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Female foeticide: A curse of modern times

First published as cover story in The Rationale June 2012:

The first time I personally heard of female foeticide( abortion of female foetus) being practiced in India, was during my clinical posting in the Radiology department as a Medical student in Delhi, in the late 80s. The patient with third pregnancy, and two previous girls, two girls, wanted to know the gender of the baby in the Ultrasound at 6 weeks.

The annoyed registrar had shooed her away, but then shared with us in the doctors room, that : “She will in any case go to a private clinic, get the gender detected and will definitely abort it of found a girl”.

We as students expressed our dismay, a male registrar retorted in humor: “Evil should be nipped in bud.”

Female foeticide, killing the female fetus in the womb, is a modern phenomenon, as compared to the age old existence of Female Infanticide, the killing of the female new born or infant. It began in Asian societies like India and China sometime in the late seventies, coinciding with the campaigns of family planning, easing of medical termination of pregnancy (also called legal abortions) and with availability of the ultrasound machine to monitor pregnancy. Although, there were other tools available for checking the sex of the fetus  through amniocentesis, but was an invasive procedure, and could lead to complications like abortion. Moreover, unlike the Ultrasound, Amniocentesis was not a tool available to the layman, or semi-trained medical professionals to abuse it to their advantage.

As a medical professional and as a female member this very society, one kept hearing of the news of women asking for gender detection, simply to select the baby of their choice

However, it was the 2001 census which shocked the world. It brought forth the hard figures that the practice of female foeticide was not just existent, but flourishing. The overall Indian ratio of 927 girls to 1000 boys in the 0-6 year’s age group, when in the world the ratio was 1045 vs 1000. The statistics were more skewed in the Northern Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh etc than in the Southern states.

And it went on, quietly, unabated, under the cover of legal abortions, and with Ultrasound getting cheaper and more easily available to all levels of health workers. The trend caught up, rose in numbers and spread to other states.
The census reports for the 2011 nailed the speculation that the trend was catching pace, with the stats now being 914 vs 100 for girls vs boys. In some of the states it has gone to as low as in 800s e.g. Uttar Pradesh (899 girls for 1,000 boys), Haryana (830), Punjab (846) and national capital Delhi (866).
The conditional sex ratio for second-order births when the firstborn was a girl, fell from 906 per 1000 boys (99% CI 798—1013) in 1990 to 836 (733—939) in 2005; an annual decline of 0•52% (p for trend=0•002), reported medical journal Lancet in May 2011.

What also came forth in the 2001 census was that it was more of an urban phenomenon and more so practiced by the upper middle class of educated families.

The Urban and Rural ratios being 946 and 900 respectively, to 1000 boys.

“Declines were much greater in mothers with 10 or more years of education than in mothers with no education, and in wealthier households compared with poorer households.” reported a Study published in Lancet, in May 2011.

Better economic conditions and higher education, instead of improving their thinking, enabled their misogynistic mindset to dispense away the extra income, and abuse the modern technology to their advantage. Thus defeating our age old myths of education, and economic circumstances will increase the plight of women. Perhaps our technological knowhow and economic affluence has developed faster than our brains.

The irony is that it is the same communities affluent, well educated, and even God fearing religious strata of society, who celebrates ‘Kanjak’, the day when young girls are worshipped as Goddesses, has now started to kill their own Goddesses in the womb.

Innovations in bypassing the laws:
In the mid 80s some Indian states began passing legislation like the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, which banned sex determination tests. In the 90s the same act was legislated in the centre too. The Act carries a three-year imprisonment and Rs10, 000 fines for offenders, prohibiting the gender disclosure of the foetus during Ultra sound. However, tens of thousands of Private clinics with cheaper version of Ultrasound machines had mushroomed till then, all over the North Indian cities, performing the gender detection and the abortion of the female foetus as a ‘package’.

There have been reports that certain clinics in small cities display openly billboards with incentives: “Do you want to spend 500 or 50 lakhs” referring to the cost of abortion against the cost of raising a girl child and marrying her off with a dowry.
The gender disclosure law which was an offence, is creatively bypassed, by using code words like: For girl vs boy as:
Jai Mata Di vs Jai Sri Krishna
Pink city Jaipur vs Blue City Jodhpur
Jalebi vs Laddoo.

It is not just the men of the family, but the senior women like the mothers in law who coerce the women to resort to sex selection. Many expectant mothers have to undergo multiple abortions, jeopardising their health before the desired boy is conceived.
Needless to repeat it the mindset of boys being ‘assets ’, kul deepaks (the lamps of heritage) , are looked up as bread winners, carers for the old age, continuation of family name, as a necessity to perform the last rites of the parents.
On the other hand the impression of girls as liabilities, ‘paraya dhan’ (someone else’s wealth), ‘bojh’ (burden) because of the expense involved in marrying them off with a fat dowry, need to protect them physically and morally, and likely to bring disrepute to the family if their morality is lost.

UNPFA report “India Towards Population and Development Goals”(1997), estimates that 48 million women were ‘missing’ from India’s population since the turn of the century. The report further states “If the sex ratio of 1036 females per 1000 males observed in some states of Kerala in 1991 had prevailed in the whole country, the number of would be 455 million instead of the 407 million (in the 1991 census). Thus, there is a case of between 32 to 48 million missing females in the Indian society as of 1991 that needs to be explained.”

According to UNICEF, India tops the list as far as illegal abortions and female foeticides are concerned. Of the 15 million illegal abortions carried out in the world in 1997, India accounted for 4 million, 90% of which were intended to eliminate the girl child.

