by Nadiah Mohajir
Cultural stigmas have existed for thousands of years, yet never have I ever been more haunted by the unfortunate effect they have on mental and physical health outcomes. Earlier this week, a young Pakistani teen girl went into labor, delivered a baby in her bedroom, and then, fearful of her mother’s disapproval, dropped the baby out of her 8th floor window. Since I found out about this horrific situation, I have carried it with me. It is likely that the community will be quick to wag their finger at her, deem her irresponsible and even evil. They will be quick to wash their hands of responsibility for this girl’s decisions, and will use her as an example when talking about the evils of sex before marriage. Yet, I carry this woman’s story with me because I believe we have failed her. We have failed her as a community, as fellow Muslims, and fellow citizens, in creating sustainable programming, resources, services, and information that empower women with what they need to make healthy and sound decisions.
First, the stigma and shame associated with sex outside of marriage, along with our double standards in not holding our boys to the same standards, is literally breaking the mental and physical health and well being of our young women. We don’t have to change the rules of the faith – sex outside of marriage is not endorsed in Islam, but like all faiths, Islam also values repentance and healing above all. We just have to reclaim the way we talk about sexual health decision-making in a way that is less judgmental and more empowering. I hear these sentiments every time I facilitate any workshop on self-esteem, peer pressure and sex with young people. For example, when I asked young women to shout out the first words that came to mind when they heard of “Muslim teen pregnancy” words like, “family disownment,” “social suicide,” “actual suicide,” and even “abortion.” When asked to elaborate, one of the girls stated, “it’s hard to mess up even slightly in a Muslim household.” It is unfortunate that our young women in the Muslim community feel that it is “social suicide” for a Muslim girl to become pregnant out of wedlock, and that many even associate it with self-imposed death and abortion. Moreover, it’s problematic that our boys are not held to the same standard. After all, two people are involved in conceiving a baby – why does the burden of that entire decision fall overwhelmingly on the shoulders of the girl? What’s sad is that these feelings are actually a reality for a certain population of young women in New York City: a study in New York City following young Muslim women who are sexually active found that the abortion rate was 100% for those who became pregnant out of wedlock. The unfortunate reality is that these women would not be asked whether or not they wanted an abortion, but rather, which type of abortion they wanted.
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 or the young Chicago woman’s story 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 associating strong feelings of dishonor with 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 or in this most recent case, dropping the baby out of the window, 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?
Second, we have created a community where our young people feel it necessary to carry the burden of their decisions alone. As such, this young woman was forced to carry the burden of a teen pregnancy, with no support or resources to reach out to because of the paralyzing shame she felt. As explained in this post, shame is different than guilt. Guilt essentially means “I did something bad,” while shame means “I am bad.” Guilt is healthy, and helps one reflect, change behavior and move forward. Shame, on the other hand, is paralyzing and is a direct attack on one’s self-worth and encourages one to suffer alone. And so, she likely didn’t go to prenatal care appointments. She likely didn’t reach out to anyone with questions on her pregnancy or what to expect. She likely spent many of her days living in fear and feeling alone in her situation, when she didn’t have to be.
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? And why is the landscape so much more different for our young men? 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 realities don’t just go away by ignoring them or by ostracizing those individuals.
Third, our young people need to learn to define their self-worth by values, and not by the roles they are expected to play in life, because if they do, they will undoubtedly fail. This woman likely defined her self-worth by her mother’s (and community’s) approval. This is problematic because defining oneself by the role one is expected to play, or by a person’s approval is that those are often fleeting and temporary. Put simply, if one’s entire self worth is defined by their mother’s approval, then what happens when they don’t get that approval (which is a always a likely possibility)? It’s essential to teach young people to define their self worth by everlasting values, such as kindness, justice, loyalty, courage, honesty, etc, rather than by a role or relationship in their lives, as that will help them make better and more informed decisions in high pressure circumstances.
Finally, we need to realize that simply having access to services or information is not enough. Often times, young people who suffer alone are close to medical and social resources. In fact, this woman lived a block from the hospital. She likely even had organizations such as Planned Parenthood near her. However, one’s ability to access services and information in a way that they feel safe and empowered is dependent on a number of factors, including the environment and messages they get at home. As such, it is crucial that we have open conversations about sex, relationships and decision-making with our kids now more than ever. It is likely this young woman is a function of not having these conversations at home on pregnancy, contraception, sexually transmitted infections and decision-making, even if she had access to sex education at school. If we do not have open conversations about sex, sexuality, relationships and decision-making in our families and homes, we are putting our children at risk for some serious consequences. They will have limited understanding of sex, values, and how it relates to their worldview, and be unequipped to make time sensitive situations regarding their bodies and sexuality – even if they choose to not have sex until they get married.
We have to work together to come up with a way to address these issues. One of these ways is making a commitment to open conversations about sex in a way that is accurate and culturally-sensitive. Speaking openly about sex to Muslim youth is not giving them permission to have sex or endorsing sex before marriage. In fact, research shows the opposite: that those who speak to their children about sex openly, are more likely to have children who delay having sex, and make more responsible decisions for when they do ultimately have sex. More importantly, prevention of problems such as teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and the like 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 it to become a reality for 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.
We can no longer afford to let our young women rely on abortion or making horrific decisions for their babies 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 infections 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.