Taking family planning religiously
While the voice from the pulpit carries a lot of weight, they will need to be convinced, informed and educated before their help is sought
By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam
“What do you think Islam says about Family Planning (FP)?”, I asked an urban, educated friend. Her response was as expected. “Isn’t FP a complete no-no in Islam?” she replied, a mother of two, whose two children have a carefully planned age difference of four years and who has been using an Intra-Uterine Device (IUD) for a long time as a method of contraception. A staunch Muslim, she believes FP is not allowed in Islam, yet is practicing it for years, and has not bothered to delve into the subject, avoiding tricky subjects.
As we approach the World Population Day on the 11th of July, the topic of understanding FP via religious rulings remains taboo. A fatalistic approach and a misfounded assumption that Islam is categorically against FP remains a key reason why Pakistan is sitting on a ticking time bomb of a population explosion. It also remains an under-discussed area in both print and electronic media.
“Today Pakistani population is five times as large as it was in 1950 and about 4 million people are added to it every year,” said Dr John Bongaarts of the Population Council, New York, at a recent seminar arranged by the Population Council in Pakistan. “By 2050, the population in the country is expected to reach 300 million.” If it hits that number, Pakistan would become the fourth largest country in the world. It has already replaced Brazil as the world’s fifth largest nation.
Generally, world over, a reduction in fertility rates and population growth has been seen, but Pakistan’s has increased. Pakistan’s total fertility rate (TFR: the number of live births the average woman has in her lifetime) is reported by the UN to be 3.2, the highest of any of the populous countries.
Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2007 (PDHS) reveals that only 24 percent of married women of rural Pakistan use contraception. Could religion have something to do with it?
This July, world leaders gather in London for a Family Planning Summit, co-hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.K. Department for International Development, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.N. Fund for Population Action. Will the role of religious and cultural sensibilities be discussed there, one wonders.
In strongly faith-oriented societies such as Pakistan, unless something is endorsed by the clergy, meeting the development goals may be too far-fetched. As the bigwigs of family planning rack their brains over how to control Pakistan’s population, an important point might be being missed. The implications of an absence of national consensus-building with religious leaders on board may be a key reason. Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, also THE most populous Muslim country in the world, seems to have discovered this key and unlocked the answers. The result: Indonesia today is known as the “poster child” among countries aiming to slow down their growth rate. This is an incredible achievement, considering that Indonesia is a country with an almost 90 percent Muslim population, accounting for 13 percent of the world’s Muslim population. Studies show that Indonesia’s fertility rate at the 1965 level was averagely 5.6 children per woman. By incorporating a community-based family planning and reproductive health program, Indonesia has been able to slow down the TFR to an exemplary 2.6. How has Indonesia managed this?
The answer could lie in the fact BkkbN, Indonesia’s population and family planning board, employed the ingenious method of approaching the leaders of the two largest Muslim welfare groups in Indonesia: Muhammadiyah and the Nahdlatul Ulama, who have millions of followers. Both are traditionalist Islamic groups, yet with the government have achieved a consensus that they will work hand-in-hand for the welfare of the country. In line with true Islamic teachings, they work towards spiritual, emotional, physical and material well-being of their people. Taking health and education into their loop, it was but logical that reproductive health and FP are included in their program.
Dr. Atikah Zaki, the health and social coordinator of Asyiyah, the women’s branch of Muhammadiyah, adorns a hijaab. She is a practicing Muslim woman, unapologetic about her faith and evangelism. Simultaneously, she is also unapologetic about the fact that her organization promotes family well-being and family planning. Asyiyah promotes family planning through a network of 86 hospitals, hundreds of clinics, 87 universities and over 4,000 schools. Their local leaders counsel people about reproductive health issues, mediate disputes between couples and even address sensitive subjects like domestic violence. “We are just obeying the Prophet Mohammed,” said Zaki with a smile, explaining the concept of FP in Islam, quoting from the Quran and ahadith of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) at the recent Women’s Edition Seminar for female journalists, held at Jakarta.
Islam, and other religions for that matter, are not against contraception in totality. If the Quranic injunction on breastfeeding the child for two years is adhered to, it would automatically result in “lactational amenorrhea” which would result in spacing between children.
A major body of Islamic scholars, globally, agrees that in Islam, temporary and reversible methods of contraception are allowed. But contraception practiced with an aim to have a permanently childless marriage would not be permissible. Abortion is not permissible, and especially after a 120 days period has lapsed in the pregnancy, it is categorically forbidden because life is sacred. Temporary contraceptive methods that do not harm the health of the mother, and natural methods like Coitus Interruptus (withdrawal) and the Rhythm method that relies on knowledge of a woman’s ovulation cycle in order to avoid pregnancy, are preferred and allowed.
Relaying public health messages across to the population of Pakistan would become easier if they came through Imams of local mosques. But the religious leadership, human rights’ activists and health experts should work unanimously towards this goal. This requires dialogue and an understanding of each other’s view points.
Talking about the Pakistani society and involving clergy in realisation of the FP goals, journalist Zofeen Ebrahim says, “While the voice from the pulpit carries a lot of weight, they will need to be convinced, informed and educated before their help is sought, otherwise all the work towards it will come to naught. Not much time and we have to make up for the lost time. Therefore, everyone needs to be involved and taken on board.”