Another study reported in the Lancet journal indicates that 8-10 million females were aborted during the past 10 years,( from 2001 to 2011) mainly to couples whose firstborn was a girl and among the more well-off families. This number is much bigger than all the men and women killed in genocides put together.
Much to the dismay, a recent report published by Toronto Star, talked of preliminary reports of such skewed ratios, in favour of a boy, in the second and third order births among the Indians settled in Canada.

However, this phenomenon is not just restricted to India; another major country facing the menace of female foeticide is China.

The preference for boys, in China too is tied to their religious belief that male heirs are necessary to carry on the family name and take care of the family spirits. A Chinese family worries that if there is no son no one will look after them and keep them company in the afterlife. Confucius said, “There are three ways of being disloyal to your ancestors. Not carrying on the family name is the worse.”

Chinese parents openly celebrate when they have boys, and some even show disappointment when they have girls. Newborn girls are given names like Pandi (“expecting a boy”), Yanan (“second to a boy”) in hopes the next child will be a boy. Six million women bear the names Lai-di (“call for a brother”) and Ziao-di (“bring a brother”).
“Daughters are like water that splashes out of the family and cannot be gotten back after marriage.”, a Chinese saying resonates with the belief we as South Asians have of girls being a ‘guest’ in their parents homes.

The statistics suggest that China did not have a skewed male: female ratio till the one child norm was enforced. After the enforcement, the rate of abortion of female fetuses increased in China, thereby accelerating a demographic decline after 1979. As most Chinese families are given incentives to have only one child, they would want it to be a son. However later the Law was eased especially for those who had a first girl child, hence giving a legal government sanction to the preference of a boy.
In 2005 figures, 118 boys were born for every 100 girls, up from 110 boys per 100 girls in 2000 and 112 in 1990.

Recently in the past few years, Vietnam has experienced an unusual rapid change in the sex ratio at birth.. The ratio was about 106 male births per 100 female births, in 2000 and has it increased to 112 in 2008.

“Currently, China reports higher sex ratio at birth than Vietnam. However, what is striking in Vietnam is the unusually rapid rise of the SRB [sex ratio at birth] recorded over the last few years.” says a UNFPA representative.

There are no studies existent from Pakistan, but as mentioned in by an investigating journalist in the TV program Lekin by Sana Bucha, there are 3,000 single room clinics existent just in Karachi, with one or two employees, performing illegal abortions, 90% of them being for the female child. This is despite of abortions being illegal in Pakistan, unlike in India or China. This could be just the tip of the iceberg.

A 2005 study estimated that over 90 million females were “missing” from the expected population in Asian countries including China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, South Korea and Taiwan alone, and suggested that sex-selective abortion plays a huge role in this deficit.

Research suggests that instead of economic conditions, like poverty or education, it is the cultural beliefs that play a much larger role in gender preference and sex-selective abortion. To prove this, in places like sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean such deviations in sex ratios do not exist in.

As scientific progress furthers and the technology becomes more affordable and available to the common man, the curse of Female feticide, is likely to follow the course it is following currently. There are already available on internet, home monitoring kits, to detect the sex of the new foetus from blood or even urine samples. With abortion techniques getting more medical than surgical, the situation may simply go out of hands of the health personnel even..

The affluent and the educated who perform this would realise its curse only as it will be going to bite them back when their sons will find it extremely daunting task to find brides, and will be forced to stay bachelors.
It is estimated that by 2020 there could be more than 35 million young ‘surplus’ males in China and 25 million in India.

This has actually begun to be seen in smaller scale in various states in India and China. It is already happening that single men are more involved in violence and crimes, resorting to drug addiction and alcoholism, after being frustrated to find a suitable spouse. Women once again are being punished with a rise in rapes, in prostitution demands and through other crimes against them. In some places there have been reports of women being forced to share husbands (polyandry).

In India, the legislation prohibiting gender-selective abortions has so far been evaded easily, and there have hardly been any prosecutions. One wonder what is it that will change the mindsets if education and affluence could not. Would any activism, any mass media campaigns, any icons be able to change this?

My heart shudders to imagine, where and when shall this stop, if at all.
Are we just going to learn it the real hard way?

Dr. Ilmana Fasih
19 May 2012


Our taunts at West Indies: Who is the most racist of them all?

Published in Express Tribunes Blogs:

Less than a couple of months ago, a colleague of mine, who is of African American descent, and a Muslim convert, mentioned to me an incident:

“You know I was sitting in the mosque for the taraweeh and there was a South Asian woman sitting next to me. While talking on her cellphone, she made some reference which I’m sure was for me ─ ‘kaali’ (black). The funniest of all the things was that she herself was not a shade lighter than me.”

Beneath a hearty laugh, I was terribly embarrassed. Almost as a rebound, I explained,

“You may have been mistaken, but yes, many of us are pretty colour conscious, and you can easily guess that by the amount of business we do with fairness creams. Not just the top brands, but top film stars from India and Pakistan, too, are eager to endorse those creams.”

To make her feel comfortable, I added my personal true story.

My husband’s loving aunt used to call me kaali, when I newly married him. She did this because their nephew (my husband) was a few shades fairer than me. She proudly told,

“He looked so angreiz (English/white) when he was born, that we gave him an English name ─ ‘Bobby’.”

As her fascination for his skin colour still continues, she calls him Bobby to date.

