Pakistan’s Untouchables: A Brief Overview of Caste in Pakistan

By Lina Bhatti

This article serves as a very brief academic overview and summary of the narrative presented in “A Spiraling Staircase.”

Like every country, there is clear distinction between rich and poor in Pakistan. These socioeconomic differences manifest in many different ways in Pakistan; the largest influencer of low socioeconomic status however, is definitely the caste system. This may seem like a dichotomy that is false – most Pakistanis are Muslim and Muslims don’t obey the caste system. However, in many cases, Pakistanis follow a de-facto caste system that stems from ethnicity and tribal groups to occupational castes to castes that stem from religious sects. Although many Pakistanis do not “believe” in this caste system, there are many others who actively maintain the caste strucutre. For example many Pakistanis will only marry within their own caste system. On the back of many newspapers is a section called “Zaroorati Rishtay” which roughly translates to “Needed Proposals,” where families post an ad detailing what kind of spouse they are looking for, for their son or daughter. They will detail the height they want, the educational qualifications, and in many cases, the caste. It might say “We are looking for a Jutt/Shia girl,” or “a Chaudhry man is preferred.” To digress, caste is very apparent in the underlying fabric of Pakistani society, whether one “believes” in it or not. Officially however, there is no caste system in Pakistan, and there is no demographic category for caste within the government censuses.

The people who are most affected by the caste system in Pakistan are arguably Pakistan’s “low-skilled” laborers. These are the Pakistani version of Untouchables. These people may work in other peoples’ homes, as drivers, as trash collectors, and so on. The term “untouchable” is inherently problematic, so I actively will not use this word. The people within this caste are also called “dalit.” Many people in this traditionally lower socioeconomic caste are Hindus and Christians, although there are many Muslims as well. During the British Raj, many Hindu dalit converted to Christianity as a way to escape the Hindu caste system. There are many Hindu dalits in Sindh and Christian dalits in Punjab.1 Within the dalit caste there are many other subcategories of workers. The majority of Muslims are mochi, pather (brickmakers), bhangi (sweepers), musalman sheikhs, and mussalis. For Christians, terms like masihi or even chuhra (meaning trash) are used. 2

Although there are Muslim dalit, the discrimination they face is akin to that of the Hindu or the Christian dalit. These workers eat from separate dishes, cups, and utensil than those of the main household or main employers, they are subjected to demeaning comments and treatment, and are overall a very subjugated population. Many are illiterate, travelling from villages to work in cities like Lahore, Karachi, or Islamabad. According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, the illiteracy rate is above 75%. Many dalit work in households as maids, caretakers, and cooks. Women may start at a young age – as young as six to nine years old – as sweepers, cleaners, cooks. Men may start as drivers or as handymen, fixing things around the house. They are subject to harsh treatment, sexual abuse, forced religious conversion, and extremely low pay. Many dalits also become trapped in bonded labor. Bonded labor is essentially indentured servitude and is very common in Pakistan.

One of the largest problems in addressing the dalit community is that caste is very much ignored officially in Pakistan. Because Pakistan is an “Islamic” republic, caste is officially not “allowed” or maintained/regulated by the state. However as stated, caste is unofficially a large part of many peoples’ lives. The denial of it serves as inaction to fix the detriments that arise from this un-officiality and from the caste system as a whole. Although many wealthier Pakistanis will use the caste system to find a compatible husband or wife for their children, for other Pakistanis, the caste system upholds a hierarchical structure where the low-skilled laborers are ultimately trapped in a system in which they are disadvantaged, marginalized, subjugated, and oppressed. Failure to acknowledge the caste system results in upholding the cyclical nature of this horrible system. As a note, although the majority of dalits face the problems detailed above, there are exceptions, where employers and families pay their dalit workers very well, treat them with respect, and might even pay for education or housing for their dalit workers. This is rare but does occur along with a growing perception of what dalits go through. These rare exceptions do help to break the system by providing the dalit with tools that will help them break free from the clutches that their caste ultimately shackles them to. Attitudes like this, in addition to the official acknowledgement of the caste system and how to solve the problems that arise with it are necessary to break this cycle.

  1. Jodhka, Surinder S, and Ghanshyam, Shah. “Comparative Contexts of Discrimination: Caste and Untouchability in South Asia.” Economic and Political Weekly 45, no. 48 (2010): 99-106.
  2. Jodhka and Ghanshyam, p. 103