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Samina Ahmed – “…a lot more opportunities now”

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Originally published in The News on Sunday


Samina Ahmed is emancipated, opinionated, a trail-blazing female actor who embarked on her acting career when the realm of acting was highly male-dominated; the first woman (particularly in Punjab) to have started her own television production house, a serious performer who dared to venture into comedy to challenge stereotypes. And, most importantly, a proponent of and activist of rights for women.

Nothing synthetic about this woman of substance. She is who she is.

A whole lot of carefully thought and some not so carefully thought, extempore questions followed with an equal amount of succinct and poignant answers — about media, drama, acting and especially about the women of Pakistan.

The News on Sunday: As a female actor in a male dominated field of work, what has the journey been like for you?

Samina Ahmed: Initially, it was not easy for me. But over the years, I have to say it has become easier, partly because I have carved a place for myself and am an established actor now.

More importantly, I think social attitudes are changing. Today, men have the heart to take orders from a female colleague if they are working under her. Back then, it was not so. I worked at Lahore’s Alhamra for about 20 years, and I remember that one had to face resistance even from stage hands, carpenters and helpers, let alone co-actors and co-workers. I would have to work doubly hard to prove my mettle as a female, and for them to take me more seriously. At times, I felt they were waiting for me to fail. But over the years, things have changed.

TNS: And, how have things changed for women in the media?

SA: When we talk of media, particularly television, we are basically talking of two sub-divisions — there is news and current affairs and then there is the entertainment side of it. And, I feel women have managed to carve a place for themselves in both areas. A lot many women are hosts and anchors of political talk shows and morning shows. They are producers and directors. When we look at entertainment, a lot more roles are being written for female actors than ever before. On an average, if we have 10 channels in the country that are airing 4 dramas a day, may they be comedy or serious, we have about 40 being aired daily!

When the volume of work has gone up, so have co-incidentally opportunities for female actors. They are behind the camera and in front of it as well. It is still a young industry, but things are looking up for women in the media and for Pakistani women in general.

TNS: You were associated with the more potent phase of the women’s rights movement in the 1980s. What do you think it has achieved? How do you see the status of Pakistani women now?

SA: That phase of the women’s rights movement was so potent because it immediately followed an era of severe repression. We were extremely charged up, the women activists that is, following the oppression of women as an aftermath of the Hudood Odinance. Over the years, the work done for women rights has progressed. So many non-government organisations and activists are in the field and working on many issues. To me it seems things are looking better. While legislations may not wave magic wands, we at least have progressed to a point where there are bills and legislations for victims of domestic violence, harassment, honour killings etc. It’s a step forward for sure.

TNS: How was your experience as the first woman to have your own production house in Pakistan?

SA: I believe Sultana Siddiqui started her own at around the same time, but yes, I was definitely the first one in Punjab. The experience was not smooth all the way and it had its risks like anything new one does in life. But in life, nothing’s easy. So I took the challenges in my stride and enjoyed the experience. It gave me a free hand to do the kind of roles I wanted to. If you remember, in Family Front, people saw me and Saba Hameed doing comedy, though we were recognised as serious actors. And, that was not a random decision. It was a product of deliberation, because I wanted to create chances of diversified roles for women. Comedy remains a focal interest for me.

TNS: Are you satisfied with the portrayal of women in media?

SA: People complain that drama today shows women only in melodramatic, weepy kind of roles. But I don’t worry over this. I think this is natural progression and over time female actors will find themselves getting diversified roles outside of the box.

As I said they have a lot more opportunities now compared to earlier decades.

TNS: So as an industry, would you call media women-friendly?

SA: It is not women-unfriendly, but television production as a business is still very male dominated. The United Producers Association still has just a sprinkling of female producers, which means major decision making and power still rests with the men. But we still have a Sultana Siddqui and a Seema Taher Khan in positions of control, which is positive.

TNS: Any parting thoughts — hopes and dreams, especially for women?