Beyond this personal experience, it was pretty unpalatable to keep hearing repeatedly, West Indians being referred as “kaali andhi” (black storm) by a mainstream Pakistani channel for the past two days.

As the game progressed and West Indians got closer to the victory stand, some of us started to lose our control and the ‘kaaley, shadeed kaaley’ (black, very black) references spilled all over my social media timelines, the commonest one being:

“Hum kaaley hain to kya huwa, trophy waaley hain.”

(So what if we are black? We have the trophy.)

Here are some tweets from my timeline during the match:

Mariyam Ali Dhillon ‏@MariyamAli
“The Kali Andhi rises”. VEHSHI! #WIvsSL

Amidst there were occasional sane tweets, expressing their dismay at the references:

Maria Memon ‏@Maria_Memon
Kindly spare us the “Kaalay” jokes. #NotFunny

R. ‏@rahimaxarsenaL
Jesus Christ, Geo. Kaali aandhi? That’s effing racist.

Shoaib Taimur ‏@shobz
Cricket exposes the racism in our people. just check their FB statuses and Tweets.

In reply, some had ample justification for the use of these terms, with expressions such as:

FurSid ‏@fursid
#TwitterRage making a mountain out of mole hill – #kaaliAndhi#racism #twitterPhadda #idiotism

Mansoor Zia ‏@nOxym0ron
@shobz Sometimes, it’s just a joke. People take life too seriously and worse, too literally.

There definitely is a background to this “black storm” reference. It’s from back in the 70s and 80s, when the West Indians were the reigning kings and feared for their strength.

Since most people explained themselves by saying that the reference wasn’t offensive and had been used for a very long time, I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. I Googled the history of this reference and its link with the West Indians.

I did not find a single reference on the internet of the West Indians being called the “black storm” in the 70s/80s.

None of the international media had referred to them as the “black storm”, saving only some of our Pakistani mainstream newspapers. Are we the only ones, with the sharpest long term memory then?

Even on Twitter, the hash-tag #Blackwash barely had a dozen references, but the trigger word ‘kaaley’ was all over my timeline, with or without the hash-tag.

Moreover, how does this reference being 30-40 years old justify its political in-correctness?

Haven’t things changed since then on an international stage? Shouldn’t we then change our own mindsets, too?

Mind you, all the things I’ve quoted are from social media only. One can calculate how many folds thick the usage of such racial slurs has become in the real world.

However, on a more optimistic note, there was an overwhelming number of people who rejoiced over West Indians winning the ICC World T20 cup. I wish that the number will someday tilt the balance in their favour. For that to happen, we certainly need to educate the people and most importantly, the media. It is socially responsible and should realise what a colossal role it plays as an opinion leader. It is time they know that there is no option for them but to at least be responsible enough to convey ethically correct messages, and not merely echo the insensitive crowd-pleasers.

Please do not play politics with the health of innocent kids !

Published in @ETribune :

As the rest of the world is sprinting forward, we in Pakistan seem to be walking backwards. One used to get this sense sometimes, but now with passage of time, it comes more often. With the fact that most of the difficult places like India having grappled with a serious health issue like Polio, and are at the turn of calling themselves polio free, we in Pakistan are not just not close to that, but even retreating fast to make sure we get further away from this dream.

The news of North Waziristan deciding to impose Polio drops ban in their area as a protest against the drones, or the boycotting of Polio campaign in Drazinda village while protesting against the load shedding, brings in not just shivers to the health conscious on this globe, but also gives yet another reason for Pakistan to be a focus in the international circles for a ridiculous reason.

They have a right to register their protests against drone’s attacks, or of Dr Afridi’s betrayal or even against load shedding. But how is this justified by turning ones guns against the innocent kids who are in no way directly or indirectly responsible for any of these unfair actions.

How is banning of Polio drops to the kids going to make a difference to the drones? Is it not akin to hitting your own foot with an axe, crippling yourself even more, making your own children, who are the youth of tomorrow, be burdened with more illhealth and handicap? How will this help them stop drone attacks, or generate more electricity or prevent more Dr Afridis being recruited?

How are risking one’s own children to a crippled life, a way of avenging the atrocities of the aggressors?

As said by a twitter friend: “Taliban want to kick US outta Afghanistan/Pakistan but they never know kicking with polio affected legs is quite impossible ‪#PolioBan‬”

No atrocity is large enough to avenge the innocent kids, be they are from any ethnic community or faith or nationality. And to our horror, the Taleban are putting to risk their very own kids.

A tweep justifying the Polio ban remarks: “But people from your profession (referring to Dr Afridi) for betraying the Polio campaign”.

Does one or a few insincere health professionals justify you to make your own children risk being crippled with Polio. Who are you hurting by this? The health professionals or your own kids?

They argue the drones kill more children than from Polio? Yes this is true, and killing of children by drones is criminal like risking the health of innocent children by Polio ban is criminal too. They harm and kill your children, but you in return risk crippling your own children. Is there any commonsense in this logic?
Those who continue and justify drones by all means, will they stop by your threat of Polio ban? Who will it hurt the drones or your own kids?

Or is it because this is the easiest way out, to kick out the unarmed sincere medical personnel, and lash out at unaware innocent children, both of whom will not be able to defend back, this extremely  unfair decision, with equal force.

As a medical professional, I can only scream loud and cry that they have no right to aggressively jeopardise the health of the innocent, at the cost of another aggression.

Which sect of Islam, or which moral value of humanity or which aspect of the hospitality of the large hearted tribals justify for avenging a wrong action with usurping the rights of the meek and the powerless , innocent kids?

