Why Does Safe Abortion Threaten the Governments of Arab Countries?
By Ghadeer Ahmed
“They are deceiving us, my dear. They say we bring life from our wombs to make us lose sight of our bodies being torn apart by that life as it comes out of us. They paint the image of the mother while we are sucking the very life out of our own mothers’ breasts. It’s like a factory shift; One uterus delivers the other, and one breast attaches to another. And in the middle are women who refused to participate in the game.”
Hikayat Al Ijhad – Shoghel Setat
The family institution, or what’s known as the nuclear family, has been known for centuries as the nucleus of modern societies. Those societies that transcended the primitive stages of human history and entered the realm of civilization,
Civilization is the divide between human groups based on simple work, such as farming and fishing, and in which women have ownership over their bodies. And other groups that are based on complex activities such as industry, in which women’s bodily autonomy is taken from them.
Feminists add that this shift between primitivism and civilization was accompanied by the emergence of the concept of private property: men owned land, labour power, and women’s bodies! The family consists of a man, a woman, and children; boys and girls.
It is a social institution exclusive to heterosexual individuals. These social identities and sexual orientations are then reproduced by procreation and by teaching boys and girls how to have productive and acceptable social identities.
The concept of productivity here can be summed up in two things: The first is women giving birth within the family and caring for the children. The second is that these children will join the workforce; men will work outside the home, women inside, and so on.
The emergence of the hetersoxual family and private property was not isolated from the emergence of capitalism as an economic, political, and social system. a system that took advantage of men’s work outside the home to make a surplus of profit. as well as the reproductive work of women, in order to maintain the labour force and to ensure that modern societies remain at the service of this system.
To ensure the survival of this system, the heterosexual family institution was the cornerstone of controlling its members’ bodies and social identities. There was no room for any social identities other than binary: man-woman. Or sexual orientation that is not thought to be productive of a workforce, such as homosexuality.
The control of women’s bodies within the family was important to its continuation. The ownership of their bodies were taken from them and given to the men of the family.
Women who’ve had premarital sex, and women who abstained from childbearing were stigmatized, and subjected to violence. Pregnant women (with productive wombs) were celebrated, and every woman who did not have children, for biological reasons, was dehumanized.
From here came the sanctification of procreation and what is socially known as motherhood, making it womens’ only purpose of existence, and a means of their realization and social acceptance.
Hence, abortionists were ostracized and abortion stigmatized.
Why do our governments criminalize safe abortion?
International Day for Safe Abortion
The heterosexual family is not only a social institution, but an economic and political institution as well. Arab countries are part of a human history that exploited and violently abused women’s bodies.
Colonialism in our Arab history also played a role in transmitting the sanctification of the heterosexual family in our societies, which were already open to this kind of sanctification.
Concepts like borrowing penal laws and constitutions from the colonizer, which state that the family is the nucleus of society, have been adopted in our countries from that period on.
While the majority of colonial countries got rid of these laws, our successive governments kept them.
Reverence for the family is promoted as what distinguishes Arab societies from Western ones. The family, as we explained above, is based on controlling women’s bodies. The criminalization of abortion is perhaps one of the most prominent examples of this.
Arab laws and penal regulations criminalize abortion because they believe that they will thus deter women from having premarital sex.
Thus, childbearing is considered a punishment. In the case of married women, the aborting woman is considered as refusing the gift of motherhood.
Arab legislators were, and are, never convinced of the many reasons why women do not want to bear children: whether it’s their economic status or domestic violence, or even free will. Maternity in this context is compulsory.
Since everyone sanctifies motherhood, women who are considering abortion maybe be guilted into continuing the pregnancy, or may be forced by their husbands to do so. Arab legislators consider childbearing inevitable after sex.
Thus, women who want an abortion are constantly blamed: “If you don’t want to get pregnant, don’t have sex.” and that’s where the role of ignorance of sexual and reproductive justice comes in.
Arab legislators do not recognize an important medical fact, which is that contraceptive methods are not 100% effective and that pregnancy with the use of these methods is possible. There are also women who become pregnant because of sexual abuse, and not providing them with access to safe abortion is another type of assault.
It is worth noting that the penal laws in Arab countries criminalize abortion even in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest – sexual assault by men within the family, with the exception of Tunisia.
