The distinction between the public and private realms has occupied a central place in feminist thought since centuries. Crushing the distinction between the two spheres has been crucial to the feminist struggle. Broadly stated, the public-private distinction outlines that the public realm must not intervene in the private sphere in which, as Raia Prokhovnik points out, individuals are considered to be “the final arbiters” of their decisions and actions. While the private includes the oikos – the household or the domestic sphere, the public refers to the polis, the civil society and the government. This distinction, according to feminists, has been the root cause of subordination and exploitation of women at the hands of their male counterparts. The reasons as to why this distinction is viewed as “the source” of women’s oppression are two-fold. First, the private sphere is considered to be beyond the scope of public reproach and political accountability; second, the energy and time invested in, and the work done by women in the private realm is not as valued as that done by men in the public sphere. This article sheds light on the former aspect.

The idea of a private life signifies a realm which is entitled to non-accountability and non-intervention, and pertains to personal arrangements of one’s domestic matters. In contrast, matters which are deemed to be in the interest of the public at large, are considered to be subject to public scrutiny. In countries like Pakistan, a rigid line of demarcation is often drawn, whereby, the public realm is considered to be the world of men, whereas, the private sphere is reserved for women. This wide classification highlights that there are certain matters which have a private attribute and in which the public ought not to be interested, such as, the act of abusing or beating one’s wife. This label of “privateness” serves to exempt the domestic sphere from the rule of law, and perpetuates gender-based atrocities. Even though, the legislators of this country have attempted to curb the plight of women in the private sphere by passing laws such as the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2012; the private sphere still enjoys a great degree of immunity from state regulation, and underscores the right of men to dominate their homes.

The presumptive entitlement that domestic matters such as abusing one’s wife through physical violence should be protected from any and all public intrusion needs to be exorcised. Eliminating this distinction is quintessential for the physical, psychological and the economic well-being of women. The damage caused by domestic acts of violence cannot be redressed until such acts are perceived to be significant enough to be subject to public scrutiny and reproach. Pakistan’s ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) obliges it to respect and protect women both in the domestic and the public sphere. This can only be done by triggering a lasting transformation in the socio-economic institutions of this country which are structured and shaped by the beliefs, attitudes and norms of the community. Surely, freedom and equality are not merely prerogatives of designated members of the public sphere.

The writer is an Advocate of the High Courts in Pakistan, and can be reached at