SA: I hope to see the television industry grow further and wish to see the progress of Pakistani theatre and film industry. I am lucky that I still enjoy what I do. I want the same for other actors, especially female actors, because they are sidelined at times and come with a lot of baggage. My hope is that the baggage of being a woman doesn’t pull them back from reaching the top.

Unsafe abortions – The Silent Epidemic

Life sentence 
Unsafe abortions are akin to a silent epidemic that claims lives of many women each year in Pakistan

By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam

In the heart of the bustling city of Lahore, on Temple Road, is a small clinic, infamous for being one of the quickest ways to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy. This is one of the many such clinics on the street. The clinic’s doors are open to any woman who comes for an abortion. While its staff promises to do the procedure safely and hygienically, its claim to fame is quite the opposite: Horrendous tales of incomplete body parts and remains of aborted foetuses floating past the open drains that run through the area are well-known.

As one enters, they welcome you warmly. A nurse introduces the patient to a lady who “claims” to be the doctor, who is lying on a bench and resting till the next patient strolls in. There is no way of confirming if the woman is a doctor or not. The first question they ask is which residential area the patient has come from. If the patient says she has come from an upscale area, the rates are threefold — Rs12,000 in the first month and Rs25,000 in the second month… and the rates keep escalating depending on how far the pregnancy has progressed.

“It is not my concern whether a patient wants to get it done because she made a mistake with a lover, or wants to abort a female foetus, or uses abortion as a form of family planning, or is healthy enough to carry the child to term or not. My job is to clean out her uterus within hours and send her home. That is all,” says the alleged doctor.

But don’t they know that for an abortion to be legal in Pakistan, the condition is “necessary treatment” which the health provider has to decide? Will they not check the woman’s health status? Her blood counts? And does it matter to them how far the pregnancy has progressed? The questions are dodged. They say they use “the vacuum method and other methods” for abortions.

The clinic is definitely not equipped to handle any post-abortion complication. And this is one of the relatively better clandestine abortion clinics that carry on with their business quite openly.

In another part of Lahore, the situation is bleaker. This is Shahi Mohalla, also known as Heera Mandi. Some 1,500 female sex workers inhabit this area. Contraceptives are not always accepted by their male clients, resulting often in unwanted pregnancies. Already poor, vulnerable to HIV and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and exhausted, these women may call for Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs) or “dais” for deliveries and abortions. But small abortion clinics are a more popular choice.

“Many of them lose the battle of life due to post-abortion complications. The methods used in these abortion clinics of the area are old-fashioned and invasive and often harsh methods that result in complications,” says Lubna Tayyab, founder of the NGO called SHEED (Strengthening Health, Education, Environment, Development) Society that is working for the betterment of sex workers and their children in the area.

Abortions in Pakistan are mostly obtained in clandestine clinics. Very few of these clinics are properly equipped to carry out abortions safely. Providers typically perform dilation and curettage procedures. They almost never used manual vacuum aspiration, a less invasive and safer procedure.

According to a report by National Committee for Maternal and Neonatal Health (NCMNH) and the Guttmacher Institute (Ref:, a nationwide study estimated that 890,000 induced abortions took place in Pakistan in the year 2002. This amounts to 29 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age. Of every 100 pregnancies, 14 ended in induced abortion.

Deaths, long-term disabilities, health complications and a messed up reproductive system — these are just some of the side effects of an unsafe abortion. Complications can be incomplete abortion, hemorrhage or excessive bleeding, trauma to the reproductive tract or adjacent anatomical areas, sepsis (bacterial infection) and a combination of these complications. Excessive bleeding may have life-threatening consequences, such as anemia or shock. Perforations and lacerations may occur to the vagina, cervix or uterus and may involve injury to adjacent areas, such as the intestines, requiring surgery with full anesthesia. Hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) may be required, leaving the woman permanently infertile. If not treated in time, sepsis can lead to peritonitis (inflammation of the abdominal lining), septicemia (blood poisoning), kidney failure and septic shock, all of which can be life-threatening.