In Morocco, a legal amendment was proposed to legalize abortion in these cases, but conservatives objected and it was not passed.
Arab governments believe that criminalizing abortion will prevent women from having sex outside of marriage. Thus by crushing the needs of any woman who is seeking abortion – whether it was the resut of premarital sex or not, and violating her right to access medical care.
This obsession with the family, and forcing women to have children under any circumstances, by criminalizing abortion did not prompt Arab legislatures to introduce laws that would allow, at least these women, to register children in their names. In fact, the majority of women who are forced to have children out of wedlock either have their children taken away from them by force, as in Libya, or they are registered in the name of the mother’s father and mother, as in Egypt.
In some cases, as happened in the Emirates years ago, newborns are abandoned in public places, as soon as they are born.
Abortion threatens the continuation of the family .. and so does the government..
Let us leave aside pregnancies resulting from rape, including marital rape and incest, and instead delve a little deeper into the philosophy of criminalizing abortion in the region under the premise of family preservation and the continuation of the family institution of economic and political benefit to the government.
Despite the criminalization of abortion, women (both married and unmarried) never stopped practicing it even while they were exposed to death, hostilities, medical complications, financial exploitation and sexual extortion.
When women practice abortion, the practice goes beyond challenging the law and up to challenging the philosophy of its origin: the continuation of the heterosexual family.
In the case of married women, the majority of them resort to abortion without informing their partner in order not to be forced to continue the pregnancy.
Some of them work with their partner to get the abortion done illegally. In doing so, she challenges the hereditary notion that women’s roles are restricted to reproduction – the idea from which the institution of the family derives its very existence.
She does not consider herself an instrument of social production: a begetting womb. She doesn’t feel forced into motherhood in order to be socially fulfilled.
Reasons for abortion may be the woman’s awareness of her limited ability to care for a child, especially in countries where there is absolutely no social and legal system that supports women in their caretaker role which men don’t share.
In the case of unmarried women, the threat of the heterosexual family is clearer. In our societies, women are not allowed to have sex. And the law punishes them for doing it. However, they practice it, and even refuse to be punished for it by continuing an unwanted pregnancy.
These women have regained a fundamental part of their autonomy which had been taken from them by the existence of the heterosexual family as a social institution, and which ratified this appropriation using unjust laws that deny women of their reproductive rights.
This circumvention of the law was also a circumvention of the heterosexual families in which they were raised: the father, the mother, and the small community in which the aborted women lived. Women’s approval to participate in premarital sex is almost non-existent.
Thus, having sex outside of marriage here, is considered a divergence from the main criteria for the continuation of the heterosexual family, which controls women’s sexuality and their bodies simply for the womb that exists inside of them.
The reproductive womb is an instrument of production that human societies have not abandoned since the beginning of the so-called civilization. An instrument of production that has been dominated and constrained for the greater good: patriarchy and capitalism.
In Arab societies that consider women’s bodies to be a synonym of honor, and because of laws that only allow children to be born in an official setting, it is important to remember the women who’ve conceived outside marriage and still wanted to continue their pregnancy but were unable to do so because of the social stigma that would befall them and their children. In other words, wombs are tools of production, but within a single framework: marriage.
When women have sex outside of marriage, they take back ownership of their bodies. And when they perform abortions, they assert this ownership by endangering their lives.
Our societies kill women if they suspect their behavior, as happens in Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and other countries in the region. What would it be like if they had already had sex? This is feminist resistance in its radical sense: the reclamation of the body, and of the womb.
It is worth noting that we are not trying to romanticize or heroicize the practice of abortion, but we are decoding what a practice outside the framework of the law and cultural heritage means in our countries with a history of violence towards women and their bodies.
This is a form of resistance that our governments confront it with overt violence, by criminalizing abortion and submitting aborting women to the full extent of the law, and covert violence, by endangering women’s lives in illegal and medically unequipped abortion clinics, therefore rendering the practice of abortion a threat to the life of the aborter.
With this kind of violence, Arab governments are violating women’s rights to health care, which in itself is a violation of citizenship rights.
Therefor, the continuation of the heterosexual family is the continuation of this entire social and political system even if women pay dearly in terms of their bodies, security and personal safety.