HAVING seen a photograph on Twitter of Islamabad’s Faisal Mosque lit up in pink lights to mark October as the breast cancer awareness month, I took the liberty of retweeting it but the reaction from some social media users left me benumbed with shock.
My personal stake in breast cancer awareness stems from my own loss. My mother died aged 48 from the disease in 1979 after a valiant five-year battle during which she suffered immense pain with remarkable stoicism.
Awareness then, of course, of how to detect breast cancer early was patchy compared to today when early detection is said to be key to successful treatment. It can be stopped in its tracks due to advances in treatment be it chemotherapy/radio therapy or other equally effective means to target it.
Breast cancer is curable if detected early. What is not is a regressive mindset.
Despite these advances, even today delayed diagnosis often means the sufferer may eventually succumb to the killer disease. This is why, like millions around the world and in Pakistan, I support and add my humble voice to any attempt aimed at raising the level of awareness.
Therefore, the response of one social media user who was supported by some others left me shocked and angry. “I don’t want to think of body parts as I enter the mosque to pray,” this one person retorted on Twitter.
When I tried to engage with him and tried to share the anguish of losing someone dear to breast cancer, his terse reply was: “Paint your own house pink in your mother’s memory but leave the mosque alone.” At this point, I gave up arguing with him.
What is wrong with so many of us? My own reading of every faith is that each enshrines a message of love of humanity and upholds human values. Why do so many of us see our faith as something that mandates we detach ourselves from humanity altogether? Who is thus interpreting our religion to so many of us?
Why else would someone object to the most iconic site in the capital city, which is visible from far and wide, being used as a poignant reminder of a killer disease that destroys families and spreads grief and despair?
This Friday’s newspaper carried a news story about a seminar on breast cancer at a medical university in Karachi where experts shared the alarming fact that breast cancer deaths in Pakistan are now the highest in Asia.
It was reported that one in nine Pakistani women will develop breast cancer at some point and that currently 40,000 women were dying from it each year. The seminar heard that early detection saved lives and that a mammogram was an effective detection tool, particularly for groups designated as high risk.
Experts told the seminar that cultural taboos in society were hampering early detection as women were reluctant to talk about it. This is utterly tragic as, aside from mammograms, self-examination is one of the first means of detection.
One earnestly hopes that the person who did not want to be reminded of ‘body parts’, despite being supported by some on social media, did not represent a more widely prevalent thinking, twisted and perverted as it is. For that would be an incurable cancer.
We have already earned the dubious distinction of being among a couple of countries which are still not polio-free although it has taken the loss of many lives and huge mobilisation efforts to immunise our children.
What we surely do not want is that taboos and ignorance continue to play havoc with our women, because a treatable disease, when detected early, is allowed to fester for such a long time that it takes the sufferer’s life.
PS: Just as I was finishing this column, I heard of the reprehensible attack on Ahmed Noorani, a journalist working for The News, Islamabad. He was assaulted en route to work by six men on motorcycles. I was relieved to hear that despite receiving head wounds, he is conscious and being treated in hospital.
I can say with the assurance that comes from over three decades of journalistic experience that Noorani’s attackers will never be found, let alone punished. Yes, I have also heard that the incident took place near Zero Point right under a CCTV camera.
CCTV cameras have a way of malfunctioning when the all-powerful perpetrators of such excesses are merely teaching a lesson to someone who represents a dissenting voice. I’d be very surprised if at the time of the attack the camera was actually functioning.
It would be a safe bet to say that the state had a hand in the attack on the journalist, and, no, I will never have proof as I did not when my good friend Saleem Shahzad was killed or when Hayatullah was kidnapped, shot and dumped in Fata, and many others went the same way in the tribal areas.
I also have no proof that numerous kill-and-dump victims in Balochistan, including some journalists, were summarily executed by the authorities. How can I, a mere journalist, have proof when commissions of judicial inquiries have concluded their reports in broad generalities?
What I do know is Pakistan, even under a quasi-democratic dispensation now, is as intolerant as ever and journalists seemed to have cross hairs pasted to their backs. When the authorities misuse, even abuse, their power, their monopoly on the tools of coercion is weakened.
Armed Baloch separatists are now pressurising the media for favourable coverage by physically threatening newspaper distributors and have stopped delivery of all newspapers in the province. Extremist religious groups are not far behind and often use blasphemy as a weapon in a country whose love of Islam’s holy personalities is never in doubt.
The media has braved many onslaughts in the past and will survive this one too with fortitude and, hopefully, refused to be silenced.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2017