Within the Pakistani elite, there is a general consensus that sex education is important. It not only helps improve developmental variables like healthcare and population but also broadens one’s knowledge regarding the biological mechanisms that underlie human reproduction. In stark contrast, the less-privileged consider it the worst of social taboos. What psychological rationale causes them to think this way? Why is lower-income and rural Pakistan so against the concept of sex education, steering clear of topic altogether?
Over the past few years, several programmes promoting the idea for the youth and adults alike have been initiated but met with great controversy. Lack of awareness perpetuates problems not just at the domestic level but for the nation as the ever-increasing population depletes scarce resources and increases the burden on government officials.
On most accounts, Pakistanis simply shy away from the topic or refuse to respond. According to 33-year-old domestic worker Farzana, “Discussing such issues is taboo.” This hints at the inconsequential role women play within this realm: they hardly have much of an opinion and those who might are too afraid of expressing it.
Unfortunately, Farzana is hardly alone in this predicament. Many other women like Khursheeda Begum disregard the importance of education claiming, “The role of a woman is to bear children for her husband and that is all.” They seem to have internalised and sort of accepted this single-track ideology, fearing that awareness and education will create egalitarian friction between them and their husbands. What is even worse is that their submissiveness reinforces their own subservient nature and the idea that they are nothing more than vehicles of child-birth.
The experiences of domestic workers Rashida and Laveeza fuels the story further as both women admit to having no say in the number of children they wish to conceive. When asked about their ideal family sizes, both responded by saying that, “It depends on our husbands — women have no say in the matter.” Even though most academics, humanitarians and the general public would advocate that family planning and fertility are the responsibility of both the husband and wife, Rashida, Laveeza and countless other women feel is it solely their burden. This indicates either an avoidance or wilful internalisation of skewed stereotypes that discourage people from discussion.
In contrast to this attitude, academics like Dr Framji Minwalla campaign for greater awareness of the subject as part of our academic curricula. As Assistant Professor and Chairperson of Social Science and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi, Framji believes that, “It is truly necessary for people to know and inform others about such things,” he says. “It should be explained as a natural occurrence without any moral editorialising. This will help our children in the long run.”
“The problem is that women in the lower income brackets of society are often too oppressed to do or say anything against their in-laws, especially their husbands,” says educationist Azra Hasan. “Discussion should be encouraged, at least with one’s spouse or even an immediate family member. Its time we wake up and accept it as a part of normal family life.”
However, while women are the child-bearers, discussing the importance of sex education would be incomplete without consulting their male counterparts. There is an interesting dichotomy between the views of the educated man and educated woman: most men with even the slightest bit of academic exposure consider such discussions important for a happy family life. One such individual is Mufeez who works as a driver to an upper middle class family. After speaking about Alexander the Great in order to confirm his educational prowess, Mufeez goes on to say, “Education, be it academic or any other, is important for both men and women.”
Even though the average male domestic worker propagates early marriage for women, the size of the family, intricacies of child-bearing and contraception are issues they willingly accept. This highlights an important link between education and the prevailing attitude towards family life, implying that a more educated person is less likely to adhere to age-old, pre conceived notions. Another driver, Riasat, shares the story of his daughter saying, “Even though she got married early and her mother-in-law insisted on a grandchild, my daughter and son-in-law agreed to wait before starting a family. Also, it was a mutual decision. They want to be more secure financially before becoming parents.” From this, one can conclude that financial stability has begun to take precedence within the Pakistani social fabric and people are warming up to the idea of family planning and related discussions. Perhaps Mufeez and Riasat’s long-term employment within upper social strata has encouraged them to move away from social conventions and change their beliefs.
“The downside is that the average Pakistani man is not so educated,” explains Azra. “The common man, especially one from the rural parts of the country, doesn’t generally care for such ‘feminine’ issues. Planning is low and contraception is solely the wife’s responsibility — the wife who is much too afraid of her husband to say anything.” This points back towards the patriarchal society we live in and how most women have no say in a range of discussions. What’s more, many like 28-year-old construction worker Hannan see nothing wrong with that. “Men are powerful and strong,” he says. “Women are not. They should, therefore, serve the purposes of men whatever they might be.” There is an element of self-validation in the alpha male which comes across when speaking to these men. Abdullah, a colleague of Hannan’s, shares the same sentiments. “Such information is not important at all,” he claims. “The number of children I want is my choice. What need is there for a woman to be educated about it?”
Perhaps it is due to the lack of knowledge that Pakistani women are unable to differentiate between consensual and non-consensual activities. This, coupled with the prevalent alpha male construct, has created a rape culture that has pervaded Pakistani domesticity on many levels. Women are frequently tormented, physically and psychologically, because the man ‘asserts his will’ and there is little they can do about it. It is then that sex education warrants even greater attention: in order to aid the destitute and cultivate a sense of equal responsibility between men and women, some degree of education must be provided.
Views and opinions are something so abstract and varied in Pakistan that bringing about change is a daunting task. However, we must remember the link between education and social attitudes: if people are taught rather than left to their own devices, they will become more open to healthy discussions.
Education is the key to social change. One can go on and on about the importance of awareness but until people are educated otherwise, there will always remain a dichotomy at the heart of the problem — the alpha male and the woman just standing. there on the wayside.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, June 22nd, 2014.