Pakistan's uneasy relationship with foreign-aid organizations has been underlined this week thanks to a condom kerfuffle that has many conservative commentators foaming at the mouth.
According to "The Express Tribune"
daily, Pakistan's media regulatory authority PEMRA has ordered TV stations to immediately stop broadcasting an advertisement for contraceptives that it says has been "perceived as indecent, immoral, and in sheer disregard to our socio-cultural and religious values."
PEMRA spokesman Fakharuddin Mughal told reporters that airing content like this during the holy month of Ramadan was something that "warrants serious action."
He added that, not only did the advertisement breach Pakistan's broadcasting standards, its flagrant disregard for Islamic mores also rendered it "unconstitutional."
The 50-second ad -- which shows actress and model Mathira playing an attractive newlywed who dotes on her condom-using husband -- was for the Josh brand of prophylactics marketed by DKT International
, a U.S.-based organization that promotes family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention in the developing world.
WATCH: An advertisement for Josh condoms from DKT Pakistan
Scores of complaints from the public have been lodged against the short clip, and it has also generated a furious response on Internet comment forums, with critics slamming it as typical of foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are viewed with distrust by many Pakistanis.
"These NGOs are nothing but Imperialist controlled agencies for spying and destroying our culture like they have done in the west," wrote one irate commentator
. "They want to slow down the rising Muslim population. So they put hormones in vaccines and make children specially [sic] boys infertile."
The notion that NGOs are foreign agents parading as charities in order to hide a more sinister agenda is common among conservative elements in Pakistani society, and such attitudes have often hampered the work of these organizations.
Since late last year, several polio-vaccination workers have been shot dead
in Pakistan by extremist groups who believe immunization activities by medical aid workers are un-Islamic and cause harm to Muslim children.
Such hostility toward NGO operations can have a detrimental effect on important health and awareness campaigns, and this latest controversy has also given more progressive elements in Pakistani society a chance to voice their frustration.
"Good idea," said one sarcastic forum post
. "Keep on breeding, after all a population of 250+ million is only a matter of time. Who cares if the country is not able to feed, clothe or educate most of them? After all they will substantially enhance the world population of the great Muslim ummah (the global community of Muslims)."
"This is sick," said another commentator. "The population is exploding; the country is running low on resources. A population that is poor, and radical, with sex as the only form of entertainment. Not educating it about contraceptives and family planning will result in a major national security risk. Either teach this at schools for the next generation or allow TV commercials. I'm for both."
The debate surrounding the advertisement is a timely one for Pakistan, which is currently grappling with a "concentrated [HIV] epidemic." Experts estimate
that there are now 130,000 with AIDS in the country and that this number will increase unless serious efforts are made to inform the population of the risk of spreading the disease.
Unfortunately, as the condom controversy illustrates, raising awareness about HIV/AIDs is always going to be difficult in a conservative society
that often avoids talking frankly about sex and associates sexually transmitted diseases with "immoral activities."
-- Coilin O'Connor