Avenging an injustice, by risking the health and crippling your own children for life?
What kind of courage and valour is this?

I am aghast to see that there are educated on Twitter who are justifying‪ the polio vaccination ban, what to talk of those who give it a silent support. ‪

Polio vaccination ‬ campaign should not be used as a shield against drones. It wont help, but be counterproductive. Will it harm the aggressors or the innocent Pakistani kids?

Polio isn’t petty politics for which politicians, civil society, liberals or conservatives, or general public should not speak up. For the health of Pakistani kids, and for the sake of humanity, please speak up.

I beg you all, please speak up against the Polio Vaccination ban.

This appeal was in response to this news :


Lawn ki kahani, meri zubani ( The story of Lawn in my words)

Published in TheNews Blog :

Designer lawn, designer lawn, designer lawn!

Every Sana, Nida and Hina is coming out with designer lawns.

Thankfully never a fan of lawn as a material, it does not awaken the woman in me.

However I remember my mother, who lives in Delhi, where summers are really biting, once came back from a trip to Pakistan in mid 80s, all excited, for having discovered a wonder cloth. She is a woman with sensitive skin, and sweat rash (garmee daaney, as we call it in desi jargon) was what she had to struggle with each Delhi summer.
Fed up of wearing starched Khadis (hand spun cotton) and malmals (muslin) in the sweltering heat, she said she found something which was soft, low maintenance, colorfast and did not need any starching. The picture she painted with her descriptions and expressions got me really curious to open up her suitcase and dig out the jewel, basically to choose which one was mine.

The result that came out of that digging was so befitting to the Hindi idiom “Khoda pahaar per nikla chooha aur woh bhi mara hua”
(From the digging came out a dead rat).

The first look of it was totally unappealing –bold designs on the shirt piece, with its giant replicas on the dupatta. Didn’t need to check the third of the half a dozen three piece suits she brought.

“What’s wrong with your taste? Ammi you’ll wear this?”

“They are so comfortable. And most of all they are so reasonable. One suit costs just Rs 225.”

She didn’t even bother to comment about my ‘taste’ rant.

From then on, I saw her pass all the worst days of summers in lawn suits. And when I got married in Pakistan (perhaps she must have prayed for this secretly for her own vested interests) all she wanted from me each visit was…”bring lawn ke suits, so that meri garmiyaan nikal jaayein.”

I remember from 1990 onwards, buying them for Ammi from Rs 250, Rs 450, Rs500, then Rs1000,  1200, 2500, and last I got for her was Rs 3500. Agree that with time, along with the prices, the designs evolved too. And they certainly got better.

But each time, Ammi felt uneasy with the price escalation. At the 3500 one she told me, “Enough, I don’t need a dress at this exorbitant price just to soak my sweat.”

And now with the advent of designer tag they have graduated to even five digit prices (at the higher end). And they usually begin from 4,000 going upto 12,000, I am told.

I remember some 2 years ago, hearing two cousins talking of outlets where they got the same designs as the big brands copied at much lower prices.

“The original is so expensive, so I buy the duplicate ones.”

“Even the previous year’s designs are available at cheaper price,” said the other.

Yes, but you know there is a teacher in my school who thinks she is very  smart. She instantly recognizes, ‘ye to pichle saal ka design hai’. So I can’t wear that. But woh kaminee tou isko bhi pehchaan jaati hai, ke ye duplicate hai.’

“Why do you need to copy? Or in fact wear designer lawn at all”, I asked.

She rubbished my question and moved on to some other topic.

This is certainly not to act snobbish, but I certainly find it hard to fathom the compulsion to owe one’s allegiance to these ‘disposable’ pieces of cloth which are so short term that they become obsolete the next season.

If I have so much money to spare( 5-7,000+ on a dress) , I will perhaps invest in a piece I can cherish for longer, and if you ask my secret desire, it would be on something I can pass on to my daughter. And indeed I have done exactly by getting hold of  some beautiful pieces with  Baluchi, Afghani or Sindhi hand embroideries.

Dump my hard earned money into a casual wear lawn suit which won’t last the next summer—no way.

In the background of so much disinterest for the designer fad, I was made to see this disgusting ad ( see the bottom pic) by a twitter pal.

And this perhaps was the boiling point of my emotions,  for the ‘designer lawn’ and hence I decided to blog my disdain for them.

With all the designer hype or price escalation, the brand had the audacity to show their product with coolies in the background.

What did they wish to relate to?

Was it the quality of attire in comparison? Oh ! Theirs is so simple, non designer unlike mine. Yet in my two dim visioned eyes, the poor men’s is the rawest of  cottons.


Was it about the worth of one’s labour? Oh look at us, how much we get for the every drop of sweat we shed in the labor for those ‘designs’. 


Was it about the matching colors?

But then, Buddhist monks and  Hindu sadhus too wear the color similar to the woman’s. With ‘Muslims’ as their major market, it was too much of a risk to take.

Oh,  yes, the coolies do not prick anyone’s sensitivity, so were  pretty risk free to have as a background.

Kudos to the imaginative  Advertising Company that thought of this ad and flexibility of the Designer Textile Company that approved of it and owned it.

To me personally this was absolutely nauseating…akin to showing middle finger to the poor fellows in the background.

So rightly had someone commented: “Thank you for hiding their faces with your brand name.”

Hats off to the Feudal mindset, yet another common man’s commodity, the lawn, has turned into an elitist product. Of course in business jargon this is called as ‘value addition’. So what if it gets unaffordable to the vast majority, at least it looks coool ( with a triple o) !

