The military government of General Pervez Musharraf started work in 2002 on a plan to co-opt the country's religious clergy at the grassroots level for supporting the regime's family planning program. Since the time of President Ayub Khan, the religious clergy had been at the forefront in opposing family planning schemes on religious and theological grounds. The Musharraf government was of the considered opinion that opposition from the religious clergy was the root cause of low levels of contraceptive usage, despite contraceptives being pushed by successive government programs in Pakistani society. It was thought that the use of religious argument in support of family planning would help the government achieve the goal of reducing the rate of population increase in Pakistani society.
In 2005, the Ministry of Population Welfare organized an international conference in which religious leaders and scholars from more than 21 Muslim countries participated. The result was a joint communique that supported the Musharraf government in their efforts to make family planning programs a success in the society. In 2007, the Ministry of Population Welfare announced that “over ten thousand imams (prayer leaders), khateebs (sermon deliverers) and nikkah khawans (marriage solemnizers) had been sensitized and another 20,000 would subsequently be involved and trained by over 300 master trainers” to advocate for family planning programs on the basis of using theological and religious arguments. The Ministry also claimed that due to the efforts of the government in using the religious argument in support of family planning, Pakistan's contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) increased from 4% in 1966 to 28% by 2000. The CPR rose much more slowly after that, rising another 2% by 2006 to reach 30%.
The Musharraf government’s reading of the situation was not without a basis, as the religious clergy and religious political parties were openly and boldly opposing government efforts in the realm of family planning. This included the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam—the two major religious-political parties that formed part of a coalition of religious groups ruling Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Sometime in 2004, the Minister for Religious Affairs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a member of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of religious political parties, himself lit a bonfire of condom posters and CDs as part of an anti-obscenity campaign. The Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) women leaders demanded a complete ban on advertisements of family planning at about the same time. The Secretary General of the JI Women's Wing spoke of the global effort to promote sexual waywardness in the country—a obvious reference to the Family Planning program of the government.
The Musharraf government’s reading of the situation was not without a basis, as the religious clergy and religious political parties were openly and boldly opposing government efforts in the realm of family planning.
Pakistani researchers, however, point out that Musharraf government’s attempt to co-opt the religious clergy only marginally succeeded in improving the situation. “The 2012-13 Pakistan Demographic Health Survey (PDHS) places CPR at 35% (which is slightly above when the government starting co-opting the clergy). The PDHS found that while the use of modern methods increased by 0.5% a year, the use of traditional methods increased 1.5 fold, increasing its proportion in the overall mix,” reads a research report by Shirkat Gah – Women's Resource Centre.
In the meantime, Pakistan’s clergy and religious-political parties mutated into something more sinister. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a terror umbrella organization that provides cover to more than 40 militant groups, made inroads into the country's heartland when it took control of Swat valley. They started to harass Lady Health Workers (LHW), the government’s main tool to provide reproductive health facilities to people at the grassroots level. Lady Health Workers in Swat Valley were named and shamed, and harassed by the Taliban. “Mullah Fazlullah, the Taliban chief of Swat (at the time), even went as far as declaring the LHWs wajib-ul-qatal (meaning an edict condemning them to death).” Pakistani media broadcast the Taliban’s actions and assertions on a national level, spreading in the process their anti-family planning message throughout society.
In 1963, when President Ayub Khan launched the family planning program, the leader of the Deobandi religious political party Jamaat-e-Ulema–e-Islami, Mufti Mehmood, opposed Family Planning as un-Islamic and launched nationwide protests. Jamaat-e-Islami Founder Abul A'la Maududi, wrote a whole book “Birth Control: Its Social, Political, Economic, Moral and Religious Aspects” and rejected family planning in the light of his own interpretation of religious scriptures. An expanse of published and grey literature points out that opposition from religious leaders or the perception that family planning is un-Islamic has deterred people from adopting such practices. As discussed earlier, religion has been used to challenge the concept of family planning for many decades in Pakistan.
