Marco Werman: As we heard, even as society becomes more modern, old habits die hard in places like Tunisia. You could say the same about Pakistan. Bina Shah writes this week in the New York Times that opinions about women's role in Pakistani society are evolving but slowly. Shah is a Pakistani author, she joins me now from her home in Karachi. So we just heard this story from Tunisia about the demand that women be virgins when they marry, Bina. A throw back to an earlier age. But it contrasts with the hypocrisy expressed by that man at the end: he slept with a lot of women, known that he'd marry though. How do you encounter this in Pakistan?
Bina Shah: Men and boy's sexual behavior is condoned, it's approved of, it's seen with admiration and women's sexual behavior, girl's sexual behavior is sought to be controlled and clamped down upon.
Werman: In that column for the Times, you look specifically at sex education for girls in Pakistan and I'd imagine sex ed for girls is helping to push back on the traditionalism but how have the traditionalists pushed back on sex ed for girls?
Shah: Where is has been introduced - there's been protests and those private schools have had to roll back on their classes. The program that I was talking about was a very small pilot program that took place in the rural area, so even more ingenious, even more revolutionary. But how they did it was that they had to really re-brand sexual education. They had to call it "life-based skills." They had to be very careful when they were talking about sexual activity, not link it specifically to contraception, not link it specifically to things like abortion. They had to really tread carefully.
Werman: I've got to say, we've got similar tensions in the West. They're usually played out along urban vs. rural divides or red states vs. blue states and when you think about it that way, it's kind of hard to see where it all could be headed, maybe even more polarized is one scenario. Is it that clear for you that it's going to change for the better in Pakistan?
Shah: I'm absolutely convinced about it because we have so many influences. We've got things like cable television, satellite television, we've got the internet. We've got so many ways to access information that was previously blocked to people before. It's interesting what you said, the comparison to what's going on in the United States. A lot of comments that I received on the New York Times piece actually pointed out that we have the same issues going on in the US with debates still taking place over how much control a woman has over her own body. Does she have the right to contraception, to the emergency contraceptive pill, to abortion etc. etc.
Werman: Child marriage is also one of the traditions that's long gone unchallenged in Pakistan. How's that being discussed in these sex-ed classes?
Shah: Child marriage, as a topic, is coming up a lot these days. Recently in the province of Sindh, where I live, the 'Child Marriage Act' was passed, which makes marrying under 18 illegal. So we're having a lot of conversations about the topic.
Werman: You sound optimistic.
Shah: I'm always optimistic about my country. I always see the positivity, I always see the forward motion because what other choice do we have?
Werman: Pakistani author Bina Shah, thank you.
Shah: Thank you very much.
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