How I wish we did some value addition to Islam too, in Pakistan?

On a second thought, haven’t we?

With the  tags of suicide bombs, Ahmedi hate, Shia kafir rants, we have made it a brand which ordinary Muslims like me find hard to afford.

Celebrate the woman inside you !

Published in TheNewsBlog:

While discussing how one should celebrate International Women’s Day this year, a friend said:

“It is not just the abuse outside that we women need to fight, but we have to fight an inside war too.”

I did not quite understand what she really meant, but before I could ask she went on:

“You know what, this Women’s Day I am going to work without make up and jewellery. Just to be with myself.”  

Although I’m not someone who shuns make up and I consider every piece of good jewellery, a work of art, I without getting my friends point completely also agreed with her completely.

Men, women, young or old, who does not want to feel good. But to attach strings to ones external appearance with the feeling of goodness is when the trouble starts.

If the ‘feel good’ feeling is within one’s self esteem, the outer accessories will be for a mere change, not ‘improvement’.

I am often surprised why many agree to Marylyn Monroe’s quote “Every girl should be told that she looks beautiful. I was never told this in the childhood.”  I do not concur.

What every girl should be told is not that her face or pony tail or frock looks pretty but that her mind is beautiful or courage is awesome.

I have never heard someone tell a boy that his shirt or knickers look beautiful, instead they are told that they are strong or courageous. And thus comes the difference in perception of self as one grows up.

Apart from your upbringing, the fault also lies within how a woman is projected in the media as a commodity.  Fairness creams, slimming diets, cosmetic companies, and aesthetic clinics reap profits at the cost of a woman’s battered self esteem.

Is it not ironic that whether we get positive or negative comments on physical appearance, both induce the same anxiety to look better?

I learnt from a teacher who once said, if you compliment someone’s looks, is it not a silent statement to someone who you are not complementing that ‘you are not good looking.”  Hence if you can’t compliment everyone, it is better refrain from complementing at all.

I have a friend’s whose self esteem is so high that she often jokes:

“If anyone ridiculed me saying ‘ugly’ referring to my not so perfect looks I tell them, ‘I wish to hug you; because I know how hard life is for the visually impaired’.”

For many old school feminists wearing makeup and jewellery is anti-feminist and oppressive.  Yes the idea of not being able to leave the house without make up is anti-feminist, and to associate ‘make-up is beauty’ is anti-feminist. What also makes it oppressive is when one’s self worth is tied to one’s looks, hair, skin or size number.

Women who choose to wear or not wear makeup or jewellery are making a decision about how they wish to be perceived. If not conforming to the dictates and demands of society on appearance empowers women, then so be it. A feminist, who goes without make up, is no more or less feminist than a woman who does.

Feminism in my eyes is all about expression of one’s femininity in one’s own unique way. It certainly does not overlap with the standards laid down by someone else.

Adorning jewellery and makeup is an art form of self expression and not a tool to hide one’s flaws in order to look like the model that appears on the cover page of a magazine.

Self image has no bearing on one’s physical appearance. Obsessed with looking better, some women (who may even be extremely beautiful by world’s standards) and even some men get very insecure and suffer from poor self image. In extreme cases it may even be manifested as Body Dimorphic Disorder. The underlying depression and anxiety leads them to resort to dysfunctional eating disorders or unnecessary plastic surgery procedures.

So let people say or think whatever, know that you are beautiful. For beauty isn’t skin deep.

As for me, not just to support my friend, but to support the woman that lives inside me, my external self too will go without   jewellery and make up on International Women’s Day. It is not to show down my good old friends, jewellery or makeup, but to tell them that they may be dear to me but they are not indispensible.

Tip : Celebrate this International Women’s Day in a  way that makes  the inner woman  in you  feel empowered and beautiful.


Published in TheNewsBlog >>

It was destined that I had to watch it. Yes nothing but destiny could do that, knowing how averse to dramas I am. Overwhelmed with the real life political and social dramas that go around us, fiction has never touched my heart.

However, the imaginative FAREWELL TO HUMSAFAR potluck party called by a group of friends, with an invitation page on Facebook, was too attractive to refuse. I made it clear that I do not watch, knowing very well how much of emotional investment there is in the serial by all and sundry. The reply I got was: “No problems, it will be fun, but no asking questions during the episode.”

My daughter, a Humsafar fan herself, had warned me enough times.“Don’t you pass any derogatory comments on the drama.” On the way she briefed me with the story, so that I did not make a fool of myself, which she probably thought that I already was.

Two hours after the episode had been relayed in Pakistan, we were sitting facing the idiot box, with all techie girls busy streaming the HD episode on you tube.

As it began, almost at the spur of the moment I blurted: “Is this Asher?”

And all, almost a dozen and half heads turned with shock towards me. I knew I had announced my idiocy.

He was the only character I actually knew. How and why, is pretty interesting.

A few weeks ago I saw a status of my daughter on Facebook:

“Asher ♥.”
There were 64 ‘likes’ on it.

My heart almost missed a beat, wondering if this isn’t any cricketer, or any friend of hers I know, who is he? And then, 64 of her friends already know about him. How could she keep her friendly Mom so oblivious to this Asher in her life? It was then that I learnt about Humsafar, with a sigh of relief.

In barely less than ten minutes of watching, I could guess what the story was, minus the unnecessary details. It was a typical Mills & Boons in Urdu. My guess was later confirmed by the fact that the novel was first published in Khawateen Digest in several parts.

