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.

By Almas Shamim

I grew up in a conventional small town family. Every morning my mummy woke me up with her love showering on me. She dressed me up, rushed around the kitchen preparing breakfast for the family and waited to smilingly wave a ‘good bye’ when I left for school. I never went to school alone. My father dropped me to school on his scooter and then proceeded to one of the government offices in Port Blair for work. Mummy stayed home as a dedicated housewife.

This same pattern has been followed for generations in most cultures- without too much questioning. Some say that this division of labour, with man being the bread winner of the family and woman being the care taker and nurturer, was prescribed by none other than the Great God Him/Her/Itself. Some others believe that it is humans who, out of necessity, created this gendered division of labour. In any case, with time necessities change and soon women and sometimes even the men felt that women can and should play a larger role. So, from being someone who provided unpaid service at home, her role was expanded to become a bread-winner that shares the burden of earning money for the family. So, while she continued to do all that she did earlier, she also started doing a lot more. She started earning respect (because money commands respect in our society) but all this development proved a big hindrance in her fully achieving her role as a mother. She was forced to either quit her job or be a part-time mother to her child. This problem continues till date. But, we won’t talk about it now!

What we will talk about it how this act of choosing between a career and a maternal role is a problem only for women. It’s only women who have to ‘choose’. It’s only women who are questioned by society, whatever be her choice. Men, usually, go free from blame. Few, if any, would even think whether a man should give more preference to his job or to his children. The choice has already been made by the society. A man should go out and earn, the mother can bother with the children. This gendered role division, though appears to be empowering the men by giving them the freedom to pursue a career of their choice, is highly discriminatory against men- as much as it is discriminatory against women.

So, while we keep raising questions about how women have a right to pursue their career and not be caught in the web of ‘home labour’, we do not question enough the logic that keeps a man from being the father that he desires to be- get enough time to spend with his child, be able to do little things like changing diapers more often. The gendered society that we live in shapes us (both men and women) to believe that men do not ‘crave’ for bonding time with their children. This belief then takes away the responsibility of child ‘nurturing’ completely from men and place it entirely on women. 

We hear demands for paid maternity leave, so that a woman gets enough time with her child but we don’t see enough demand for paternity leave. Assuming a family where the father is present, he too has the right to contribute to the complete growth of the child. While there are some organizations offering paternity leave- MUCH more still remains to be done.

The same goes with establishing crèches and play-schools in offices. The demand usually goes in the lines of “There are many ladies in our office who have young children……” even though it would make so much more sense if the line was “Among our office employees there are many who are parents…” This rhetoric strengthens the notion that it is only women who would be desirous or who should be concerned about bringing children with them- as if a man is incapable of doing it or wishing for it.

This gendered division of labour follows a logic that may have suited a time and culture- but we are now past it. We are living in times when roles have expanded, roles have switched and demands for equitable role division are on the rise. Let us also try to adapt to changing times in healthier ways- let us realize the social, economic and health benefits that ‘father-child time’ has on the family as a whole and vouch for it whenever we can. Maybe we can begin with demanding equal paid maternity as well as paternity leave from our offices and companies? Or maybe we can organize together and make arrangements for crèches and playschools on our own?  In the least, we can be AWARE and help to spread the word to other adults and also to our children in the hope that maybe the next generation will have a more gender equal society than we have created for ourselves. 

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

My father is one of those people who are doctors without going to a medical college. And if he needs specialist advice, there is always the pharmacy shop round the corner! The said pharmacy shop is THE most favourite of all old-timers living in the vicinity of the G.B. Pant Hospital. Since I might err while recounting others’ relations with the said pharmacy shop, I shall stick to surmising my own father’s relation with it.

