Bananas, burqas and babies: Pakistan

Bananas, burqas and babies: Pakistan

Bananas, burqas and babies: Pakistan

On a journey to the doctor,   Vicky Deane   takes in the textures of everyday Pakistan.

Bananas in Pakistan are the sweetest I have ever tasted; they are small and marked with dark spots on the skins, but the fruit inside is clean and white and delicious.

Sitting in the rear seat of the little Suzuki Alto, I hold tightly to the grab handles above the window while my friend Omair drives skillfully through the chaos on the roads of Rawalpindi, in Pakistan. I remind him that we need to buy more bananas. 

“Ve vill,” he assures me. Glittering Arabic texts from the Quran swing and flap from side to side where they hang from the interior rear vision mirror. I am hoping the verses ask for protection while traveling because if ever a driver needs help from above it is on the roads of Pakistan.

Omair is taking his wife, my friend Zara, to her six-monthly pre natal check up at a women’s private clinic in Rawalpindi. Some mutterings in Urdu between them revealed to me that they wanted me to attend the consultation with her to ask the doctor some personal questions. Zara is very shy and lacks confidence to ask such questions but is happy for me to acquire the information for her. “No problem”, I replied when asked the favour, “just give me the list of questions.” 

We bid farewell to Omair in the outer waiting room and I accompany Zara along a narrow corridor to the women’s waiting room. Men do not enter past a certain point in this clinic. It is rare for a husband to attend a consultation with his wife or to attend a birth. Pakistan country has a history of being a gender segregated society. 

Zara collects her waiting number from a woman sitting behind a table: “twenty one!” The doctor is currently with number nine, so our turn is someway off. 

The waiting room – no bigger than an average western bathroom – is filled with colourfully dressed chattering pregnant women. A ceiling fan for cooling is whirring above, and an empty desk sits waiting for an assistant to take the women’s blood pressure reading. We stand for half an hour before seats become available and then plop into them, sighing with relief. Every so often a patient pokes her head through the door and, while bobbing her head from side to side, natters something in askance to which the seated women chorus a reply in Urdu. 

Number ten is called. 

Women in Pakistan mostly wear brightly coloured shalwar kameez which covers all their bodies except faces, hands and feet. The clothing is feminine, displaying dupattas, which drape down their backs and flow and flutter in the breeze.  Many, including Zara, wear a niqab, which covers the nose and mouth so that only the eyes are visible.  This is different to the Burqua clad women from Afghanistan, typically seen on Western television sets. Some women in Pakistani cities wear the Burqa, but this is a dress mainly worn in the northern areas bordering Afghanistan. 

Earlier, I had asked my friend why she chose to wear the niqab. “In Islam,” she replied, “it is forbidden for men to stare at women, but in this society men always stare, and I hate that staring, so at the age of sixteen I began to wear the chador, and it was only after marriage that I changed to wearing the colourful shalwar kameez but retain the niqab.” I understood this choice, having experienced stares from men in this country many times wishing to hide myself.  

Red and pink plastic chairs are assembled around the waiting area. Joined together by sturdy screws, they are deeply scratched and impregnated with grime. Other than residue built up around the feet of the chairs left by cursory sweeping and mopping, the floor is clean enough. Neatness here is basic at best. 

Despite attempts to look inconspicuous in this society and despite the fact that I had covered my hair and am wearing shalwar kameez, the waiting women stare at me – a white woman; I don’t mind, and smile back.  Eventually the women become bored with staring. Having made their assessments of me they resume their chatting. My gaze is drawn to the floor where three cornflake have been crushed by passing shoes – the western diet has made some inroads here. I notice the women’s feet nearby: adorned with bejeweled thongs, some with mini stiletto heels. Sequins, coloured glass, diamantes, brooches and studs all add to the decoration and glamour.  My plain but comfortable black leather sandals must seem boring amongst the glittering examples around me. 

Number eleven is called. 

An electricity load shed plunges us into darkness for a few moments. The fan stops whirring and the windowless room feels airless. Thankfully the centre’s generator kicks in quickly, the fluorescent lights flicker back on and the fan resumes its whir-whir-whir.

A mother, seemingly about to give birth, is feeding sweets to her toddler. The sweets look exactly like Smarties, but it is the packaging which catches my attention: each sweet is in a foil press out sachet, the same way a headache tablet is packaged. Imagine the public uproar back home if sweets were packaged this way. 

In this women’s clinic the fee is 400Rupees – approximately $8.30AUD. It is considered a middle range clinic.  The mother with the sweets brought 300R with her and was a little anxious about how she would pay the remaining 100Rs. More Urdu banter and my friend hands her a 100R note to make up the difference.  

Number twelve is called. 

Tilting my head back to gulp down some bottled water water, I notice the lightweight tiles on the ceiling. One is not fully covering its space – like a not so secret manhole. Other tiles are not sitting straight.  They irritate me and I want to climb up and straighten them. I want to mop the floor, I want to buy new chairs, and I want to give a lecture to these owners about attending to the finer features of this establishment.Western assumptions and standards well up inside of me. I check myself. Who am I to tell these people how to decorate their rooms? In this developing country struggling with political upheaval, oft times corrupt leaders, unemployment, power cuts, bomb blasts, and water cuts, the people of Pakistan are coping with a government which siphons off seventy percent of its annual budget to defence. People do not care about fancy chairs, polished floors, timber grain reception desks, perfumed and manicured receptionists, or timed appointments. It is an achievement merely to have needs met.  I feel a mix of greed, shame, and guilt.