It even had the Starplus touch in its dialogues especially when Asher tell his mother, “So how do I know if I am also my father’s son?” in reply to his mother’s remarks “How can you say that is your child? How do we know where all had she been?”

It was a love story with all the essential desi elements- marriage by parental pressure, wicked mother in law’s conspiracy against daughter in law, an all loving, all sacrificing wife and finally a happy ending. And not to miss the other women in the extended family and another cousin, in love with the boy, all hell bent to make the marriage fail. As the end approached, all the puzzles fell in the right place, with the child finally proving to be the reuniting factor. So very filmi !

Half way through what really intrigued me : ‘Was it this boy, Asher, so manipulable, ( first by his emotional father into a marriage to a cousin, and then by a possessive mother who managed to kick his wife out of his life), is to whom my daughter and 64 other friends giving their hearts out to?
Thank my stars, this wasn’t a real Asher!

Luckily, my second silly question was interrupted by some head in the dark room, with, “You’re just allowed to take breaths, no talking please.”

There is no denial that the serial swept Pakistani women with age, class, and even location on the globe NO BAR.

Perhaps every woman saw a part of herself in Khirad- a woman who despite being strong, intelligent and with self respect bows down to other’s dictations in the major decision of her life, and then invests all her heart, mind and soul into that marriage. And once a mother, she resets her priorities.

I particularly liked how she did not beg proving her innocence and chose not to explain how ‘cleanly’ she spent the 4 years away from her husband, despite being blatantly questioned of her character by the ‘social worker’ mother in law. Indeed, to be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.

I recollected having once overheard my daughter joking to her brother “No matter how much Ammi is a woman’s rights advocate, she is going to be a harsh mother in law.” Now I knew who she had in her mind, when she said this.

Having said all that, it was a pleasure to know that amidst all the real life tragic dramas of Maya Khans or Waheeda Shahs, the 52% of Pakistan had some respite and diversion with a love story that had a happy ending.

May Asher, Khirad live happily ever after…

Gimme all your worries

Published in TheNews Blog :

“What if my boss doesn’t like my work?”

What if I get cancer?

What if I don’t pass the exam?

What if my friends don’t like my dress?

What if Mommy doesn’t come back from work?

Worries! Age, gender and ethnicity, is no bar. From babies to youth to middle aged to the elderly, we all have our share of them – a few valid, some too trivial to warrant a worry but we still do – but loads and loads of them are simply imaginary ones that never become real.

Some of us must have read the famous self help book by Dale Carnegie How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

Some technologically savvy might have googled ‘How to deal with anxieties’ and got the tips:

  • Prepare for the worst, hope for the best
  • Practice relaxation
  • List your blessing
  • Distract yourself, keep busy
  • Get support

Quite a few of us Moms and Dads must have dealt with worrying kids and must have used our own tools either as healing words, “I understand your concern, but be strong “, or simply giving a tight reassuring hug without saying “I’m beside you.”

Perhaps many of us may even have trivialised “That’s nothing to worry about?” without realising that it adds to their worries rather than help them.

A few days ago while visiting a museum for the Mayan Civilization Exhibition in Toronto; I came across a very simple yet unique and fascinating way of dealing with worries. My attention was drawn to the tiny, barely 2.5- 3cm long set of six miniature dolls placed with a name: “Guatemalan worry dolls”.

On a closer look, they were tiny dolls made out of wrapping cloth or wool over tiny wires shaped as dolls and each one had faces with eyes and a smile drawn on them.

Later as I dug into the details, I learnt that they are an ancient Mayan tradition which is still being practiced by the surviving descendants of the ancient Mayans which live in Central America, specifically in Guatemala.

The dolls usually come in a pack of six handmade dolls and a tiny bag to carry them.

It is said that if the children who worry are told to share their worry with the ‘worry doll’ and place it under the pillow imagining that the doll will take care of that worry. Each doll is told one worry at a time. Many a times parents take away the doll from below the pillow, so that when the kids wake up in the morning thinking that with the doll, the worry too has disappeared. However, sometimes if the worries are recurrent, not removing the doll implies that the doll is working on the ‘worry’ to disappear.

The tradition has been claimed to be scientifically sound and helps kids learn to ‘speak out’ their worries instead of internalising them into long lasting fears. It also gives a subtle message that ‘someone’ cares. It is also know to work as a good tool to inculcate a habit of sound sleep. However, this may work only in those with mild or moderate worries, but not so much in situations of extreme anxiety.

It is claimed that ‘worry dolls’ have also been used in the hospitals, for young and old, to allay anxiety in patients while they undergo surgeries or cancer treatments. Some claim to have used them in class rooms in schools and meeting rooms in offices to cope with stress, and to boost creativity. They are even used for emotional healing in incurable illnesses, dealing with deaths or even heart breaks. I think with the potential they have, there is no dearth of situations where ‘worry dolls’ can be used. Imagination is the limit to utilize them as calming companions.

Though not mentioned in the information on dolls, their ‘tiny’ size taking up seemingly ‘big’ worries must be playing its part in the process of relaxation too.

Apart from the therapeutic value, what fascinated me was the art of making these miniature dolls by wrapping up wool or cloth on wire and giving them a resemblance to someone who ‘cares’.

So aptly was it mentioned in the literature: “Make your own worry dolls at home, just give them a dress, two pairs of limbs and a smiley face? And see them in action. You needn’t be a Picasso or a Freud.”