So, the moment my abbu (as I call my father) realizes that the machinery of his body is not running as smoothly as he deems fit, he sets out to diagnose himself; the diagnoses, depending on the range of symptoms, usually varying from the very obvious “thanda lagna”, to “nas chadhna”, “naabh sarakna” and the very elusive “hook lagna”. Now, I’ve tried hard to find any shift in abbu’s belly button or the hook in our house which is to blame for so many episodes of illness, but to no avail. In any case, after the ritual blaming my mother for giving abbu a glass of milk or banana or brinjal or any-food-under-the-sun that could have been the reason for his illness, he ventures out to get some maalish, some pulling and pushing and some “jhaadna” from other old-timers, the numbers of whom are, sadly, dwindling systematically in our basti. And IF these time tested remedies fail to work on abbu’s body, off he goes to his specialist friend at the pharmacy shop and brings back allopathic medicines which are, nine times out of ten, the antibiotic Amoxicillin. Yes, irrespective of the symptoms, irrespective of the ‘diagnosis’ and irrespective of the nature of the illness, my abbu buys and consumes Amox. AND it does cure him! *rolling eyes*

Yes, there have been other instances as well, where my family has linked a super-duper expensive brand of a medicine that treats acidity, to a pain in my mother’s arm and gone to the extent of ordering this anti-acidity tablet from Chennai; or where abbu has been told to take a certain liver tonic since my abbu is such a chronic – no, not alcoholic- such a chronic ‘smoker’ and the organ smoking would most seriously effect is the liver! (Should be lungs)

But, the rampant use of Amox (or any other antibiotic) is a whole new ball game. Antibiotics, as we know, are used to treat infections- to kill or stop the growth of microorganisms called bacteria. There are also anti-virals against viral infections and anti-fungals to be used against fungal infections. These medicines should be taken at the correct dose and in the prescribed frequency (two times, three times a day etc) for the complete effect. Improper consumption may actually have only half the effect of the medicine- so the microorganisms will be modified but may not die! These modified microorganisms may (and research shows, HAVE) become RESISTANT to further action by the antibiotics, meaning, the patient may take the correct dose of medicines at the correct time for the correct number of days, but still, the medicines will fail to act on the microorganisms. These resistant organisms are then transmitted from one person to another person, who will have acquired an infection which is ALREADY RESISTANT to its usual medicine. This chain of spread leads to a problematic situation where most of the antibiotics available in the market FAIL TO TREAT most of the infections circulating in the population. The medicines, however, continue to cause their usual side effects. This problem is added on to by the fact that not many new antibiotics are being developed. And the few that may be developed may be too expensive for people to afford.

It, thus, becomes very important for us to be careful with the way we consume our antimicrobials. Whether we were prescribed the correct medicine or not is, obviously, not within our control, but, a little query at the time of getting a prescription from a ‘doctor’ would tell us which one, from the list of medicines, is an antibiotic. We could then also confirm with our doctor if it is really needed and if yes, we must follow prescription advice to the dot. Repeated failure of an antibiotic regimen could mean that we are already resistant to it. Rather than hopping around from one antibiotic to another we could request our doctor for a ‘drug sensitivity testing’ which will help the doctor get a rough idea of which antibiotic to prescribe.

Meanwhile, in my home, there are standing orders for my mummy to seize all Amox tablets lying around and abbu is requested to have a ‘dialogue’ with me before blindly embarking on regimens prescribed by his favourite-est pharmacy shop! 

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

Oh, how we take them for granted! But, like all things taken for granted, toilets, or rather a lack of them, come back with a vengeance too strong for our bowels and bladders to bear.

In two isolated incidents, two girls died and both their deaths had some relation with toilets. The first is the case of an autistic girl in the UK, who had a phobia of toilets and ended up suffering a heart attack after eight weeks of constipation, which ultimately killed her. The second incident is nearer to us- in Jharkhand- where a young girl committed suicide after her parents refused to construct a toilet at home because they were saving money for her marriage. This tragic suicide comes along with a chain of similar demands for toilets by young girls who refuse to get married or live with their husbands until they are provided with a toilet at home.

While both these situations may be alien to us (though not all of us!), the need for functional toilets in the public domain is no less. How many times have we been to toilets that have no water? Or toilets where the flush doesn’t work, thereby creating a flood of human waste? There are toilets with no buckets, no light and even no doors. And this I speak only of the toilets that are present in the official buildings, schools and colleges. Another big question would be a complete absence of government constructed toilets along long stretches of roads. (And then we ask men to stop urinating in the open? Seriously?) 

 The fact remains that an absence of functional toilets is an attack on human dignity and health. Every person should be able to attend the call of nature in a place which is clean, hygienic and safe. No person should have to ‘hold’ a pee or a poop due to the lack of a proper toilet.

