By Almas Shamim

We all must have met, known or heard of someone who has a medical condition or a disease but has tried to hide it from others. Communicable diseases like TB, HIV-AIDS, and mental health conditions top the charts for diseases that tend to be hidden the most.

The reason behind a person not willing to share or talk about a disease condition is the stigma associated with these diseases. Stigma means a dishonor that is linked to a circumstance, in this case, having a certain disease. Society tends to look down upon people who have contracted the HIV, since it is common knowledge that HIV is transmitted sexually. Given the low sexual freedom in present day India, people with diseases that could have been acquired sexually are judged to be ‘immoral’ and said to have shamed the family and caste. Add on to this the dimension of gender and we get a world where female HIV patients, even though a lot of them have acquired the virus from their own husbands, are thrown out of their houses and sometimes even whole villages. A similar picture is seen in tuberculosis as well where many women are disowned by their families. Though TB is not a sexually transmitted disease, the fact that it is debilitating and sometimes fatal is sufficient to make the society talk about it in hushed voices.

Mental diseases are so stigmatized that many patients are not even taken to a psychiatrist ever, Especially in places like our own islands, most mental health conditions are attributed to some ‘kala jadoo’ by our neighbor or relative, who wants our family to go crazy because our son score greater marks than their son in the 10th standard board exams. Such explanations for altered behaviour are only too common in our islands. These superstitious beliefs in the supernatural have kept so many people from being diagnosed and treated of real mental health abnormalities. Commonly seen conditions like depression and anxiety disorders which need psychiatric help, also suffer, as a result, since people refuse to consult the doctor in a fear of being labeled as a “pagal”.

For the cure of any disease, along with the Government, the patients are the biggest stakeholders. Following my previous piece on the need for community groups, I requwst that people who have been patients of any disease, but particularly the stigmatized one come forward and share their experiences. The more we normalize a disease, the lesser the stigma which remains around it. Then, we can focus only on the treatment part, without worrying over labels or being disowned.

So, friends, speak up and share your personal stories.

Almas Shamim is a public health specialist with a great interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and feminism among Muslim women. She currently works for an international humanitarian aid organization in New Delhi and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

By Almas Shamim

The other day I walked into the kids section of a famous clothing brand, to be greeted by two prominent colours- Blue and Pink. How lovely this little demarcation of colour appears! I remember how religiously I stuck to this colour coding for my twin nephew and niece, with all toys and clothes bought in pairs- the pink one for my niece and the blue one for my nephew. It almost became a subconscious choice later on- our hands automatically going for all pink things when shopping for the girl and all blue things when shopping for the boy. The absurdity, when pointed out in one of the ‘Gender’ classes I attended, was too large to be ignored, but it really hit me hard when I heard that my nephew, at 7 years of age, hated pink! The link between a young child hating pink and the constant reminder by his family that pink is the ‘girly’ colour is only too obvious. We later realized that not only did he criticize all things pink, he also constantly criticized all ‘princess’ stories and toys, coz’ obviously, they were meant for his sister, not for him. In one of those tender moments between a mother and a child, my nephew admitted that he wanted to play with some of those ‘princess’ toys, but, was only scared that others would make fun of him!

We do regret, now, that we had brought this colour separation between the twins, but, thankfully, we realized our folly when there was time still remaining. This slight colour segregation is a powerful example of the levels at which we segregate gender in our society. No child is born knowing the kind of toys it should play with or the kind of clothes it should wear. As the child grows, he/she is conditioned into becoming a boy/ girl! It is this very conditioning which makes it nearly impossible for a male to cry without his pals mocking him, and the same conditioning which prevents girls from taking up sports as a career. Not to say, that such gender segregation is cashed on by, and really- also driven by, multibillion dollar businesses. These huge companies know how to turn situations to their advantage and so keep coming up with more and more pink and blue child products to satisfy the great demand by the public to make the two genders stand out from each other. In doing so, they are also strengthening gender norms and are shaping further demand for themselves.

Yes, there is a start of advertisements attempting to be more gender-sensitive, trying to make their products more suitable for both the genders, and even toy companies coming up with a lot of products for girls which were conventionally thought to be ‘masculine’. Yet, the battle is largely for us to fight. We need to make sure that we, in our attempt to make our children’s rooms ‘cuter’ or simply to follow what others have been doing, don’t end up making our boys hate pink. I must also remind this to myself, especially when I go for the ‘Kinder Joy’ for girls…. I must remind myself that a ‘Kinder joy’ which is different for girls and boys, is a ‘Kinder Joy’ not worth for humans at all! 

Almas Shamim is a public health specialist with a great interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and feminism among Muslim women. She currently works for an international humanitarian aid organization in New Delhi and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

By Almas Shamim

We are a movie-crazed people. A lot of things that we believe to be a reality, are nothing more than what movies have fed into our minds. One such thing that I remember ‘learning’ from Bollywood is that ‘The End’ is usually around some happy wedding. The whole movie could be about how incompatible two friends are but at the end, they fall in love, get married and “The End”. There have been innumerable movies (in all the so called ‘woods’, I mention Bollywood particularly since that is the ‘wood’ I follow), the purpose of which have only been, so it appears, to get the hero and heroine married. What results is a sub-conscious belief of ‘Marriages’ being one of the most important aims of life. 

