issue 27 - May June 2015
Not being able to have children has a great effect on the mental wellbeing of women. Batool Haydar shares the stories of some women who have gone through this experience
The status of a woman in Islam is often directly linked to her role as a mother. ‘Heaven lies under the feet of a mother’ is perhaps one of the most famous and oft-quoted traditions from the Prophet Muhammad(s). What happens then in the case of Muslim women who find it difficult or impos¬sible to bear children?
‘Infertility’ is perhaps the most hurtful word any woman looking forward to having a family of her own can ever hear. Yet there is a growing percentage of couples who have to face this reality. Whether the cause is genetic or exacerbated by our ever-changing environment and lifestyle, the challenge remains the same: how do couples - especially women - deal with the stigma of being unable to meet the most basic expectation of self and society?
Do We Need Help?
Samira, now in her forties, tried for nine years with her husband to conceive. ‘Accepting the possibility that there may be a problem is key,’ she says. Some¬times, a couple are in denial and spend a lot of time trying natural methods when they could have spent that time seeking professional help instead.
Infertility is medically diagnosed when a couple has tried to have a child for one year without success. A third of the time, the cause can be traced to the woman, a third of the time to the man and in the remaining cases there is no traceable reason. ‘Both the husband and wife need to get tested from the moment they feel they may need to seek professional advice,’ Samira says. ‘Society will always blame the woman and give her all sorts of prayers and suggestions, while the men rarely even get asked about the issue or consider that they may be the cause.’
Once a couple does find out that they need medical intervention, the challenges only increase. Whether they decide to go down the path of continuing to try for children should be a private decision, but often family and community get involved even though their intervention is not solicited.
The Pressure to Reproduce
New wives often transition seamlessly from the phase of receiving congratulations and best wishes on their marriage to laden questions about when to expect ‘good news’. As months turn into years with no visible reply to their queries, there tends to be a shift towards offering prayers and well-intentioned advice on how to go about getting a child.
Insiya speaks with indifference after seven years of hearing all kinds of comments, but the journey to emotional stability has been a difficult one. ‘At one point, I didn’t know if I wanted a child for myself or just to get those around me to shut up. People may think they are being kind or helpful, but honestly, no comment is better than making a stupid or potentially hurtful comment,’ she says.
Sakina and her husband spent thirteen years trying different ways - natural and medical. They finally settled on adopting her brother’s son. ‘Community pressure had a very negative effect on me,’ she says. ‘I stopped attending programmes at the mosque and immersed myself into my work. The only social connections I kept were with friends who were in a similar situation and that was because they understood what I was going through and allowed me to vent, while providing the support I so badly needed.’
Understanding and respect seem to be familiar needs for women working their way through the challenge of infertility. Noora, who also chose to adopt after a decade, says: ‘People with biological children will never understand the struggles and pain of not being able to have children. I wish they would be considerate when talking to people who can’t.’ She adds that pity or sympathy is not what is needed, but courtesy goes a long way. ‘Most women are extremely sensitive about this subject because they feel they have been denied the most basic right of a woman - that of being a mother - don’t trivialise it by saying you know how they feel. You don’t.’
Trying to make the situation better by making light of it is also a mistake. ‘When mothers would complain about naughty children, or too many children, it would just make me mad,’ says Insiya. ‘Sometimes, they would say things like ‘at least you can afford to go on holidays because you don’t have kids!’ - trust me, I would rather never go on a holiday, but have a child.”
Seeking Out The Sense
Inevitably, it is the women who have to bear the burden of both personal grief and societal stigma. In cases where there is a strong cultural influence involved, this stigma can be confused with religion and women end up feeling that they are not only incomplete as women, but also as Muslims.
Turning to God for answers or to make sense of the situation is a natural response, but because of lack of open moral support from community leaders or scholars, the journey to finding inner peace is not always a smooth one.
Fatima K., who has six year-old twins, conceived after 11 years of trying, is grateful that modern medicine has helped her dream of motherhood come true. ‘It was hard to get here though,’ she says. ‘The financial strain of repeated tests, having to undergo invasive proce¬dures, dealing with the insensitivities of the professionals who sometimes made you feel like a specimen rather than a person…all of these were hard to handle.’ The worst part was getting the results, she adds, ‘to sit and wait every time was emotionally exhausting and only faith in God kept me going after every negative result.’
The journey for others makes them question before leading them to a stronger faith. Insiya says: ‘At first I thought if I prayed a lot, it would all get better and things would work out. But after trying so many times, I started questioning myself. Was it me? Was there something I was doing that was stopping my prayers? I turned bitter over time and stopped asking for a baby, because I thought nobody was listening anyways.’
She is quick to add: “Over time I accepted the fact that I will be child free and I now look at it from the point of view that God knows I am strong enough to handle this. I am thankful for this experi¬ence, because it taught me to look at people and relation¬ships differently. I feel I can discern between true love and selfishness.
In His Hands
‘In His Hand is All Good’ (3:26) is a phrase of great comfort from the Qur’an and a strong foundation for trust in God’s decisions. While parenthood is a great blessing with unique status in Islam, it is like many other blessings within the faith - it is not granted to everyone among the faithful.
The lack of ability is not a criterion for judgement on the part of God and should not be one of ours either. This does not mean that couples should stop trying for children if that is what they want to do. However, the result of those efforts will always depend on God. ‘Have faith, hope, try for as long as you feel able to,’ says Samira, ‘but always know that God is the Best of Planners and be ready to accept whatever He decides. No doctor or medical procedure can guarantee you a child.’
*All names have been changed.
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