Every woman who’s unable to conceive can relate to this. She attends a family gathering or runs into one of her old friends and the question about her ‘womb’ pops up. Isn’t your biological clock ticking already?‘ ‘When are you going to have kids?’ Most times, the people who bring up these questions ask from a place of mockery and shame rather than actual care for the woman involved. Even when it has not yet been confirmed that she’s the one with the fertility problem, there’s an automatic assumption that the problem is with the woman. And as usually expected of every Muslim woman, these questions are brushed off with an uncomfortable smile rather than fierce confrontation.
It’s hard to win as a woman. In almost every Muslim community, womanhood is tied to the ability to conceive and have children. There’s always that one person who believes that a woman doesn’t deserve a life of marital bliss if her body can’t produce a human being. Women trying to have kids face a unique mix of scrutiny that requires them to defend themselves and their right to have biological children.
An unspoken assumption amongst Muslims is that women’s purpose on earth is to procreate and expand humanity. Many assume that a woman has no value if she is unable to conceive. Some have even tied the purpose of marriage to the creation of a family, asserting that any marriage without children isn’t a blessed one. Metaphors of “barren soil” and “fruitless tree” are used to plunge women with fertility issues into daytime nightmares. It however doesn’t end there. Women who don’t become pregnant have been presumed to have weak morality and stereotyped as promiscuous or masculine. From the snide comments about her chastity and medical history to the explicit confrontations about whether or not she has had an abortion in the past or has been using contraceptives to avoid getting pregnant, the issue of infertility is a leading cause of anxiety and mental health issues for many women.
A good number of women feel humiliated by the harsh social consequences of being unable to birth a child, leading to extreme social anxiety as they’re made to feel so delinquent and inadequate and thus, unable to fit into society. In Muslim communities, the majority of infertility issues lead to divorce, leaving the woman unable to get married again and plunging her into a lifetime of social struggle. In the 21st century, while amazing technological advancements like IVF, surrogacy and fertility drugs have been made to make reproduction possible for almost everyone, women who employ these methods are still shamed and judged harshly.
It’s really unfortunate that considering the rich legacy of Islamic teachings and history available for Muslim communities to draw inspiration from, we still conveniently neglect these lessons for the convenience of being cruel, insensitive and judgemental. Our mother, Asiyah, was one of the most highly-praised women in the Qur’an who neither conceived nor birthed a child. She is also one of the foremost women in Muslim history who has a special place reserved for her in paradise. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Aisha (RA), the most beloved wife of the Prophet (PBUH) who happened to be his only ‘virgin’ wife was unable to conceive and have a biological child until her death. Yet, the womanhood of these two women was never questioned or put to test, neither were they subjected to derogatory questions and remarks regarding their inability to conceive.
“Among His proofs is that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, in order to have tranquillity and contentment with each other, and He placed in your hearts love and care towards your spouses. In this, there are sufficient proofs for people who think.“– Noble Qur’an 30:21
In the Qur’an, God emphasises the primary purpose of marriage as being one where couples should find companionship through love, compassion and tranquillity. Nowhere in the Qur’an and in any prophetic tradition was it stated that the primary purpose of marriage is to procreate and expand humanity. Where any mention is made of children, it is usually in terms of it being the icing on the cake of any marital relationship and a blessing to be accounted for before God. The belief in divine predestination further reinforces the idea that God gives children to whomever He wills. So the question which begs to be asked is ‘From where did Muslims derive their judgemental and misogynistic attitude towards women.’
“Verily, from the perfection of Islam is that a person leaves what does not concern him..”– Sunan At-Tirmidhi 2318, Grade: Hasan
The Muslim attitude to almost every matter which is of no personal concern to them is to always mind our businesses and not rear our heads into other people’s matters. In cases where we may feel a sense of concern for the people we love, sensitivity and extreme care are needed to approach sensitive topics. Shaming and judging women for what is absolutely beyond their control is not only offensive to humans but is also offensive to God. It is painful enough that a woman who is unable to conceive has to grieve the loss of one of her most basic biological functions but the shaming and discrimination makes this a two-layered problem for her. Enough of plunging women into double-edged trauma for what they have no control over.
Wardah Abbas is the Founding Editor of The Muslim Women Times. She is a Lawyer, Writer and Social Justice activist.