Unsafe abortions are carried out by methods that are a health nightmare. Gulping down large doses of drugs, inserting a sharp object into the uterus, drinking or flushing the reproductive tract with caustic liquids, vigorous movements like jumping or physical abuse, and repeated blows to the stomach are some of them. Incidences have been reported where bowels of the patient are pulled out by mistake, through the reproductive tract.

According to Population Reference Bureau, Women of our World, (2005), the lifetime chances of a Pakistani woman of dying from maternal causes is 1 in 31.

A 1999–2001 university hospital study found that 11 per cent of maternal deaths that occurred in the hospital during this period were caused by complications resulting from unsafe abortion.

However, reliable data on induced abortion is almost impossible to obtain. For something that is done so commonly, it is surprising how well it is hidden. While the evidence is limited, it is clear that post-abortion complications account for a substantial proportion of maternal deaths in Pakistan.

In 1990, the Pakistan government revised the colonial-era Penal Code of 1860 with respect to abortion. Under the 1990 revision, the conditions for legal abortion depend on the developmental stage of the foetus — that is, whether the foetus’s organs are formed or not.

Islamic scholars have usually considered the foetus’s organs to be formed by the fourth month of gestation. Before formation of the organs, abortions are permitted to save the woman’s life or in order to provide “necessary treatment.” After organs are formed, abortions are permitted only to save the woman’s life. (Ref: United Nations Population Division, Abortion Policies: A Global Review, New York: United Nations, 2002). However, generally, this is a debatable issue.

Since 1997, under certain circumstances, abortion is legal in Pakistan, not only to save the woman’s life but also to provide “necessary treatment”.

Most women who have induced abortions in Pakistan are married and already have more children than the average Pakistani woman wants. Thus, abortion is used as a form of family planning.

The average age of the women seeking abortions, reported in several studies, was just under 30. Research provided by NCMNH shows that 96.1 per cent of the women who seek abortions in Pakistan are married. “This shows that it is a misconception that abortions are common in unmarried girls who want to abort an illegitimate child,” says Dr Azra Ahsan of NCMNH.

“Also, female infanticide is not a problem in Pakistan, apart from isolated incidences. In 15 years of medical practice in Pakistan, I have not received a single request for termination of pregnancy on the basis of gender,” says Dr Sadia Ahsan Pal, also of the NCMNH.

Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2007 (PDHS) reveals that 41 per cent of urban married women of Pakistan use contraception, compared with 24 per cent in rural areas, while 25 per cent of Pakistan’s married women have an unmet need for family planning, both for spacing and limiting the number of children. This has a direct bearing on the probability of abortions, which is used as a form of family planning.

Unsafe abortions are a public health issue that needs immediate attention. Timely family planning and awareness about use of contraceptives can be the actual solution to this silent epidemic that claims many lives of women each year in Pakistan.

Older than her years

“I belong to district Lodhran in the Punjab. My father got me married off to my paternal cousin when I was 14 years old. My husband is older to me by some 13 years,” says 23-year old-Sughra, who looks much older than her years. She is a mother of two children.

Dark circles, breathless upon walking, dragging her feet, Sughra is displays the classic signs of anemia.

“A couple of years ago my husband beat me up so severely that I could not even swallow or lift my hand for days. I came to my mother’s house. At that time I was pregnant. I stayed on in my parents’ home and thought about ending the marriage. Having another child in such a marriage seemed like a bad idea. I was hurt, and took my revenge by deciding to abort the baby,” shares Sughra, wiping her eyes with a worn out dupatta.

“My mother took me to this daai who charged us Rs 1000. Her instruments were not clean. I still remember the rusty looking, stained metal probes she used. But what option did I have? I was about four months pregnant when I got it done. The daai had promised I would be on my feet the next day. But I was on bed for two weeks, bleeding profusely,” she recollects.

Sughra was finally taken to the nearest hospital where she ended up getting blood transfusions. “My health has never been the same ever since. The doctors said I could have died because of the bleeding and infection related to my abortion,” she says.

Sughra is now back in her husband’s home. He refuses to use any contraceptives, but Sughra now has started using injectable contraceptives. Her face, though, saddens every time she remembers that abortion.