Monday, August 19, 2013


A typical weekend hiking in the Margallas,
the foothills to the Himalayas, that provide the backdrop of Islamabad. 
One of the readers I've "met" through my blog is a Westerner who lives in and works as a public health worker in Pakistan.

Here's part of her story.

"I'm teaching the Billings Ovulation Method™ of natural fertility regulation and we’re looking at how to introduce it more widely in a place like Pakistan. 

Heather, it's an amazing privilege to work with women and couples one on one teaching them to recognise their body and how beautifully they were designed from the beginning.  It's also heartbreaking at times - to look into women's eyes and hear them tell me what they really think about motherhood, sexuality, their bodies and how much they just put up with.

As a wise Muslim colleague and dear friend of mine remarked one day, gender is home to the deepest prejudices of humanity.  Perhaps that points us to a truth that there’s something so remarkable about femininity and masculinity that every culture, all of humanity, has spent all of history battling over it in some form or another. We only need to watch a documentary like ‘Miss Representation’ to realize that in degrading femininity and the oppression of women, Pakistan is not alone, even if the way in which this is done may seem poles apart. Is this what we call ‘progress’ when girls are increasingly sexualized and objectified in the media, increasingly raised on ‘pink, pink, pink’ means feminine?  Is it ‘progress’ to sell the unrealistic idea that we can, nay, we must ‘have it all’ or to conceive gender equality purely in terms of power and an aggressive pitting of male against female?

In pointing out the faults in our own society, I don’t want to trivialize in the slightest the situation of women in Pakistan.  As a Billings teacher, I encounter this first hand as I hear the stories of clients – especially the most vulnerable women, the single mothers, the widows, the impoverished, the minorities – recount the hurdles, dangers and stigmatization they must overcome on a daily basis, created largely through a neglect of the role of women in general.  But in those situations, ironically, it is their children that give their lives meaning and hope – struggle and suffering too, yes – but those children mean the world to them.  Speaking of her five-year-old son, her only child, one single mother client confided, “My greatest fear is that he will abandon me too – like all the others in my life have.” 

In spite of all this, I still think certain social norms in Pakistan could help us in the West remember something we’ve forgotten.  In Pakistan, people are still largely conceived in a relational and communal sense.  Some of the anthropological research that I’ve read even on maternal health in Pakistan points this out – without passing judgment – that notions of ‘autonomy’ and how that’s defined by ‘international’ norms simply don’t fit here.  I remember meeting with a Government official from the Ministry of Health and I encouraged him – “Your country still has a social fabric of sorts, don’t let it disintegrate in the name of the individual.”  He nodded vigorously; a senior official from the World Bank had said something very similar a few days earlier. 

Children are still highly valued in Pakistan, perhaps to a fault at times that couples struggling to conceive suffer enormous social stigma and women are too often defined solely by their ability to produce children.  But contrast that with our individualistic society where child-rearing is considered ‘just another lifestyle’ and the ‘village to raise a child’ mentality is fast fading, and to be honest, I don’t think there’s much room for finger wagging in either direction. 

I think it’s far more useful to acknowledge certain universal elements about our state as being male and female, certain realities that we can use for good or ill, and strengthen the positives that can be found in any given society.  In fact, in an organizational sense, you’ll hear this called ‘appreciative enquiry’

NFP is a bit like appreciative enquiry – it starts with an assumption that there are natural goods to be found here, and that they can be built upon. To have a senior health sector bureaucrat wax lyrical about how Islamic the Billings Ovulation Method™ seems; to see the way women’s eyes light up when they recognize their Peak fertile day for the first time; to just shut up and listen, almost sheepishly, when my client, a peri-menopausal, professionally well-established mother of three starts to cajole me, as yet not a mother: “Lucy, you’ll realize too – children really give that sense of purpose…” – these are moments where I know that the Billings Ovulation Method™ has a universal value to it that pretty much anyone can recognize.

Of course it’s not a panacea for all situations. There needs to be a certain minimum level of mutual respect and cooperation from which to plant a seed of natural cooperation in family planning.  But that seed can and does transform relationships.  The kind of cooperation, communication and respect for the other that forms the foundation of this most intimate aspect of life, very often spills over into other areas of a couple’s life. Trying to measure that, from the outside, is impossible.  But, just because it’s difficult to observe, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I know it’s there, because I see it before my own eyes as I walk with my clients – especially when I get to teach the couple together.  And boy is it beautiful – sometimes hard, sometimes painful – but there’s something extraordinarily satisfying about understand how we can work with our bodies and with each other, not imposing on our bodies or against each other.  Their stories of joy and sorrow, disappointment and hope, wounding and healing are a far cry from the simplistic narratives on either side.

There’s so much more we could do.  Translating natural fertility regulation resources into local languages.  Providing more, better quality, better followed up teacher training courses.  Linking up with health education institutes.  Just making this a real, viable, available alternative for women and men throughout Pakistan.  We’re always looking for more people who want to be kept in the loop of what we’re doing. 

Heather, thanks for giving me airtime.  If anyone wants to know more, email us at islamabadbillings at gmail dot com."

Clearly not camera shy, hanging out with kids in Sindh,
southern Pakistan, during some field work.
 My 9 year old neighbour, Maryam - there are lots of Maryams,
Mary the mother of Jesus is one of the most revered women in Islam - and I compare my fresh Henna, compliments of her.
A typical Saturday afternoon in Sindh, southern Pakistan.
 Almost anything grows in this country -
 including sunflowers outside the Shah Jahan mosque in Thatta, Sindh province, southern Pakistan 

A Saturday afternoon toddle with my neighbours
down to the beautiful Shah Jahan mosque in Thatta, Sindh province.

The ceiling of part of the Shah Jahan mosque, Thatta, Sindh province.  
          Islamic art is patterned - too awed by the greatness of Allah 
                to ever attempt to represent him in any human form, 
                they instead draw the beauty of intricate patterning 
                          to lift the spirit to higher thoughts. 

Colourful and shy, these women literally hold their head scarf in their mouth,
or hold it over their mouth with their hands, to keep themselves covered.
Badin district, Sindh province, Pakistan
A young boy pushes, I'm assuming, his disabled father to go collect a cash grant.
When you're born into these environments, it becomes survival of the fittest -
the disabled, the malnourished, the widowed, the woman, the girl, the weak,
all find themselves at a disadvantage and it's a battle from the start.


  1. Oh, thank you so much. This is one of the most beautiful and hopeful articles I've read in a long time. What an inspiration your friend is. May God bless her and keep her

  2. I’m reading Light of the World, the third of Peter Seewald’s conversations with Pope Benedict XVI, and just last night came across this:

    “…the Church affirms natural regulation of conception, which is not just a method, but also a way of life. Because it presupposes that couples take time for each other. And that is something fundamentally different from when I take the pill without binding myself interiorly to another person…”

    Echoes that “There needs to be a certain minimum level of mutual respect and cooperation from which to plant a seed of natural cooperation in family planning” written in your guest’s post.

    What a lovely gift to transmit, and not just in places like Pakistan, but throughout the West as well.

  3. Heather, your blog is an "appreciative inquiry" into the best ideas in modern culture, faith and practice. I'm continually impressed.


I WELCOME your comments!!!