Do not call them mad, please!

Published in The News Blog on February 22, 2012 :

When I feel feverish, lethargic, sneeze and have a runny nose, all know I suffer from common cold, and that I am infected with a virus. If I tell them that I went to see my GP and am taking meds, they all know medications will take care of me. No one will judge me. All will empathise, give an extra advice to take rest. Some will even hug me for support, without realising that I might be transferring the virus to them. Even if they get one next day, it will be just a passing mention, “Oh I too got your flu”.

If I feel low, lethargic, don’t feel happy, lose my appetite and cry for no reason, they all ‘know’ I am an ungrateful person, who has got everything from a good family to a good home to a good carrier and is still being thankless. Not many will hug me to say, Yes we know you are depressed and there has to be no reason for it. It is because of imbalance of chemicals in your brain.”

And if I tell them I am trying to help myself by going to a psychiatrist, and am on medications or psychotherapy, they would give a stunned look and say nothing. Not many will hug me or tell me “You did the right thing”.

I also know behind my back tongues will wag and eyes will roll. Some may even diagnose “I have gone mad.”

Yes they would give me advice to read scriptures to be thankful. Or to go to some Aalim or Pir and get my “nazar jhaaroed”.

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ,  almost 78 per cent of people are suffering from some kind of psychological disorder.

Indeed, 78% of us are affected with one form of psychiatric disorder or the other. It could be a mild anxiety with minor worries, on one end, to a full blown schizophrenia, on the other, where one is cut off from the reality of this world, which in medical terminology is called “loss of insight.”

However, none of them is madness. In fact there is no such thing as madness.
Going through the 954 page document, above mentioned, I did not find any mention of an ailment called ‘madness’. I even looked up into the index at the end, the  M section  began with Major Depressive Disorder, then after Mathematics disorder, the next mention was Medication induced disorder.

Thanks to the advances of medical sciences, we now know there is always a chemical basis of psychiatric diseases. This is the reason they are quite capable of being corrected by medications. Some may be completely corrected, while some partially.

Thanks also to the sophisticated PET brain scanning techniques, we can now see with our own two eyes that Depressive Disorder or Anxiety Disorders or any other psychiatric disorders are real ailments and not mere myths.

Perhaps, our scientific knowledge of psychiatric ailments needs to cross a lot more frontiers, to be able to understand and treat all these disorders more efficiently.

Exactly  as in a common cold there are triggers like exposure to cold, or exhaustion which cause them to come again, there are environmental triggers in the psychiatric disorders too—usual ones like stress, troubled relationships, or as trivial as some taunts or sometimes as subtle as winter season.

Do we ridicule those who have fever, or cancer, or diabetes or heart attack? But we do ridicule, poke fun or bad mouth about those suffering from Depressive disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Eating Disorders, ADHD , Personality Disorders or Learning Disorders etc.

We empathise with those who do have their sight, hearing or physical ability missing and often remark that nature compensates them with some other strength or skill.

Same is true of the various Psychiatric Disorders. The people affected by them are endowed with some other skills. World’s best writers are known to be Bipolar, and many of the inventors were known to have either Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Learning Disorder.

We all love ourselves. No one wants to fall sick, whether with common cold or with depression or of any ailment, no matter how trivial.

With the statistics of 78% affected with some psychiatric disorder, we may be definitely seeing four- fifths of our near and dear ones affected by some psychiatric disorder, ranging  from a very mild to a very serious one. Some of them may be in need of a professional help too.

So next time you see anyone you would wish to label ‘mad’,  just understand them and don’t be a trigger for them to get worse.

Know that they didn’t want to be unwell either.
And please, I beg you, do not call them mad.  

Chemical basis of some mental disorders. 

P.S. This blogpost was written in response to the @ExpressTribune ‘s article:

Celebs with mental disorders: Lock up the crazy

Sights and Sounds May Disappear, but Smell Shall Linger.

Published in TheNewsBlog February 7, 2012.

“When I miss her, I go to her closet to sense my daughter’s fragrance.” Arfa Karim‘s Mom said on her 17th birthday.

The words from the teary eyed mother gave me goose bumps.

She was certainly not talking about the perfumes that Arfa adorned, but the odour that she inherently possessed by virtue of her HLA (genetic) type. This was the smell Arfa’s mom associated her with ever since she held her in her arms soon after her birth (even though the mother may not be aware of it, consciously.)

This reminded me of a research paper I read years ago which said the first bond that a mother and child have after birth is through the sense of smell. Babies from the time of birth learn to identify their mother through a strong sense of smell. It is said that within 24 hours, a mother is able to identify her baby’s odour too. A research claims that within 50 hours, infants were able to differentiate between the smell of their mother’s nipple from that of another lactating woman. Studies have shown that when a mother’s nipple from one breast was washed off, 22 out of 30 babies chose to suckle the unwashed side, because of the familiar odour.

Little toddlers, unaware of relationships, differentiate their siblings from friends subconsciously through odours.

It is common knowledge that animals identify and claim their territory through the sense of smell. Dogs smell their masters, and cannot be deceived even by a look alike.

Each one us is endowed with a unique fragrance or scientifically an ‘odour’ type. Our smells are coded by the genes of a group of molecules called the HLA Complex. Our odour type determines the various social cues we receive in the society in the form of attractiveness, favourable or unfavourable social reactions, and even sexual arousal. Furthermore the role of pheromones, the odour producing hormones in animals and humans as a medium for sexual attraction is also well known.