“Many Muslims oppose contraceptive usage on the ground that any practice that prevents pregnancy is infanticide, which is un-Islamic and specifically prohibited in the Quran,” reads a report titled “Impact of Fundamentalist Discourses on Family Planning Practices in Pakistan” produced by Shirkat Gah.
The views of the conservative religious scholars are countered by prominent Islamic scholar Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, who asserts that the Quran teaches Muslims to be strategists and planners in all matters, including with respect to the family that is the foundation of society. He argues that contraception does not amount to killing a human being, as the above Quranic verse relates to forbidding the pre-Islamic Arab practice of infanticide (particularly girls) due to poverty or to avoid having a female offspring.
Ironically, the debate around family planning issues continued in Pakistani society with a large number of religious scholars becoming paid employees of the state in support of the government's interpretation of Islamic principles. However, government programs continued to record a low level of success. In the meantime, the Musharraf government diverted the workforce of Lady Health Workers away from their critical role in providing reproductive health facilities and educating common people about different techniques of contraceptives. Several researchers point out that LHWs role was diverted to other health programs at about the same time when the government started to co-opt the religious clergy in their family planning efforts. As a result, family planning efforts suffered - several surveys and Pakistani researchers point out the non-availability of contraceptives and other reproductive health facilities especially to the rural masses as the main factor behind failure or marginal success of government efforts.
Some feminist researchers have point out the low social status of women in Pakistan’s rural society, due to which decisions about using the contraceptives are taken by the husband and they tend to ignore the reproductive health of womenfolk.
After the government spent huge funds on co-opting the religious clergy and partially succeeded in these efforts, there emerged a body of opinion within Pakistani researchers who started to question the importance of the role of religion in making choices about family size in Pakistani society. “Our review of the literature suggests that the influence of Islamic barriers on contraceptive rates in Pakistan may be overstated,” reads a report in reputed research journal Social Science and Medicine, under the title, “Family Planning, Islam and sin: Understandings of moral actions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.” “Evidence from demographic surveys confirm that, despite the prevalence of the belief that family planning is a sin, couples are using contraceptives, particularly those with higher education (highest education level = 44.0% vs. no education = 28.6%) and socioeconomic status (highest quintile = 44.1% vs. lowest quintile = 20.3) (National Institute of Population Studies et al., 2018). These findings allude to the importance of other considerations, beyond religious beliefs, in decision making. This body of research challenges the assumption that individuals are passive recipients of religious teachings, instead demonstrating the innovative ways women re-interpret their beliefs.”
There are researchers who point out other social and cultural factors as significant obstacles in the way of government efforts in family planning. Three cultural traits of rural Pakistani society are often cited as major obstacles. Some researchers and surveys suggest that due to cultural reasons, the man and wife often don’t talk about reproductive health and issues related to fertility, due to which family planning gets delayed or is never adopted in the first place. Some feminist researchers have point out the low social status of women in Pakistan’s rural society, due to which decisions about using the contraceptives are taken by the husband and they tend to ignore the reproductive health of womenfolk. Researchers also point out that in Pakistani society, families often prefer the birth of sons over daughter, “In the desire for having more sons, they have more children,” reads a report.
Politics and regional security situations sometimes make a curious appearance as an obstacle in the way of successful implementation of family planning programs in Pakistani society. During the 20 years when American forces were present in Afghanistan, according to some researchers, the Pakistani government faced major difficulty in the implementing their family planning programs in the country’s provinces bordering Afghanistan, in the face of incessant propaganda by religious clergy at the grassroots level that family planning is a “foreign sponsored and funded conspiracy” to keep Muslim societies underpopulated. The Pakistan government failed to construct a counter narrative to defeat this argument. The government failed to tell its people that a large population means more hunger, more poverty and it doesn’t mean any supplementary military or political strength.