Early this week there was an editorial in this newspaper about breast cancer awareness that caught my eye, and I duly posted it to my Facebook page. The editorial was a reality jolt — maybe as many as 40,000 women die of breast cancer every year in Pakistan out of 90,000 new cases. Shocking as the statistics may have been it was the comments that quickly got posted beneath that have prompted this week’s musings, because they reveal another aspect of that bane of the lives of any woman in Pakistan whatever her class or social status — honour.
In the interests of the big picture I just checked on the digital edition of the newspaper and found that the editorial had been ‘shared’ 139 times since it was published but there was not a single comment posted below it. Not a word. Not a peep. By contrast there was lively debate on the Facebook page, none of it easy reading.
A common theme emerged — breast cancer is an ‘honour’ issue. Although the responses were all anecdotal and therefore unscientific and unverified, they had the ring of truth about them. Men have been known to conceal the presence of women in the house when breast-cancer awareness activists come calling. Women themselves conceal their symptoms often until they are far advanced because of the ‘shame’ of having their breasts examined. There is reportedly little pick-up on the subject by the media — and I can well imagine the chaos inside the minds of the TV people as they try and get their traditional and very conservative brains around the idea of talking live on air about body parts normally swathed under layers of clothing. Just imagine how the graphics department would receive a request to deal with that one!
One respondent — who works for an NGO that promotes breast health awareness — pointed out that men also contracted breast cancer. Another pondered what the point of having a Pink Ribbon awareness campaign was if there was not a local grassroots campaign of education and awareness; and they wondered what a pink ribbon was going to say to anybody. This was swiftly countered (by a man) who commented that he had worn a pink ribbon and been asked, in Pakistan, by women — what it represented.
There were several discussions off the Facebook page that for reasons of confidentiality I will not directly refer to here, but almost without exception the discussions that were held in a private space (I regard FB as ‘public’ no matter what you think your privacy settings are) revolved around concepts of ‘honour’ and how that is understood and interpreted. The other theme to emerge was just how uncomfortable people, men as well as women, were with their bodies and the profound sense of shame and fear that some had when it came to body-awareness. People were just not comfortable in their skins.
It goes wider. A public swimming competition for women is unthinkable, even more so if they are to be wearing swimming costumes. Mixed community marathons? They seem to have died a death after a brief flowering a few years back. Women in sport generally — unless it’s cricket and even then only very grudgingly. A Christian woman weightlifter has recently achieved brief prominence but any sport that might involve changing out of your street clothes or wearing a version of the national dress that was in the slightest revealing… was taboo.
But back to breast cancer and ‘honour’. I have no reason to doubt any of the men and women I had dialogue with over a couple of days, and the link between low breast health awareness and patriarchy and misogyny is clear enough. Somebody somewhere in the editorial side of this newspaper decided to run an editorial on breast cancer awareness, and somebody else even higher up the chain of command will have had to agree to that. That is a bold decision, even in a newspaper that may be regarded as among the more liberal in the country, and I doubt it would ever be mirrored in the Urdu press. Spread the word ladies and gentlemen — breast cancer awareness saves lives. Quite possibly your own. Think about it.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 8th, 2015.