Doctor Nadim Uddin Siddiqui fixes his gaze on a camera in the shiny new studios of Health TV in Karachi, Pakistan’s economic hub, and prepares to take the day’s first question.
“My husband doesn’t want to make love anymore, what should I do doctor?” the housewife asks over the phone.
In strait-laced Muslim Pakistan, a new TV show is trying to deal with the delicate subject of sex and embarrassing illnesses without angering conservatives.
Most of Pakistan’s 80-odd television stations fill their airtime with cooking shows, soap operas, cricket and interminable chatshows debating the country’s myriad political dramas.
But once a week, for an hour, Health TV does something very different: it takes questions from viewers on sex. Or more precisely, sexual problems.
“My husband only wants to do it once a week, sometimes once a fortnight, and it doesn’t last very long,” continues Ayesha the housewife, calling from the eastern city of Lahore.
The portly Siddiqui, his pearly white teeth glistening under the studio lights, doesn’t miss a beat.
“We call this loss of libido…it occurs when you have a low level of testosterone. You should work on your husband`s diet, feed him more fish and push him to exercise,” he says.
“God willing your husband will get better.”
Each Thursday “Clinic Online”, which began airing a year ago, takes dozens of calls on subjects ranging from loss of libido and erectile dysfunction to questions about sexually-transmitted diseases, micro-penises and nymphomania.
“Sex is a very difficult matter in Pakistan; here it is very difficult to talk in open forum, in media, in any seminar. So whenever you talk about sex you should be very careful,” Siddqui said after the show.
He attributes the programme’s success in part to highlighting issues around sexual diseases, which he says resonates even with the deeply religious, and takes pride in having avoided controversy — so far.
“I have never seen a single person who is having any objection (to) me. They appreciate me because…if it is a disease, you have to treat (it). You must try to propagate your knowledge,” he said.
Founded three years ago, Health TV is something of an odd fit in Pakistan, a conservative Islamic state of 180 million people which saw an explosion of private broadcasters in the early 2000s following the liberalisation agenda of former ruler Pervez Musharraf. Part of the Ziauddin network of private hospitals, Health TV says its mission is to improve health awareness in a country where access to a doctor can be difficult in rural areas and for those without financial means.
Sometimes religious conservatism can play a part in ignorance and poor health: gynaecologists are known refuse to examine unmarried women, who according to them should not be having sex.
“In our society, the woman, if she comes from a very conservative background, someone would have to take her to the doctor — her mother, her sister,” says Faizan Syed, the channel’s director.