I learned my first lesson about how babies are born from a magazine called Happy Home. It was published by a department of the Pakistani government called the Ministry of Population. The ministry was supposed to encourage people to have fewer babies, and it went about that in a rather coy fashion.
The magazine exhorted people to pace themselves; I remember it used the poetic Urdu phrase, waqfa bahut zaroori hai, “a break is important.” I was about 10, and I remember even more clearly the illustration of a small family, a man and a woman and two chubby children, sitting around a stove and eating. I concluded that babies are conceived by sitting around a stove and eating.
When the provisional results of Pakistan’s most recent census came out last month, after massive delays, they seemed to indicate that the message of Happy Home was lost on most Pakistanis, too. Pakistan’s population now exceeds 207 million, an increase of 57 percent since the last census in 1998. Pakistan has become the fifth-most populous country in the world.
At this rate, the physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy has warned, in 150 years Pakistan will be a standing-room-only kind of place. Overpopulation will be a terrible strain on natural resources and state services. Already today, every eighth child in the world who is not in school lives in Pakistan.
I must have read that Happy Home magazine about 40 years ago, but things haven’t changed much here when it comes to conversations about how babies are made. Despite warnings about a population explosion, we still don’t talk about population control. Talking about population control might require talking about sex, and you can’t really talk about sex on prime time TV or the radio, in Parliament or at village gatherings. Ads for condoms are often banned. There’s the occasional valiant attempt — like Clinic Online, a call-in TV show about sexual health — but “sex” remains a dirty word. As if just saying it was the same as doing it. We don’t even talk about sex with the person we’re doing it with.
The Pakistani government could have involved the clergy to dispel the common myth that contraception is somehow un-Islamic, but it hasn’t. There also used to be a myth about the campaign to vaccinate children against polio: That it was a cover for an American conspiracy to sterilize Pakistanis. Then the government got imams to explain on TV that it really wasn’t Allah’s will to cripple the next generation. Yet clerics aren’t preaching that even though God wants you to have good, wholesome sex with your legitimate partner, that shouldn’t stop you from using a condom or taking a birth-control pill.
Pakistan could also have learned from its former sibling Bangladesh, which has had remarkable success at controlling its population by putting women at the center of door-to-door family planning efforts. Bangladesh, which was more populous than Pakistan when it broke away from it in 1971, now has a head count of 163 million — 44 million less than Pakistan. But following Bangladesh’s lead would require acknowledging that women need to be educated about what they can do to not make more babies, and in Pakistan we find it difficult to talk about women’s reproductive health, let alone their sex life.
So most Pakistanis are left to figure things out for themselves. Some believe that children come from God and invoke God’s name to resist contraception. Every baby is born with one mouth and two hands, it’s often said. For the poor, children are a potential source of income; in some families, they are put to work at the age of 5 or 6. Since the state seems to feel little responsibility for the poor, the poor are banking on having more children to improve their lot — hoping those children will rise above poverty and take care of them in old age.
For members of the middle class, on the other hand, kids are an expense. With one eye on their bank balance and the other on their children’s future, they find it difficult to comprehend why people who are far poorer than they are have more children than they do. They don’t understand that the process of making babies, then feeding them and putting them to work is the only choice that many poor people have: Even if the poor had only two children, they would still be poor. And sex may be their only fun.
The middle-class pundits who tell the poor that their lives would be better if they had two kids instead of five are also making a self-serving statement. Their own family is happier not because it only has two children, but because their parents had enough money (inherited, stolen or earned) for them to be born in a private hospital, be sent to private school and hold their birthday parties in private clubs. When they advise the poor to breed less it’s because they worry that those people’s children will consume the water and breathe and pollute the air of their own precious kids.
Two kids or 20, for parents they are all precious. For some, even divine. There are men who believe that by bringing more children into the world they are helping build up the Muslim ummah. Every few years, a silly news story is published about a man with 30 or more children who claims to be having fun doing God’s work. But nobody ever asks the three or four mothers involved in producing all those children if sitting around a stove making food for more than 30 people makes them happy.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, and the librettist for the opera Bhutto.