Add on to this the fact that we see so many ‘married’ people around us, so many ‘wedding parties’ and ‘sagaai’ and ‘lagan’ and what not, that this extolling of marriages continues unbridled. Accompanying it is the pitying and criticism of unmarried men and women. And let’s face it- a tad more criticism for unmarried women, because aren’t women supposed to be taken care of and protected by men? Isn’t this what ‘religion’ says? Well, let’s not even step into the pandora’s box that is religion. Anyway…

So, by the time I was 18, I was sure that I wanted to get married, and that too, SOON. Of course, I would marry AFTER finishing my studies, but, SOON AFTER! Now, call it my good fortune or whatever, this plan never materialized. I read a bit more, thought much more, interpreted even more and lo and behold! Marriage didn’t seem appealing anymore. I am to turn 28 soon and still feel unprepared to climb the mountain that is marriage. Now, the question is not about whether or not marriages are important or required. The question is more about whether or not a person’s decision about his/her own life matters. The question is whether we can pity or criticize a person for doing something with his/her OWN life as long as it is not harming others.

The issue boils down to a society that is not used to the concept of ‘individuality’. This lack of respect for each person’s ‘individuality’, each person’s ability to think and choose for himself/herself, forces people to do things for the repute of their parents, elders, khaandaan, samaaj, religion and all things far and wide, except their own thoughts and feelings.

This is precisely what leads to forced marriages- and trust me, sometimes the bride and groom are not even aware that the marriage they are stepping into is ‘forced’, the entire process is so subtle that all you believe is that ‘my family wishes and knows what is the best for me’. It is a subtle process of undermining a person’s ability to think for himself/herself; a subtle process which turns a decision to spend your life with someone into yet another developmental milestone that has to be reached by a certain age.

Marriages, far from being made in heaven, are made in the living rooms and dining rooms of our homes, over conversations about caste, religion, status, education, money, fair complexion, astrological charts and prospects of going abroad- most of which were criteria created by humans.

‘Love marriages’, as marriages that overstep the futility of ‘everyone deciding for your life instead of you yourself’ are called, while increasingly accepted, still have to go through those conversations around caste, religion, status etc… with acceptance being directly proportional to the number of criteria matched. Something like- ‘you are permitted to love a Muslim, but not permitted to love a Hindu’, ‘You are permitted to love a guy with a stable job and not to love someone who is yet to get a job’. Even so, our islands, have been more accepting of love marriages than many places in the rest of India.

But, the one thing which plagues the islands as much as other places is the persistent criticism of people who have chosen not to marry- this choice could have many reasons- ranging from a refusal to a long term commitment, an inability to find someone as per one’s checklist of qualities in a life partner, to a simple disregard for the institution of marriage. The fact remains that each one of us is an individual and has the ability to think and choose for himself/herself. Forcing a person into marriage, even if emotionally, takes away a person’s command over his/her life, career, sexuality and freedom.

A forced marriage may not just harm your child but also the partner involved. What if your son is a transgender? What if your daughter is a lesbian? Forcing people of different sexualities than the conventionally accepted ones have led to many suicides, unhappy families and marriages.

It is way over time that we as a society start allowing our children and families to live their own lives, than live lives that we want for them. 

Almas Shamim is a public health specialist with a great interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and feminism among Muslim women. She currently works for an international humanitarian aid organization in New Delhi and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

By Almas Shamim

“Community”- how often we use this word! Indeed, it is a very powerful driving force in so many ways- be it by giving us a sense of belonging, an identity or a safe haven- we all know how important a “community” is.

But, for once, let’s get out of our narrow view of this word- let’s try to belong to a community of a particular disease. Doesn’t sound very great, does it? But, this community of diseased people is as powerful as any other community. Today, let’s just go through all the benefits of forming such “community groups”.

A community group of a disease, let’s say diabetes, gives all the member patients a sense of belonging. It’s a group of people where all understand our journey and our difficulties of dealing with this disease. It becomes a place where new patients can benefit from the experience of patients who have been dealing with the disease for a long time. It can be a common place to share all the knowledge we have about our common health condition, a place to raise our doubts and questions and also a place to receive answers about the same.

We always hear complaints of how little time doctors and nurses spend ‘explaining’ a disease to their patients. In such a situation, a community group can be a great way to overcome this lack of information with each individual taking initiative to find information about a part of the disease process. It, thus, becomes a great place for myth-busting.

There have been great examples of how community groups have helped members adhere to their treatment, by assigning a “buddy” to each member. These “buddies” can take the role of reminding each other to take their medicines on time, or get their blood tested on time. It brings in more accountability on the patient but in a friendly way, which, let’s face it, our existing health system fails to do.

