A Karachi, Pakistan street vendor
The first time I tried to buy condoms in Karachi, I caught the store clerk looking at my ringless finger. When I made a questioning face at his disapproving expression, he asked me if I had a husband. "No," I admitted.
That's when he told me he couldn't sell me condoms. "I wouldn't want my baby sister to be able to buy it so easily," he explained. I nodded although I disagreed. "But, wouldn't you want your sister to be able to have safe sex?" I asked him. I told him that if she was buying her own condoms, her having sex was probably inevitable. "Wouldn't you rather she not get pregnant?" He shook his head and told me he'd rather she never have sex. Before I could continue to argue the point, he waved me along. "Try another store," he said firmly.
I'd approached the street-vendor mostly out of curiosity. At a recent dinner party, one of my female friends told me that she was tired of her boyfriend showing up at her house without condoms. "Then he wants to have sex," she said, rolling her eyes. I laughed, asking her why she didn't just keep a box at home. Her eyes grew exaggeratedly round and she giggled. "How on earth could I possibly buy my own condoms? Women can't just walk into a store and buy them!"
That's when I realised that I had no idea how people in Pakistan bought condoms. Afshan, a representative at the Family Planning Association of Pakistan told me that 80 percent of Pakistan's general stores sold condoms and that it was the most used contraceptive device in the country, with 12 percent of married couples using it as their primary contraception. It's readily available everywhere from ramshackle kiosks on the city's sidewalks to larger convenience stores with pharmacy counters.
These weren't the only options. Community-based health workers carried condoms around with them, especially when they were leading seminars on the importance of family planning. However, the health workers I spoke to confided that in rural areas, the onus of birth control fell onto the women who had to convince their partners to use the condoms. They also explained that many organisations took a hard line against giving contraception to unmarried girls. "We're not allowed to hand them out to people who aren't married, which I believe is unfair and wrong," one health worker told me.
The author's local convenience store
Afshan also told me that same was true of several family-planning centers. Technically they were required to give out condoms and contraception to anyone who asked for them, but she reminded me that extramarital sex is illegal in Pakistan, and the punishment for someone convicted of consensual sex outside of marriage is imprisonment of up to five years. "While this isn't stopping people from having sex outside of marriage," Afshan told me, "many young women complain that they must prove that they are married before they're given contraception of any kind."
Zarmina, a student I spoke with outside Szabist Univeristy told me that she didn't even know where to buy condoms in Pakistan. "Do they actually have them at general stores?" she asked. "I've never seen them lying around, and I would never want to ask for them out loud inside a store." She fake-shuddered at the thought. "Can you imagine if they knew I was having sex?" I asked her what she thought would happen. "You know, I don't really have a good idea. Maybe he thinks I'm a prostitute and follows me out for sex. Maybe he tells everyone in the store that I'm an immoral woman. He could call the police and have me arrested. I would never risk it."
"A friend in the United States told me that condoms come in different sizes," her boyfriend (who requested not to be named) confessed to me when I asked him how he bought his condoms. "It's shameful enough every time I ask for a condom, I can't imagine telling the man what size I want." He explained that he picks a new kiosk to buy condoms from every time and he's always too embarrassed to buy more than one at a time.
He wasn't the only one. Even married couples admitted that the process of buying condoms was terrifying. "Once the man at the pharmacy counter announced to the entire store that I wasn't doing my God-given duty of making children and that I would go to hell," one told me. He laughed, telling me that he ended up buying the condoms anyway.
I decided to go to my neighbourhood convenience store to see if I had better luck at their pharmacy counter. The condoms were somewhat hidden, nestled between cholesterol medication and cod liver oil. I asked the pharmacist if I could have one, and he looked somewhat perturbed. He, too, glanced at my naked hand, but handed me a 12-pack box of Durex. "It's ribbed and has warming lube," the pharmacist told me, "but it's the best quality." My cheeks were on fire, and I wanted nothing more than to end the discussion about the type of condom I wanted. "I just need one," I stuttered, pointing to the single packs of condom brands I'd never heard of. "No," the pharmacist insisted. "Please, just take this one. This way you won't have to come back soon."
I agreed, realising that he was equally embarrassed by the exchange. Instead of handing me the box of condoms though, he printed out a receipt for them. "You have to pay at the cash register," he said apologetically. I thought the worst was over, but as I handed the cashier my receipt, he gave me a once over, his gaze lingering on my breasts before he flashed his tobacco-stained teeth at me with a smile. "Ohhh, condoms," the cashier said, his mouth still full of chew. I handed him the cash with the tips of my fingers, trying to avoid any contact in the exchange. The pharmacist handed me the condoms, discretely wrapped in a brown paper bag.
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