Covid-19 Beyond the Physical to the Psychological: How educated Muslim women’s negotiated empowerment fell back to orthodoxy of patriarchy in Pakistan (by Musarat Yasmin)

Born and raised in Pakistan, our guest blogger this week, Musarat Yasmin, earned her MA in Applied Linguistics from University of Reading, UK and PhD from Pakistan in collaboration with San Jose University. Since 2014, she has been an Assistant Professor at the University of Gujrat, Pakistan. Her research interests include ESP, TESOL, Education and Technology, Gender and Discourse Analysis. She spent last 12 years on designing curricula for M. Phil Linguistics, ESP courses, and establishing a language centre that offered courses in French, German and English to potential candidates of immigration to Europe and Canada. She also serves as a co-editor for university journal and as a reviewer for several international journals. Besides academic activities, Musarat enjoys traveling and experiencing cultures whenever she finds an opportunity and time. Painting and crafting, her second nature, relax her after any hectic routine.  

Musarat Yasmin

Covid-19 as a pandemic is not limited to physical illness, mortality, and quarantine. It has effects on the social, psychological, cultural, and economic arenas of daily life. It is not only humans who are contracting viruses, but their whole sphere of life is threatened- the environment they live in, the medium they breathe in—their struggles towards the development of humanity and their progress in the fields of knowledge. The media shows men as a major victim of the pandemic around the globe. But the pandemic in its impact is not limited to just the physical; it is deeply infectious to the psyche as well. Women, especially in religio-patriarchal communities like Pakistan, have become more vulnerable to psychological pressures and strains.

The emergence of the new normal has reinforced the vulnerability of women’s nascent negotiated identity in traditional South Asian societies by landing them in a space where they are supposed by the normative structures to step back to carry out their traditional responsibilities as ‘good’ wife and mother during the crisis. The pandemic for Muslim women has resulted in the form of the increased burden of unrecognized, unpaid domestic labour and domestic violence. Consequently, it has caused them mental stress and apprehension regarding the loss of the identity that they had long negotiated their religio-traditional structures to achieve. In semi-structured interviews with Rida, Nisa and Nayab (Safdar & Yasmin, 2020), I came to understand how the pandemic is a spiral tunnel taking those women back to the patriarchally dominant spaces they had been fighting against with their education and interpretation of their roles.

Doing jobs outside the home, they had become accustomed to such an environment that they considered professional and used to think and act professionally as useful and empowered persons of the society. But the lockdown leads them back to their traditional role, taking their empowerment away, forcing them to face the harsh behaviours of their male life-partners, which added to the mental stress they were already suffering from because of the widespread fear of the pandemic. According to Nisa,

It has been hardly a week since we stopped going to the university, but I do not remember even a single day when I did not feel as if imprisoned in the four walls of the house being mentally tormented by the almost daily harsh behaviour of my husband. He keeps looking for excuses to taunt me for one thing or another. I always try my best to avoid behaving badly with him, but it makes me mentally upset.

Though her educated, professional, and economically empowered positionalities and identities enable her to discern the patriarchal suppression and to negotiate, the religio-culturally defined educated wife and mother role makes her behave patiently and modestly. Fighting against and suppressing her identity as an empowered and intellectually mobile woman while ‘embodying a good wife and mother’ has created unusual psychological pressure for Nisa. This sense of imprisonment is a common feeling. Women’s intellectual and performative revolt against social structures is at a halt. Rida renders similar views, though she is not under the direct influence of patriarchy, being a divorced single mother.

What makes me upset is the feeling that this disease seems to have imprisoned me in my home and made me feel like the traditional woman that I have always fought against to make myself.

The pandemic for them is a super-authoritarian man that has deprived them of their power to negotiate the traditional patriarchal norms. They have to situate their thinking, feelings, and actions within the family’s socio-cultural hyper-conservative structures. Their mobility does not mean that social and familial norms have undergone some drastic and established change. Though cultural fluidity giving rise to women’s mobility and less conservative social spaces in contemporary globalized Pakistan cannot be denied, its effects are still restricted mostly to people’s private lives rather than seen generally in society.

Multiple positions and a variety of perspectives are significant in order to achieve authentic viewpoints. I have chosen Nayab, who is different from Nisa and Rida as she is an average educated housewife with a husband who is more interested and involved in his professional matters than those of the home. Though she has negotiated her position as a housewife and mother, lockdown measures and quarantine have increased her exposure to psycho-patriarchal pressure due to the government policy of work from home. This negotiated position comes under threat when her husband has to stay at home all the time due to the lockdown. She says:

His [her husband’s] rebukes have increased in frequency and severity. Previously, it was just sometimes that he taunted me for my being less intelligent and educated. I know that I’m not as much educated as he is. But I can take care of my home very well, and I’ve told him this. During his stay at home, losing his temper even on tiny matters like noise of the children and then taunting me of not being able to keep them quiet has grown with him.

The outbreak of Covid-19 and the emergence of the new normal has threatened educated Muslim women’s identity no matter if she is a housewife, professional or a divorcee. My interaction with these three women maintains the idea that pandemic isn’t only affecting the social, cultural, and economic sphere. The negotiated gender identity of educated women has undergone a drastic change beyond physical to domestic violence, causing psychological pressure and eventually leading them to a feeling of imprisonment. Their empowerment fell back to the old patriarchal system. Their psychological scars due to confinement and their husbands’ oppressive and even insulting behavior may be stored in their unconscious and not be healed for a long time. Psychological pressure on them can also leave a long-lasting impression on their children’s psyche and behaviour as well. Given the dominant general social behaviour towards the state’s treatment of gender, what is considered of paramount importance by all three women during the abnormal pandemic circumstances, is to conform to the normative structures while innovating new forms of re-positioning and re-negotiating their identity in their respective contexts.


Safdar, M., & Yasmin, M. (2020). COVID‐19: A threat to educated Muslim women’s negotiated identity in Pakistan. Gender, Work & Organization, 27(5), 683–694.

3 thoughts on “Covid-19 Beyond the Physical to the Psychological: How educated Muslim women’s negotiated empowerment fell back to orthodoxy of patriarchy in Pakistan (by Musarat Yasmin)

  1. It is a brilliant piece of research, which shows keen observation on the real-life issues of educated Muslim women under the effects of Covid-19.

  2. Awesome. The blogger has highly been successful in portraying the true picture of the sufferings pf Pakistani household wives. Great work indeed. Cheers!

  3. Covid-19 has, indeed, exposed the precariousness of Muslim women’s negotiated empowerment which is based in interstitial space between modernity and tradition. This blog has truly explored and highlighted the fragility of women’s agency in Pakistan.

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