It was a room packed with eager participants, curious to hear what religion, especially Islam, has to say about family planning and birth control.
An interesting gathering of speakers comprising an African gentleman, a European lady, an American man with a warm and wise smile, an Indonesian Muslim woman in a hijaab and an elderly Egyptian man with a good-humoured face were seated on the podium. An incoherent buzz gave away the excitement of the participants, who were discussing whether the Vatican allows the use of condoms and if Islam is categorically against all forms of contraception.
These were the scenes at the International Family Planning Conference (ICFP) 2011, the largest-ever family planning conference, held earlier this month in Dakar, Senegal. The occasion also marked the launch of the Interfaith Declaration to Improve Family Health and Well-Being. The organisers and participants aimed to spread the message that no religion in the world can be against the well-being of families (in particular women), and that no religion categorically forbids family planning.
As the world population grew past the seven-billion mark in 2011, Pakistan became the sixth most populous nation. Of its 176,940,000-strong population, 61 per cent live in a state of poverty, making Pakistan the fourth most populous nation in terms of the percentage living in poverty.
With such widespread poverty prevalent in the country, the fact that only 27 per cent of Pakistani women between the ages of 15 to 49 use any kind of contraception at all is alarming. The average number of children borne by a woman in Pakistan is 3.6 but the disparity between the number of children a woman would give birth to in urban and rural Pakistan is huge.
‘Abhored by religion’
A number of Pakistanis were asked what is the first thing that comes to their mind in response to the term ‘family planning’, and some of the replies were: “Sabz Sitara (Green Star)”, “foreign conspiracy to ensure less human resource”, “condoms”, “being unable to afford children”, “our religion does not permit it.”
The last response, “our religion does not permit it” is categorical. It emanates from a lack of awareness about family planning. The general understanding about family planning is restricted to limiting the number of children. The masses remain aloof to its implications on the health and well-being of families, particularly women. The fact that Islam is not against contraception (in its totality) also remains an undelivered message.
If the Quranic injunction on breastfeeding the child for two years is adhered to, it would automatically lead to “lactational amenorrhea,” resulting in spacing between children.
One of the speakers at the International Family Planning Conference, Ariza Agustina from Indonesia (representing the Islamic organization Nahdhatul Ulama), said: “In Islam, temporary and reversible methods of contraception are allowed. For example, certain scholars have even given an approval for vasectomy for males; provided it is reversible and re-canalisation can be done when needed.”
Contraception, thus, practiced with an aim to have a permanently childless marriage would not be permissible. Abortion is also not permissible, and after a lapse of 120 days in pregnancy, it is categorically forbidden. Temporary contraceptive methods that do not harm the health of the mother, natural methods like Coitus Interruptus (withdrawal) and the rhythm method (which relies on knowledge of a woman’s ovulation cycle), are preferred and allowed.
Contraception and Christianity
At the session, questions were raised not just about Islam but about the strict stance of Christian religious leaders, particularly Catholic religious leaders, regarding contraception.
According to Jitendra Dongardive, an interfaith development and empowerment expert that Dawn.com spoke to, “the Bible writes on sexual abstinence, which is also called natural family planning. We are told to practice sexual abstinence but only with the agreement of both husband and wife, and that it should not be practiced for extended periods.”
The regulation of procreation, according to another panellist at the ICFP, is permissible in Christianity.
“Building a family must be a responsible activity. Children are a gift from God and a Christian family must be open to receive this gift. However, if there are serious specific problems which may definitely hamper the well-being of the family, parents are invited to be responsible in their actions which may result in the birth of a child,” said Angela Franco, an Italian Christian Catholic and a researcher on the Muslim-Western communities, while speaking to Dawn.com.
The abortion question
Abortion is a tricky subject and one avoided by most religious leaders. However, questions related to abortion with respect to family planning continue to be raised since termination of pregnancy is used as a form of spacing or contraception once an unwanted pregnancy happens.
Eunyung Lim, an ecumenical Christian who studied religion at Harvard and is currently a PhD candidate, toed the conditional line while speaking to Dawn.com.
“I am neither 100 per cent pro-life nor pro-choice. Individual circumstances that make one decide vary from case to case and while I absolutely respect the dignity of foetus in a mother’s womb, I also understand the unbearable complexities and hardships in life that both the mother (rarely father) and child would have to face if the child is born.”
Creating awareness about the subject of abortion is vital, according to Franco. “There are several varying views even in a single faith on an issue like abortion.”
Religion vs activism
In a country like Pakistan, where people live and die on the basis of their religious beliefs and values, the influence of religious leaders cannot be undermined, neither can human rights awareness campaigns be carried out without taking the clergy on board.
“Religious leaders are gatekeepers in a society, both in the social and moral sense,” was the point of view of the leading panellist, Ahmed Ragaa A. Ragab, who is a doctor, an Islamic scholar and an activist from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.
“Being the key figures for the transformation and development of society, they (religious leaders) have a very significant influence,” Dongardive, an interfaith development expert told Dawn.com.
Human rights activists and religious clergy may actually be aiming for the same result but their perspectives are different. If, for instance, public health messages were relayed through the imams of local mosques, they would have a greater impact on the masses than any health-awareness campaign could ever achieve.
Faith-based organisations can play a key role in humanitarian work if taken on board but in order to achieve that, more forums need to be launched with dialogue for a common goal.
According to Dongardive, “humility, respect and patience are the key aspects for social change. Social change always takes time, especially in societies that have strong cultural and religious backgrounds. Human right activists will have to adopt different strategies, keeping in mind the religious, social and cultural aspects of the society.”
Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam is a freelance features writer and editor.