Stories about taboo

‘Re-virginising’ in a tube: ‘Purity’ for sale at Pakistani pharmacies

A few months ago, I noticed pharmacies in Karachi were carrying topical cures for lost virginity, “re-virginising” in a tube. These over-the-counter fixes were everywhere – counters in large supermarkets, small pharmacies acting as corner shops – hard to miss once you knew it was out there. One of the names is hard to forget, ‘B-Virgin’, the package displaying a youthful girl smiling at white flowers. I admit there is the potential for dark humour given the name; instead it just makes me very sad. This is the message we are giving our girls, our women. “Don’t be true to yourself; instead invest, medicate and ...

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Why ban cousin marriages in America?

Cousin marriages – while common in Muslim societies – are a big taboo in the US. In fact, 25 US states actually ban such marriages. And the Muslim youth, inadvertently, is buying into this idea. On the contrary, acceptance for same-sex marriage is gaining such popularity that President Obama invoked gay rights in his inaugural address. My advice; never go to a barber shop in America while you are still mulling over such controversial topics because your mind may sputter a question like, “Why do we smother the discussion on the topic of first cousin marriages?” And you may get a response like, “Well, you don’t have to be an Einstein to know ...

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Is smoking banned for women in Pakistan?

“Isn’t smoking for women banned in Islam?” asked a friend from the UK. “Are you allowed to smoke in Pakistan, being a woman?” Many times, women in this great nation come across such questions. Having attempted to clear these misconceptions a number of times, it was only pragmatic, if not necessary, to search for the root cause of these misgivings. Is Islam being hijacked by our cultures, traditions and social norms? My answer, plainly, was, “No, smoking is not banned for women in Pakistan.” With his flabbergasted look, I realised that my answer did not pacify the curiosity of this media-influenced gentleman. Smoking in ...

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Steal a baby, sell a baby

Fact is stranger than fiction. At least with fiction, you can chew out the author for writing a predictable ending or for using outlandish plot twists. Sadly, some stories in life seem to be built entirely on outlandish plot twists. On the 22nd of March, the police in Bhara Kahu, right outside Islamabad, busted a couple who stand accused of conducting illegal abortions, including dangerous late-stage ones, and selling the babies that survived. Sounds a lot like Hell’s version of the sustainable development model. To top it off, the couple shares a bond of blood with one of the accused in ...

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Trading sex on Zamzama

As a regular commuter in this cauldron of mixed sights known as the metropolis of Karachi, I see diversity amidst the cacophony of ethnicity, race, language and cultural values and I also see the growing perpetual prostitution lining the streets of Zamzama – which has perhaps truly evolved as a one-stop shopping district. They say it’s the oldest profession in the world, but come what may in Karachi it seems to be the newest one. Somehow every street has become a rendezvous for a potential client and provider. Women continue to sell their bodies to earn a livelihood; admittedly this has ...

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Sexual abuse: A victim’s diary

It didn’t take much time for me to spill my heart out. My secret had become too much to bear. I needed someone, anyone, to hear the anguish I had hidden for so many years. I sat on a chair facing the psychotherapist, my face tense, my hands trembling. As I revealed my deepest and darkest secret, I burst into tears. My story is not new to the therapist. Sexual harassment is common even among the rich. A perfectly made-up face and bright smile camouflage secrets that I had refused to face for a long time. Between heart-wrenching sobs, I started. I live ...

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No homosexuality in Pakistan, and other lies

While visiting Karachi University a few months back for a fieldwork assignment, I had a rather peculiar run-in with a group of clinical psychologists. All of them were involved in clinical and rehabilitative projects and had recently banded together to start a small forum to teach people aspiring to enter mental health and also to disseminate specialised information among professionals. They felt that such knowledge was largely disaggregated in Pakistan.  This meeting was atypical for me since it was one of my first encounters with a group of well educated and professionally active psychologists who wanted to inject some vigour into the ...

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Depression: Shamed into silence

In the dictionary, the term depression is defined as a ‘severe despondency and dejection, accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy’ or as a ‘condition of mental disturbance, typically with lack of energy and difficulty in maintaining concentration or interest in life’. However, nowhere in the above definitions, have we come across the words ‘weakness’ or ‘illness’. So, why do our people of South Asian origin consider depression as something disgraceful? Studies have shown that women are more likely to suffer from depression than men are and, from the list of ethnic identities, South Asian women – whether they are Pakistani, ...

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Transgender: Of sense and sexuality

I talk about AIDS, sex and sexuality. Don’t look at me that way. I, too, belong to a religious conservative family. No, I am not a non-believer. No, I do not have AIDS. Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I have morals. This issue has been taboo, cursed and frowned upon. It has been buried so deep, that it is almost impossible to even think about talking of. But I do. I conduct and facilitate workshops on  HIV/AIDS awareness. ————— This is the story of two people I met a couple of weeks ago. They both liked boys. They were both shy, and could not speak at ...

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Banning opinion: What would Gandhi do?

In the words of 16th century English author and philosopher Francis Bacon: Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. In the 21st century, a section of Indian politicians want to add one more line to this sentence: some books are to be banned without reading and knowing the name of the author. Pulitzer Prize winning author, Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: ...

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