A Feminist Accident: On Abortion And Reproductive Justice In Egypt

Nana Abuelsoud's picture. Illustrations of tiny trees with envelops on them is at the bottom of the image. Text on the image reads, "A Feminist Accident: On Abortion And Reproductive Justice In Egypt" "Nana Abuelsoud, Egypt"

Dear Sheikh,

Peace and mercy,

Would you allow me to tell you that I am a bastard? A child of the rape by my anonymous father of my miserable mother, whose decision not to abort me probably had nothing to do with your fatwas, but most likely was because she did not know what else to do. Her hands could not reach, as they say. She bound her stomach for nine months and gave birth under a palm tree. The dates did not fall on her. But it was me who fell. I fell from her abdomen into the mud. And to add to the misfortune, I fell on my back so she did not smother me. And because I am a fool, I screamed, so hands found me, a foundling, a son of sin, a bastard and many other names.

You pitied me when I was but a clot in my mother’s belly, but you did not tell anyone what to do with me. You did not allow a family to adopt me. You didn’t tell anyone that mercy and pity required treating me as a human being. You and your society did not provide me with an alternative, or is compassion only due to fetuses? I ask you this, sheikh, and every father and family that has a daughter who was raped asks with me, every infant left at an alley corner asks you, will you provide a place for them in your mosque? Every girl who was impregnated by her rapist asks you, will you protect her with your robes from people’s eyes? Would it not have been more merciful that I not exist at all? May God never show you misfortune in your loved ones, and may He forgive your past and future sins.

Anonymous

I came upon this letter last year in one of the collected volumes of the publications of the New Woman Foundation, while I was looking for material on the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. The letter was immediately preceded by an intervention by Aida Seif al-Dawla where she discussed some of what was published in national newspapers attacking the hosting of the “Western” conference in Cairo. This letter, written by a member of the New Woman Foundation in the voice of an abandoned child, pleads for succor from the Sheikh of Al-Azhar. At the time, I happened to be closely following widespread posts and news pieces about infants found in dumpsters in Egypt. A romantic feminist coincidence. I don’t mean here children and infants who had been kidnapped and then abandoned in the streets, but infants and newborns who were born due to an unwanted pregnancy, whether it was extramarital, or as a result of rape committed by individuals inside or outside the family. At first, I was focused on the abasement and filth of the locations the babies were found in. A work colleague explained that people were choosing dumpsters because of the surveillance cameras that have been planted in front of mosques, hospitals and churches. These are the places we imagine, even in our bad jokes: “we found you at the door of a mosque.”

For reproductive justice to be achieved, we will have to defend the right to not have children, and the right to have children, and the right to parenthood in safe and sustainable societies.

This phenomenon is completely absent from the local mainstream currents of demands for safe abortion services. Leaving newborns and infants in public places is not a new phenomenon — it is certainly at least as deep-rooted as the concepts of honor and virginity — but the places in which they are found are still distressing, a sort of distress that may be called a “political opportunity.”

Last year, I found this message published on a Facebook page:

In the name of God the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,

I beg for pardon and forgiveness from God first and from whoever will raise him, but society is cruel just as I am cruel for abandoning him and I will remain culpable for him until the Day of Judgment, but pardon and forgiveness is from God. I did not find a safer place than God’s mosque.  His name is Abdallah and his birth date is 31/1/2020 and he has not received any vaccinations or medicine or eye drops. By God, may he be a trust in your hands. Forgive me if I could face the Sheikh, but God’s servant does not shield  God’s servant, this world is bad without (…) other than the mosque. I wish I knew where he was going after this, because I will never forgive myself and he will never forgive me. Abdallah my son, I may die without him, Generous God- shield me may God shield you, I am an unjust mother, a servant among God’s servants, the most important thing is to shield me.

Comments on the previous post on Facebook erupt in judgment of the writer of the letter. They strip her of her humanity and accuse her of being cold, and they do not see her written heartache. Her abandonment of Abdallah becomes an individual failing. We do not know if the situation of the writer would be different if she had been allowed to register Abdallah in her name in the absence of a man. Perhaps. Or if people near and far did not blame her for this pregnancy and this child. Perhaps it would have been. Or if she had not planned for a pregnancy, and had been able to terminate it in the early weeks. Perhaps. Or if her social class and background had allowed her to keep Abdallah. Perhaps.

If the motivations for seeking safe abortion services are the inability to provide for future needs because of systematic and historical policies of impoverishment, then we must consider this situation as a whole rather than just reduce it to the demand for safe abortion without attending to the impoverishing policies which preface it.

Despite the fact that many blame the poor for overpopulation, and despite widespread admonishment of the poor for their own poverty due to their ignorance and high fertility rates — as embodied in the social legacy of the idea that “ the child comes with its sustenance” — the incident of a woman leaving her newborn infant beside a garbage bin in front of a mosque in Alexandria weaves a different narrative.

After her identity was discovered from the hospital bracelet wrapped around the wrist of her infant, she was arrested. During police investigations, she explained that her actions were a result of financial distress and her inability to provide for the child’s needs because her husband refused to take care of their expenses. The prosecution released her in sympathy with her financial conditions. This is another incident that presents itself to us as a political opportunity. The reluctance of husbands to contribute or provide for their families’ expenses is another reason for abortion. We use this reality to confront the slowness of family courts, the undervaluing of alimony, and the position of women in the economy and their opportunities to work for decent wages.

