euphemism for dependent service castes) such as the Toorkhail (literally “black lineage”) and ‘kisabgars’ (menials) were of lax social morals. In any case the hamsaya men, unlike the “pure” Pashtuns, would not/could not protest openly if their women did contract illicit liaisons with other men. [x]

Mukhtaran Mai has become famous for her courageous public campaign for justice. Mai suffered the brutal and male-community sanctioned gang rape because her young brother was accused of speaking to a “higher caste” woman in the village. What is often reported, but never analyzed is the fact that Mai and her brother are from a “lower caste” than the perpetrators of her rape.

Another case of caste-based patriarchal violence is the story of Ghazala Shaheen, a “low caste”, but highly educated, Muslim woman from Multan who was abducted along with her mother and gang raped. Ghazala Shaheen’s uncle had allegedly eloped with a “high caste” woman of the perpetrator’s family. Ghazala Shaheen was selected for the gang-rape by the “upper caste” tribesmen for her uncle’s crime and for the crime of daring to educate herself[xi].

Embedded in the stories of these women being gang-raped, killed, paraded naked in the streets, abducted, and forcibly converted, is the old, ugly story of caste. Except for some intrepid researchers and a handful of Dalit activists, everyone else in Pakistan is silent on the issue.

At a time of increased militarization and polarization, can we afford to continue to ignore such a pervasive and divisive issue that makes women even more vulnerable to violence, oppression and discrimination? Caste is a women’s issue and perhaps its time for South Asian feminists in Pakistan to start speaking up about it.

(The author works with the Thardeep Rural Development Programme and is based in Karachi, Pakistan. She may be contacted on

Khalid Anis Ansari


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