Hundreds of girls do not go to schools and colleges only because their schools and colleges do not have functional toilets, and they, unlike boys, have not been given the freedom to zip down and pee in the open. Many more girls miss school during their menstruation because there is no proper place in the school for disposing their pads or there is no water to clean up. The placement of toilets is another issue- is the toilet in a place which is too secluded and thereby unsafe, or is it out in the open making it uncomfortable for many to use? Can the doors of the toilets be latched closed from inside? Are there dustbins? Are they cleaned regularly?

Many women (including me) refrain from drinking water while travelling because of the silly yet painful reason that there just aren’t enough toilets where a woman can go and relieve herself. Men can always find a way around it, even if in uncivilized ways, because, after all, they are men.

And I just want to remind you that we have not even touched the complexity of accommodating the third gender (recognized as legal in India) in our male-female binary toilets. That should be a topic for another place, another time.

The problem definitely needs to be addressed by constructing more toilets but it doesn’t end there. These toilets also need to be maintained to keep them hygienic and safe. So the next time there is an appraisal or a feedback at your offices, schools- do not forget to bring up any glitch that you have faced. And if you are in a position to make any changes to the toilets in your institution, try to make your toilets as ‘friendly’ as possible- with messages requesting (instructing) proper use, with packets for disposing sanitary pads, and maybe even condoms! 

Leaving you with a few WHO figures:

India has 626 million people who practice open defecation, more than twice the number of the next 18 countries combined. This number accounts for 90 per cent of the 692 million people in South Asia who practice open defecation and 59 per cent of the 1.1 billion people in the world who practice open defecation. 

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

Some of us may have read the brief news about an abandoned child being found somewhere around Foreshore Road a few days ago. The news piece received its share of comments in social media but the striking thing about the comments was that apart from those commending the boys who had tried to protect the child from the rain, a major share of the comments assumed that the mother of the child is to blame. In fact, the news piece itself judged it to be an abandonment act by an ‘unmarried mother’ (prima facie!). Now, it’s only natural that news of an abandoned child wrenches most hearts. It definitely should be treated as a crime and the perpetrator punished. But, amidst all the emotions and knee-jerk shaming of the said “unmarried mother” are we looking away from a few pertinent questions that the situation raises?

To begin with, we all assume that the abandonment was by the “mother” and the mother was “unmarried”. It could well be true, but the very fact that we assume so is a proof of our skewed thinking. The child could have been abandoned by anyone, for all we know, but the blame has to naturally fall on the woman since it is she who was born with the uterus! Assuming that indeed it was the mother who had abandoned the child, we are faced with some serious questions. What could have led a woman to do it. Was she forced into it? Why, in a country like India, where abortion of a foetus upto a certain number of weeks is legal, did the woman NOT seek abortion?

Probably, the woman was plain wicked- she just loved the idea of giving birth to a child and then abandoning it. This is what most comments sounded like. But, I shall try to leave you with a few other probabilities and hopefully it will make us think about the bigger picture and help us find solutions which are more than just blaming the woman. So, well…

Probably, she was too young a child to understand pregnancy or, for that matter, sexual abuse. By the time the family realized the child is pregnant, it was too late for abortion medically.

Probably, some family member himself was the perpetrator of the abuse, and didn’t want his act of sexual abuse to be leaked.

Or probably the family of the child, or even a grown up girl, was just too afraid of the stigma associated with an “unmarried mother” that it was decided to rather deliver the baby at home and abandon it THAN approach a medical facility for abortion.

Probably, it wasn’t an “unmarried mother” at all. Probably it was a married woman who conceived and very late into the pregnancy, her husband died and she was left with no source of income to feed another child.

Probably, the woman’s husband disowned the child- suspecting the child to have been fathered by another man- whether or not true, and demanded that the child be abandoned.

 The more we think, the more situations we can come up with, especially if we change the context and move it away from Port Blair. These probabilities raise questions of safety, social security, sex education, trust and stigma. What have we done to address any of these?

These are questions we must ask ourselves.

Abandoning the child was a crime but avoiding these major questions could be no less of a crime. When we blame women (and women alone) blindly for abandonment of children, we are, in a way, saying that the position of women is either so high in society that she is powerful to do as she pleases, or it is so low that she should bear the brunt of decisions taken by more people than just her! 

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.