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Pinktober: Desexualizing Breasts

Mawish Moulvi

The writer is a lawyer and journalist.

Breasts. There, I have written it. And it is high time we learned uttering the word without feeling awkward or ashamed.

The male gaze in associating breasts to their sexual pleasure has rendered any mention of the said female body part a taboo. Despite breasts being a natural and inherent part of the female anatomy, any woman who utters the word breasts is instantly deemed vulgar and immoral. And the price we pay for this customary silence is increasing deaths due to breast cancer among women- deaths which could have been prevented.

According to the World Health Organization, one out of every six deaths worldwide is due to breast cancer, making it the third leading cause of death after heart and lung diseases. Breast cancer accounts for more than thirty percent of cancers diagnosed in women globally today. Although we have no national tumour registry, as per Dr. Rufina Soomro, a leading breast cancer surgeon at Liaquat National Hospital, at least one out of nine women in Pakistan suffer from breast cancer.

Currently, more than 40,000 of these breast cancer patients succumb to death annually according to statistics gathered by the ‘Pink Ribbon Society’. However, if timely detected, there is a ninety percent chance of a woman’s survival. Yet, due to a lack of awareness, many breast cancer victims are unable to recognize their symptoms at an early stage, a concern the month of October has now been attempting to address for over three decades.

Every year breast cancer awareness month has been successfully garnering greater prominence. Often termed Pinktober, October was marked as the month for raising breast cancer awareness by the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in 1985 with a pink ribbon. Pakistan too took part in the campaign.

Once again this year news anchors and politicians pinned on pink ribbons. Fans arriving at the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore were encouraged to wear pink. President House, Prime Minister House, Parliament House, Supreme Court, Federal Board of Revenue buildings were all illuminated with pink coloured lights. But while the sky turned pink the message is was to convey remained cloudy.

Popularizing the pink ribbon synonymous with breast cancer is certainly a step in the right direction, albeit an incomplete one. Although knowledge of the illness existing is being instilled in Pakistan through advertisements and activities, discussion on the simple and necessary method of self-examination is often overlooked at the behest of the morality brigade, for it entails a detailed conversation on the sexualized female body part.

Knowing what breast cancer is remains insufficient without the ability to spot its symptoms which include: any change in the size or shape of the breast; any lump in the breast or underarm; pain in any area of the breast; nipple discharge other than breast milk (including blood); dimpling or irritation of the skin on the breast.

But to complain of breast pain is equated to being immodest. To speak of nipple discharge is to endorse vulgarity. Conversations on breast cancer are still uncomfortable to have in many social echelons within Pakistan for the female body part is solely seen from the male gaze as an instrument of sexual gratification.

With Pinktober wrapped up, the pink ribbons have been taken off and put back into the drawer till next year. Much has been achieved but much more remains to be done. The breast must be desexualized to effectively counter the rising number of breast cancer cases.

Women must be able to speak of their breast paining or changing just as one does of a head injury or a heart disease. For the sake of saving lives, the government must muster the courage to encourage practical conversations on breast cancer even if they challenge cultural norms, instead of limiting awareness to half-baked campaigns simply because they would be more socially acceptable.