In an interesting study a group of women were asked to smell men’s T-shirts and choose the odour they liked. Majority of them chose the odour type which was different from theirs, hence from a different genetic pool. Perhaps this is nature’s way to create more variation.

In another similar study, women were asked to smell men’s T-shirts and were asked to rate them according to pleasantness. The men who had infectious diseases, (most probably sexually transmitted disease’) were in more than half of the cases labelled ‘putrid’. That’s another one of nature’s ways to minimise the transmission of infections.

My kids often mention:

‘Oh this smell reminds me of Karachi’, or of Delhi or even of ‘that’ person. Though never a subject of research perhaps every place along with its unique sights and sounds, has its own distinct set of smells too. The smells could be related to its fauna or even the food habits there. My mother often remarks; ‘The soil at every place smells different while the water in every place tastes different.’

A Vietnamese friend who recently visited her native place remarked, Hanoi has its unique smell, and it’s even funny how their embassy here smelt the same. Perhaps it’s the fish sauce!

We do spend a handsome amount on buying scents. And many rich and famous spend a fortune in creating a ‘signature’ smell of their own.

Ironically the sense of smell – though a subtle and powerful sense of perception – is subconsciously the least significant in our lives. We may feel empathy for those who are deprived of a sense of sight or sound, but often either ignore or even mock those with loss of smell. Not many of us even know that some people are born with their sense of smell missing. This condition is known as Anosmia. How incomplete their lives must be. We all have experienced small periods of Anosmia or Hyposmia when our noses get blocked during the common cold. We all know how tasteless even the most delicious of foods seem, with a blocked nose. This simply reinforces the hidden fact that before actually tasting, it is the smell which judges the true taste of food.

Hence, our sense of smell and the odours of others, animate or inanimate creates a great bond and sense of belonging.

One can very well imagine how much Arfa’s Mom must be feeling the presence of Arfa in everything that is associated with her. Though Arfa’s sight and sound may have left, her smell shall linger in the place and possessions she has left behind.

Painfully Humane

Published in TheNewsBlog on January 31, 2012.

A couple of days ago I met a neighbour outside the house, walking her two cute cocker spaniels. We exchanged New Year Greetings and as a ritual I asked: “So how did you spend your new years eve?”

“Oh I spent my evening feasting with my girls.” she replied

“Lovely, so they all came over to be with you.”

Her face changed color, “Oh no, these girls Sasha and Mori pointing at the two cocker spaniels, picking up the little ones in her arms.

Embarrassed I replied: “Yeah couldn’t be a better new years eve than with one’s pets. I did it too, when the rest of my family went to see the fireworks at midnight, I sat with my cats on the sofa watching TV.”

This triggered off the talk on how we undermine animals and use terms like ‘animal’ or ‘beast’ with a derogatory hint while using words like ‘humane’ as a symbol of compassion.

“I see those TV anchors calling suicide bombs that go off in Pakistan as ‘inhumane’ acts, when in reality they’ve been done by humans themselves, especially those who aspire to be superhuman so that they get a special place in Paradise.”

I could just nod in agreement.

She went on, “Isn’t this all very ‘human’ to kill, for no rhyme or reason?”

Her words echoed for hours. Don’t we use the same terms ‘insaniyat’ for compassion while ‘janwar’ or ‘haiwaaniyat’ for cruelty in Urdu too.

Although, it is common knowledge that even the most dangerous of animals do not harm unless they are hungry or provoked.

Perhaps our ‘hunger’ has gone beyond filling our stomachs. We ‘attack’ others to fill our egos, the egos which never get filled, because there is no bottom. Yes no bottom, because, we do not have any limit to how low we can stoop to gratify our egos.

Often we see and hear of stories where two pets that could have naturally been predator-prey, coexist as friends and in fact the predator acts as a protector of its erstwhile prey.

I saw this live for years in my own home between our cat Nelson and the grey parrot Shakespeare. Shakespeare learnt to mimic the mewing and growl of Nelson. And Nelson would come running to him. They would simply mew, looking into each other’s eyes. No t even once did the cat attempt to attack or touch the grey parrot. The day Nelson passed away and went missing from home, Shakespeare mewed for hours, as if calling out for him, adding to the gloom and shedding tears like a bereaved kid.

It is a bigoted myth that empathy is a higher cognitive function that only apes and humans are blessed with. Perhaps we are more loaded with narcissism than with empathy. Studies on whales show they are extremely emotional. Whale brains have specialised spindle cells which are important for empathy, and rapid gut reactions. Previously, only humans and apes were considered to possess them. An interesting practical example of this is when a 50-foot, 50-ton humpback whale was caught in a net off California’s coast. After rescuers untangled it, the whale swam up to each one of the rescuers, and winked before swimming off. The researchers confirmed this was a gesture of gratitude from the whale.

To study empathy, neuroscientists in McGill University injected acetic acid in the paws of mice causing them pain. The mice who watched their friend writhing in pain became more sensitive and reacted more violently to pain, when injected with the same chemical.

Studies on animals called ‘humans’ show that children who are cruel to animals, are likely to turn to violence later in life. 75% of prison inmates are known to have past history of animal cruelty, says a study.

We need to revisit or swap the meanings of ‘humane’ and ‘beastial’, or ‘insaniyat’ and ‘haiwaniyat’.

It is a saving grace that we do not understand animal language, otherwise it would be very embarrassing to know that every time a suicide bomb, target killing or even animal poaching occurs we would have heard animals scream “What a painfully humane act!”

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