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Why I Support ‘Mera Jism Meri Marzi’

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Farm animals have no control over their bodies. They can be neutered, bred, milked, fed, starved at the whims of their owners. Wild animals though, seem to have considerable autonomy on what they do to their lives. So these days, a plea by some humans of claiming sovereignty and free choice on what happens to their bodies has somehow, shaken the moral foundations of the Pakistani society. The reasoning seems to go that surely, if these humans were to be allowed sovereignty over their own bodies, harlotry, licentiousness and free sex shall follow. The socio-cultural of context of such fears is not unfounded. Afterall, modern patriarchal societies are built upon the visceral fear of feminine sexuality. It should therefore not be surprising that when the very premise of the society is challenged, there should be a reaction—and a violent one at that. For men to not have control over women’s bodies? And for women to instead have sovereignty over their choices? Surely that is the end—and it is, of the pathetic male fantasy of wisdom and control.

But the issue of choice and self-sovereignty over bodies is not just a cultural argument. It is to my mind, materially fundamental to whether Pakistan addresses its chronic problems of poverty, malnutrition and some of the lowest human development indicators in the world. Let me elaborate.

‘Population control’ as a first step on the path to development is a common—though mercifully much more muted refrain in developmentalist thinking. I agree; over population—of rich people—is a fundamental constraint to attaining basic needs and well being for all. The traditional population control mantra—where the poor people’s reproductive behaviour is a problem is a relic of a racist and classist past. It is perfectly rational for poor people to have more children. If the only thing of value you have to offer in the marketplace is your labour, would it not make sense for you to maximise your labour, by reproducing it? Which is in fact, what poor people often do. Besides poor people’s children end up giving a return to the family within 6-7 years of birth by taking care of younger siblings, doing household chores, taking care of animals, gathering fuel wood etc. The rich people’s kids, on the other hand, milk their parents dry for education, higher education, clothes, food, holidays, housing, unemployment benefits etc., sometimes till their dying days. It is not stupid for poor people to have kids, it’s absurd for the rich to have their little entitled princes and princesses. Every rich child sometimes lays claim to enough resources to sustain hundreds of poor children. So yes, the population problem is there—of too many rich people.

Despite, the rich over population being at the heart of the development problematique, from climate change and resource depletion, it is still the poor, and especially their children who suffer the most through lack of opportunity and fragile livelihoods. Afterall, according to the recent news story 50 percent of Pakistanis are overweight, while 33% of the children are undweight, 44% are stunted, 15% are wasted and 50% were anemic, according to the National Nutrition Survey.

The figures for their mothers are unlikely to be very different from their children. The children and their parents performing back breaking labour to sustain themselves and be cheap labour of a neo-liberal economy, is a contributing factor to the story of deprivation in Pakistan. The missed opportunity for human development and providing a nurturing childhood is partially a consequence of this reproductive compulsion for the poor, even if the blame for it lies with the consumerist life styles of the rich.

Beyond the economic rationality, however, there is a deeper more sinister logic of patriarchy at work in the population conversation. And that is women’s lack of control over their own bodies and reproductive practices. And that is where the slogan ‘my body my choice’ comes into sharp focus.

The population question is not just about providing access to reproductive health facilities, contraception and information, and certainly not about Chinese and Indian style forced sterilization, or state control over reproduction. In fact, the later is just as bad as the present, more common practice of mostly men, forcing unwanted pregnancies. The population question is fundamentally about women having control over their bodies and reproduction.

Women are the one’s who have to entirely bear the physical cost of child bearing and rearing. Women also have to bear the emotional and labour costs of nurturing and raising children. It is therefore also women, who should have the sole right to decide how many or any children to have. It is not about fitting into the middle class (western) ideal of small families of 1-2 children. If a woman decides to have no children, 2 children or 6 children, it is her sovereign right, and the perverse patriarchy has to deal with that. That choice is not just foundational to the making of a materially prosperous society but also to a socially just society.

For women to assert sovereignty over their own bodies is not just a moral imperative, but a functional necessity. So, I say with pride; I stand in solidarity with the anthem and the claim, as we all should: mera jism meri marzi.

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