Never mind that people attack safe abortion services, burying their heads in the sand so that they do not see the hundreds and even thousands of impoverished Egyptian women, Muslim and Christian, who are forced to have abortions for reasons ranging from lack of knowledge about contraceptive methods, to the failure of the contraceptive method used, to the poverty that aborts and kills with no permission from Sharia or law, to the violation of women who become pregnant as a result of rape by a stranger or relation or by incest. The problem of these women is not that Egypt’s doctors have taken a moral stance against abortion, and so do not perform it. Their problem is that they do not have the three or five hundred Egyptian pounds needed to have an “illegal” abortion in one of Cairo’s fancy clinics. These women resort to all sorts of means to obtain an abortion- which is always harshest on themselves. They lift heavy loads and insert foreign and contaminated objects into their uteruses to get rid of their unwanted pregnancies. I do not imagine that these women would see anything strange in their suffering, nor would they consider it a “Western conspiracy” if free and safe abortion services were provided to them, at no cost, at Health Ministry hospitals rather than hospitals that resemble five-star hotels.

I contemplate this part of the commentary by Aida Seif al-Dawla, and I recall a discussion that took place two years ago with feminists from the Global South where we shared the roots of our interest in reproductive justice. Reproductive justice is distinct from a “pro-choice” framework — in fact it came to our world as a reaction by black feminists in the US to pro-choice feminist discourses, which failed to address the systemic and repeated violations of the bodies of black women and women of color. These violations ranged from forced sterilization and deadly contraceptive methods, to police racism leading to the imprisonment of black men and youth and the separation of families and the tearing apart of entire societies across generations. But demands for the right to choose during this period created a false equivalence between the legalization of abortion and its accessibility, as if the decision to have an abortion was not governed by other social, class and racial factors.

I read present-day demands for the legalization of abortion in Egypt as slogans along the lines of “my body is mine,” which restrict it within a human rights debate rather than a health service that should be included among other reproductive health services.

We settled in our discussion that feminist organizing in our regions had actually adopted the framework of reproductive justice without naming it as such. In some contexts, it was referred to as “social justice.” The self-evidence of the idea of reproductive justice compels us to rally around it, regardless of linguistic permutations. The framework of reproductive justice combines three human rights principles: 1) the right not to have children through safe contraceptive methods, abortion or abstinence; 2) the right to reproduce under desirable conditions; 3) the right to parenthood in a safe, healthy and sustainable environment. It is crucial that these rights are not read hierarchically or in a particular order, so that none of them is given precedence over nor receives more organizational attention than the others. If the motivations for seeking safe abortion services are the inability to provide for future needs because of systematic and historical policies of impoverishment, then we must consider this situation as a whole rather than just reduce it to the demand for safe abortion without attending to the impoverishing policies which preface it. Abortion, in this case, is not a choice, nor is it a fulfillment of the of the right to not have children. On the contrary, it is a violation of the right to reproduce.

I read present-day demands for the legalization of abortion in Egypt as slogans along the lines of “my body is mine,” which restrict it within a human rights debate rather than a health service that should be included among other reproductive health services. Such slogans imply a naive message that we can control our bodies through laws and regulations. But laws and regulations are tactical steps we can use to advance a certain discourse — they are not an end in themselves. In addition to the need to learn from all the lessons of feminist movements calling for safe abortions in other countries with similar contexts, it is necessary to make it a cause for all women, and not just confine it to a group with specific features and needs, so that it is linked to social class, for example, or race, or ability and living with disability. Abortion is done regardless of its legal status. It is therefore useful for us to link the right to safe abortion services to women’s lack of knowledge about (emergency) contraceptives, partners’ lack of cooperation in making reproductive choices, the deterioration of the quality of reproductive health services and women’s reluctance to use them, the availability of reproductive health services and contraceptive methods on marital status, and the absence of comprehensive sexual education for adolescent girls and boys and, consequently, their inability to protect themselves. If our intention is to achieve reproductive justice, then just as we include women who do not want to be pregnant and give birth, we must also include women who do want to be pregnant and give birth, and therefore we must support assisted reproductive technology services, such as ICSI. If our starting point is to guarantee the right to not have children, we must guarantee along with it the right to have children, since assisted reproductive technology services are also extremely expensive and unavailable to many women.

Limiting abortion to the framework of sexual liberation makes it an issue that does not include the different women who are motivated by numerous economic and social conditions.

What I want to say is that abortion is not an independent issue. We hear about abortion from our grandmothers and our conservative relatives who chose to terminate a pregnancy in its early weeks because they could not meet the needs of an additional person. Limiting abortion to the framework of sexual liberation makes it an issue that does not include the different women who are motivated by numerous economic and social conditions. Separating abortion from the reality of its nature as a healthcare service pushes it into a corner that invites the opinion of just about anyone on our permanent and changing decisions to not bear children. Here, I am not negotiating over the right to not have children, rather, I am negotiating over the tactics we use to claim that right. I invite us to ponder what it is that these tactics reflect.

The previous two letters were written more than twenty years apart, and yet I read the latter as an echo of the former. I am concerned with what has happened to the very local context which Aida presented in her article — why has it become absent from our general perception and why has the formulation of our demands changed and become restricted to the telling of personal stories which reinforce the individual nature of the crisis and fail to reflect our collective narrative? I also invite us to approach with care the dividing line between recounting our stories for the purpose of healing, and using personal narrative to affect change. In addressing abortion, why do we only mention poverty and social class when we talk about the fees of private doctors? Why are we not concerned with the class-based targeting of poor women who benefit from the “Two is Enough” program? Why do we accept the institutional threats that they will be deprived of support if they dare to have more than two children? For reproductive justice to be achieved, we will have to defend the right to not have children, and the right to have children, and the right to parenthood in safe and sustainable societies. Let us be cognizant in our analyses and readings of eugenic-like population control discourses cloaked in development programs. Let us take class as our reference, and the reproductive needs of poor women as the focal point of our analysis and of our feminist solidarity.

BY NANA ABUELSOUD

The article was originally published on Mada Masr

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