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Pakistan: The effects of class segregation

by Kamila Hyat, 5 December 2013

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The News, December 05, 2013

We live in a deeply segregated society. Segregation by gender may be one aspect of this, but segregation by class or by social standing may have a still more detrimental effect on how we function and think. While better access to education, and greater parental endeavours to get their children the best they can should have created the flows of mobility in a social structure that has been static for generations, it remains blocked in many different ways.

Even children as young as five or six years in our setup can distinguish between the classes. The presence of servants in households may play a role in this. Of course, to some degree, the distinctions are made everywhere in societies across the world. But the barriers set up here in some ways seem to be especially impenetrable, and as such especially cruel.

At all levels, when children from a different social background move into another one at school, often placed there to give them a better education, they are pushed aside and shunted out from the mainstream. Even minor differences – in language, accent, and dress etc – are quickly picked up on. The inflexibility has obviously always existed, but seems to be growing more and more acute as ‘westernisation’ takes greater hold at the top-most levels of the order, further opening up the language and cultural gap.

In many ways the situation is not all that different to the US that existed before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when in many states it was the law that black people were not permitted to attend the same schools as their white peers, had to use designated seating in buses and were not permitted in public pools. The passing of the law itself did not change things. Indeed discrimination – and segregation – live on today in that country.

But five decades on from that law, and the movement behind it, there has been some change, some distinct alterations in attitude and mobility – which have now allowed an African American from a deprived background into the White House.

Creating a situation that allows us to move towards this is a priority. We need to end divisions and schisms. To do this we need to recognise the degree of prejudice that exists and affects almost all of us. We need to think about the comments made by children who describe the boys swimming in the canal through the summer as ‘dirty’ or those made by aggrieved parents whose children attend elite schools when they are defeated in competition, sporting or otherwise, by those less privileged than their own offspring.

The remarks are telling; a flashback to pre-1960s America, or even the South Africa that existed for some three decades after that. We need to think more about these attitudes and the impact they have on lives. According to a survey conducted by the Institute of European Business Administration, the results of which were released last month, out of those living in 125 countries, Pakistanis ranked as the fourth most intelligent, “despite a lack of resources and opportunities”.

While such lists are not terribly reliable, based on our own experiences, the stories we hear of individual endeavours and various achievements at the international level, there can be no doubt that our people are highly capable. The question is how to ensure that the tall, ugly fences built by class and the perceptions that go with it do not stop people from reaching their potential.

Our society is no doubt cut into too many different segments and divided by too many lines. We need to find ways to allow within it more fluidity, so that the segments can inter-mingle, work together and act in harmony. This is not an easy task given a reality where class, creed, caste and social standing still matter a great deal.

The ludicrous newspaper and internet advertisements seeking marriage partners still specifically mention the ‘caste’; official documents ask the same question and we still talk of ‘good’ families. Those not falling within this category are, presumably, in some ways ‘bad’.

We need also to understand the difference between ‘empathy’ and ‘equality’. Yes, we need greater empathy too. A better understanding of the issues others face; a realisation that poorer children are not worse, just born into different circumstances. But while we have an extremely well-developed culture of philanthropy, donating generously and helping those in need, we may be more resilient to the need for establishing equality.

Charity is needed in our society; it provides a life-line of survival to a great many. It has about it also a ‘feel good’ factor which makes those doing the ‘giving’ feel better about themselves. Their motives too may often be entirely good; in many ways praiseworthy.

But accepting others as equal human beings and equal citizens quite regardless of their background is in many ways a harder task than giving out money, clothes or even setting up charitable schools. It is this step that we have to take. Today, as a result of the endeavours of their parents, we have more children entering the best private schools and colleges. More of these persons than ever before are moving into better jobs, earning better pays. But they would do even better if the obstacles that stand in their way could be lowered and then removed one at a time reducing the amount of energy they need to spend in finding a way to clear them.

Over time, these barriers have possibly, in some ways, become worse. As a result of consumerism and the significance given to wealth and status, there is an acute consciousness about roots, about class and about keeping divisions in place. A feudal heritage plays a part in this. So do the other, curious, benchmarks we have created with a distinct and damaging hierarchy of languages, and then of nuances within them. We are ridden by so many different complexes that they are almost impossible to even identify – and as we move on the complexities seem to increase.

The idea that people are equal, that their ability should determine their future, has still to take root. The question we need to ask is how this can happen. In any society, change takes a very long time in coming. Divisions based on class and other factors linked in to them do not completely vanish – with perhaps a few exceptions. In our case we have created even new divisions as a result of discriminations based on belief, ethnicity and other factors.

We need to find ways to create unity across these, by building respect for people – rather than their background – and inculcating these ideas everywhere, as a means to overcome the harsh prejudice we see even among the very young. Giving opportunity is crucial to creating more equilibrium in society, reducing frustration, anger and anxiety within it. And this is something we must attempt to do.

The social schisms we see have been catastrophic, and will become even more so as time goes on and social tensions continue to increase. We must find ways to bind our society more closely together so that it can move forward in coordinated steps, rather than jerky spasms.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor Email: kamilahyat at


The above article from the News is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use