Though self-help to the patients is a crucial role of ‘community groups’, it is not restricted to self-help. ‘Community groups’ MAY, if properly channeled, become strong advocacy voices. Let’s assume (I repeat, ASSUME) a situation where G.B Pant Hospital fails to provide insulin for diabetics for a month. Insulin, in the private market is expensive and may not be affordable to many. These community groups of diabetics can then mobilize themselves and others to approach authorities. Such groups don’t just have the power of number but also the power of experience and validity. Elected representatives are bound to hear the plea of people who are really suffering from a shortage. If they don’t, the liability for them is high. Judiciary and media are other possible avenues for taking the case further. Such groups have been key in making many drugs available through national programs, in our country, as well as many other countries across the globe.

While advocacy with the government or administration, may seem a bigger challenge, small scale advocacy of raising awareness and providing information are surely something ‘community groups’ can take on easily.

Additionally, there is always the advantage of meeting new people, making new friends and contributing to the community in a positive way.

But, how do we go about it? Well, we could start with bringing together a few friends known to us who share a common disease. It could be diabetes, hypertension, any cardiac problem (heart disease) or even a family member’s terminal illness. We could organize weekly, fortnightly or even monthly meets to discuss and share our experiences and complaints. The meets need not be ‘grand’, they could be in the living room of one of the members, or a common park. There could be many such groups. The whole point is to empower ourselves in matters of our own health. Fabulous ideas on health promotion and prevention can arise from such meets. The best part- it is our own idea for ourselves.

So, are we game? 

Almas Shamim is a public health specialist with a great interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and feminism among Muslim women. She currently works for an international humanitarian aid organization in New Delhi and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

By Almas Shamim

I clearly remember the teary day I got my ears pierced for the first time. I was a wailing kid less than three years old, sitting on a stool outside an old jewellery shop in the alley next to “ghanta ghar”. The shopkeeper had given me a banana to eat, probably as a consolation after the ordeal. (Or is that a tradition?) The fear of the “piercing pain” didn’t last long though. I grew up to have two more piercings in my left ear, three more in the right one and also a nose piercing; and ALL of those piercings at jewellery shops. I would love to get my brows pierced too. It’s just that my mummy is quite revolted at that idea.

There’s another thing which fascinates me- tattoos! As a kid, I remember watching tribals on television with their bodies beautifully covered with paint and tattoos. For a very long time, I only saw tattoos on television. Off late, tattoos seem more real with most people around me getting inked. I am smitten by the gorgeous little “Om” and “Trishul” tattoos. And I have elaborate plans of the many times and the many parts of my body which I wish to adorn with inked images.

Now, all this is normal, right? Very much so. Tattoos and piercings have become a common fashion statement now-a-days. Many of us have our very identities linked to the body art we endorse. But, like all good things, these too come with a teeny-weeny problem. A teeny-weeny problem that can actually cost us our lives! And that is the transmission of blood-borne infectious diseases.

We must have heard many times that HIV is transmitted through sexual contact, through transfusion of blood or even through shared drug injections (needles). However, it is not so common to hear or read messages that warn against the possibility of HIV transmission through ear piercings and tattoos. But, it becomes obvious when we look deeper because both tattooing and piercing involve needles. With the increasing incidence of other diseases that can be transmitted through same routes- like Hepatitis B and C, the need to stress on adopting precautions while choosing body art and piercings, is a big public health challenge. While some of such diseases are being treated by the government, diseases like Hepatitis C are still beyond the ambit of care provided by most government hospitals. Even if available in the private sector, the drugs are priced exorbitantly high, making them out of the common man’s reach.

So, it becomes all the more important for us to be careful while also not killing any of our wishes to be more “fashionable”. Ideally, piercings and tattooing should be done by professionals. There are some renowned parlours in most cities which offer professional, safe and hygienic tattooing and piercing. While planning a tattoo, it is desirable that we do a thorough search of the options available to us and choose those which use disposable needles. Ensuring that the packets carrying the needles and the ink before our eyes is also important. Parlours which are already following safety procedures should not have any problem in agreeing to such requests. In any case, we must beware of procedures that are offered on the roadside, in traditional ‘melas’ and small shacks or make-shift shops. Another thing that has to be remembered is that the chance of infection increases with each prick- meaning that more the number of tattoos and larger the size of each tattoo, higher the chance of acquiring an infection.

Ear-piercings, which are commoner in our islands, may not be always be deferred to mainland trips. We must, therefore, make sure that the shops where we get the piercings use the most modern piercing guns which come with reusable cartridges. These cartridges are designed such that all parts of the piercing apparatus that may come in contact with body fluids are replaced for each customer. Older guns have parts which may not be changed between customers and this carries risk of transmission. These precautions hold even if we go for piercings in the mainland, in fact, more so because of the higher prevalence of infections that can be transmitted through body fluids, in some places in the mainland.

So, well…go get that piercing or that tattoo…but please be safe and remind family and friends also to be safe.

Almas Shamim is a public health specialist with a great interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and feminism among Muslim women. She currently works for an international humanitarian aid organization in New Delhi and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.