The recent judicial upheaval in the United States, with the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, and thereby robbing millions of women of their bodily autonomy, has raised rather ‘interesting’ debates on this side of the world. Amid all the shock, horror and sympathy, there were some who smugly commented on how it was shocking that Pakistan was faring better than the US on a women’s right issue. Then there were those who denounced the hue and cry both in the US and in Pakistan by means of religious rhetoric. In fact, there were a lot of those. So if you’re one of the people who are rushing to declare Pakistan more liberal than the West, you might want to slow down.
While it is true that Pakistan’s legal codes allow for a stance on abortion that may be considered liberal, it is only so under certain conditions. The law vaguely states that an abortion may be permissible if there is danger to the mother’s health, without ever stating the extent of that danger, or whether it could comprise mental and emotional health too. This might lead one to think that getting an abortion in Pakistan is easy, but the truth is far more complicated.
The law may let you get an abortion, but will people? Countless women have reported being turned away from their gynecologists who refuse to perform abortions because they are considered ‘un-Islamic’, illegal, or both. While overcoming this hurdle may be difficult even as a married woman, if you are single, it gets worse. Sex in Pakistan is an incredibly taboo topic, one that at once repels and lures society in. To get an abortion as a single woman is to expose yourself to the worst kinds of character assassinations and judgement.
Not that married women have it any easier. A married woman looking to abort is reminded of the ‘gift given to her by God’, and admonished for wasting it. There are questions raised about lack of faith, and not trusting God to provide during times of hardship. Some ask for approval from the husband, reminding us time and again that our bodies are not our own.
There has been conversation, both here and in the US, about how abortions are absolutely crucial for survivors of rape and sexual assault, who may wish to terminate a pregnancy they never asked for. While well-intentioned, and certainly true, this argument reduces abortion to a conditional thing, as opposed to letting it be what it should be: a right. Women should be able to choose if they want to have an abortion without having to justify it through trauma. Ultimately, it’s all about choice, and about being able to make decisions for the bodies we occupy.
The lack of bodily autonomy goes further than just abortions. There are many horror stories involving husbands telling doctors to remove their wives uterus while she’s in surgery. Of doctors giving pregnant women who have just given birth the ‘husband stitch’, which is an extra stitch that decreases the size of the vaginal opening. Of husbands terminating pregnancies because they do not want another daughter.
We can barely talk about menstruation and periods without someone getting offended, or buy pads at the store without concealing it in a brown bag, as if it were something to be ashamed of. Our laws may liberal, but our minds are not.