Undoubtedly, these are social constructs our community has imposed on itself and that are further propagated by the fact that we do not have any institutionalized support systems for our young women. The assumptions on the white board during the ice breaker about teenage pregnancy are indicative of the fact that we have no systems to help our young women and that we must bring about institutional and cultural change in order to move in the right direction. The impact of the cultural stigma surrounding pregnancy out of wedlock in the Muslim community is astounding, and is leading to some very grave, but often preventable, circumstances. It’s probably most tragically telling that our young women feel that their only choice is abortion if they become pregnant out of wedlock. In this particular case, women are not making this decision because it is offered as a choice, but because they have no choice. So, in this respect, because of the way Muslim society has enforced and reinforced these stigmas for generations now, we cannot call ourselves a pro-choice or a pro-life community. How’s that for irony?
What’s going on in our community? Why do our women feel that there is no room for imperfection and there are no second chances for making the wrong (culturally or religiously unacceptable) choice? The Prophet (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him) did not teach such intolerance; nor did he endorse continual denial of the problems that exist in society. Homosexuality, pre-marital sex, teenage pregnancy, and drug abuse are all realities for the Muslim community, and have been for decades. Rape and mental illness are tragic circumstances that the victim should not be blamed for. These problems don’t just go away by ignoring them or by ostracizing those individuals.
What’s more interesting is how we discuss the issue of teenage pregnancy. In a recent conversation with Sahar Ullah, co-founder of Hijabi Monologues and performer of “Light on My Face” on January 9, 2009, she explained that discussing teenage pregnancy as a “phenomenon” is much easier than personalizing the issue. In other words, on the surface, pregnancy out of wedlock is wrong and unacceptable and it is very easy for members of the Muslim community to point fingers as detached individuals from the situation. However, personalizing the story of a young woman and describing the complexity of the factors that may lead a young woman to partake in sexual activity, such as low self-esteem, the need to be loved and desired, and the pressure to not lose the man that she loves, make the story a lot easier to sympathize with and the issue a lot harder to ignore.
We must stand up and work together to come up with a solution, a way to address these issues. While some of these issues are sensitive, controversial, and many would be opposed to endorsing them, the issue is not whether or not we should (or shouldn’t) endorse them. Offering resources and support for these individuals does not equate to endorsing their decisions or lifestyle, as the community falsely believes. However, not offering them anything will further alienate them from society and push them to take extreme measures, as demonstrated by the cases described above. More importantly, prevention of these problems will not even be an option – how can we attempt to prevent problems we aren’t willing to admit even exist? We cannot wait for the problem to face our family members before wanting to make a change. Every young woman is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, or someone’s friend, and it is our collective duty to provide them with a safe space to have the option to live a healthy life and be able to receive communal support in their most difficult of times.
Changing attitudes and combating cultural stigmas that have existed for generations are not easy tasks, but we cannot keep letting our young women rely on abortion because the community finds it easier to ostracize those who become pregnant out of wedlock instead of providing them with healthy alternatives and coping strategies. We must welcome open discourse and education to raise awareness about these problems, and must work together as a society to develop long-term solutions. It is our responsibility to create a safe space for these individuals free of judgment and full of hope – whether it is through shelters, clinics, or community centers – and have a sustainable support system to give these individuals options to make healthy choices and help each other through these circumstances. Only then can we begin to think about reducing the incidence of problems such as teenage pregnancies, abortion, and sexually-transmitted diseases in our community. The power of education and open discourse cannot be overstated in its impact on changing attitudes; accepting that these issues exist in our communities is just the first stepping stone in the right direction.