The grubby faced toddler of the sweets mother is dressed in the tiniest shalwar kameez of deep purple heavily decorated with gaudy sequins and silver thread. She has had enough of waiting and begins to grizzle and squirm at her mothers feet. The mother slaps her and holds a fist to the child’s face. I recoil. There are no toys in this surgery for children to amuse themselves; no information brochures for young mothers to take away and read; no information posters on the walls, no pictures or paintings to gaze at, no magazines to read while waiting – just cream walls, a cracked tiled floor, dirty chairs, and a room full of pregnant women. 

A very young woman enters the room accompanied by her mother – the facial likeness is striking. The girl cannot be more than seventeen years old and the mother not more than forty years old. I wonder if the daughter is one of the statistics that make up a number of arranged teenage marriages in this country. Seemingly, to marry off children and in particular daughters, is a prime objective of every Pakistani parent regardless of socioeconomic status; their quest in life is to find suitable partners for their children. A great deal of research into a prospective partner takes place before an offer is made to the bride/grooms parents. Arranged marriages are the norm here and to all intents and purposes the marriages generally work out. The divorce rate is very low in Pakistan.  

Some husbands wait patiently in the outer waiting room while others are fed up with waiting and head outside for a smoke. I wonder which is more harmful, the nicotine from the cigarette or the carbon monoxide blowing out the backs of rickshaws, trucks, buses, and cars swarming over the road. There is little concept of carbon emissions control in this country – although some rickshaw owners are now changing to CNE, a clean gas, to propel the motors on their rickshaws. In this developing country with a population of one hundred and seventy million, people’s energies are used up trying to survive and earn a daily living: there is no time to consider the air quality.

Our turn to see the doctor finally arrives and we are ushered in to the anteroom by a middle aged woman wearing a white doctor’s style smock and white trousers. She looks curiously at me as she points us to a second room. I ask the woman in white if she speaks English. “A little” she replies. I wonder how I will ask this doctor the questions my nervous friend has requested me to ask.  

Once in the second room the woman in white points to another woman sitting behind a desk; she is writing determinedly. She mumbles something in Urdu. It transpires that she is the doctor and the woman in white is an assistant who ushers in the waiting women. The real doctor looks at me curiously. She is around sixty years of age with thinning dyed long hair pulled back into a pony tail at the base of her neck. (Almost all women in Pakistan have long hair – regardless of age). She is tall and of solid build and dressed in a floral outfit. 

She jerks up quickly from her desk adjusting her duppatta, which had slipped from her shoulder, and gestures to a consultation bed, which Zara climbs onto. I address the doctor: “Assalam o Alaikum – are you the doctor”?  

“Walaikum Assalam, of course I am the doctor” she replied dryly, in perfect English, “who did you think I was?” 

“Forgive me” I answered, “I wrongly assumed the lady in white was the doctor.” 

An ultrasound on my friend’s abdomen automatically ensues. This is, seemingly, a procedure that every expectant mother receives from the doctor. There is no need for a further specialist, no need for referral letters – it is all done in this surgery.  I whisper to my friend: “Do not forget to ask the sex of the baby” (this is what she wanted to know but was too shy to ask). 

The doctor begins a vigorous conversation with me, cottoning on to the fact that I was there to ask questions. She energetically swirls the probe over my friend’s gelled abdomen and after peering into the ultrasound monitor, announces: “Looks like a girl”. 

I joyfully take my friend’s  hand. “Look Zara, can you see, isn’t it wonderful? A little girl – what a blessing,” she smiled and nods. 

The real doctor grunts. “Yes, you should remind them what a blessing a girl baby is, because these women always want a male baby first.” I believe her statement to be generally true, but know that my friend and her husband will be delighted at the arrival of a girl.  

The doctor tears off a flimsy paper print-out of an indefinable blob in the ultrasound picture and hands it to Zara.  Some advice about vitamins and diet and exercise ensues, after which we are ushered out through a door by the woman in white. We bid the doctor “Allah Hafiz.” 

We enter the outer waiting room where Omair sits patiently. Smiling, we tell him all is well.  As we leave the building the heat and humidity couples with the rich sweet fragrance of a flowering shrub named “Queen of the Night”. In the car we reverse past a tonga through the smog-ridden air where we again join the throb of traffic chaos in this very old, polluted and congested city of Rawalpindi. We head home for a refreshing cup of chai. 

“Do not forget we need to buy some more bananas, Omair.” 


Shalwar Kameez: Full loose clothing worn by both men and women. Women wear a type of shawl to cover their hair. 

Dupatta: A long flowing scaf/shawl used to drape around the neck and shoulders. It doubles as a head covering.

Chador:  Full long gowns with face covering except eyes. Usually all black in colour.

Niqab:  Piece of cloth like a handkerchief which, in women’s clothing which covers the nose and mouth 

Load-shed:  Electricity cuts which generally last for one hour. This can happen approximately one to five times a day during a load shedding season.

Chai:  tea made on boiled milk

Tonga: a donkey pulled flat topped cart – used for transporting anything: mainly people and produce.

Assalam OAlaikum: the normal greeting used by Muslims around the world means “God’s blessing on you. You are safe in my company”

Walaikum Assalam: The reply given to the greeting ‘AssalamOAlaikum’. It has the same meaning.

Allah Hafiz:  The farewell greeting basically meaning “God’s keeping on you, or God protect you”