Pro-choice and Pro-life redefined

Since the beginning of time, women have been unequivocally blessed with the ability to share in the creation of the human race, and have been revered for the tremendous responsibility of carrying life within their wombs. In tandem, some women have pondered on the undisputable weight of this responsibility, and instead have chosen “the road less traveled,” deliberately shying away from motherhood and foregoing its glory altogether. For women, witnessing how life grows within and nurturing that life from the time of conception can be the ultimate spiritual experience. It not only intrinsically ties women to the Divine, but indeed makes paradise itself lie at her feet.
A picture of perfection is painted for the Muslim woman on the beauty of having, raising, and taking care of children, framed with the unquestionable duty to increase the numbers of our Ummah. After all, it is through motherhood that women are elevated in rank above men in the saying of the Prophet (saw):

“A man came to Allah’s Apostle and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Who is more entitled to be treated with the best companionship by me?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man
said. “Who is next?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man further said, “Who is next?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man asked for the fourth time, “Who is next?” The Prophet said, “Your father.”

Traditionally though, Islamic culture and society have imposed on women the “religious” obligation to procreate, earnestly pushing for women to marry, bear children, and thus fulfill their “only” purpose. This is why in some circles, it is not uncommon to have female relatives and neighbors inquire about one’s pregnancy status, beginning as early as a week or so after the wedding night. The pressure to conceive can reach alarming highs, especially for older women who are constantly reminded of their “biological clocks.” All too often, this burdening expectation to deliver a healthy bundle of joy can leave the late-pregnant and barren feeling utterly depressed and incomplete.

Therefore, it is no surprise that when women finally figure out the painful, challenging, and outright draining side of motherhood, the choice to have or not to have children is no longer theirs. It seems as if in the blink of an eye, many women suddenly find themselves with little Ahmad, Fatima, and Yusuf (and baby Maryam on the way!), before they can consciously take a step back and analyze what motherhood really entails. What’s more, when women do voice their hesitation to take the plunge into a life of sacrifices, they are immediately cornered and chastised in our communities, with the unsubstantiated argument that choosing not to have children is prohibited in Islam.

Allah says in the Qur’an that we were put on this Earth to worship Him, and His worship can be carried out in various forms. There are several examples throughout Islamic history, when Muslim women (and men!) never married or had children (by fate or choice), often choosing to live a life of scholarship dedicated to the advancement of Islamic knowledge, and the propagation of our deen. Even without a lofty goal such as scholarship, choosing life without children is a valid choice, and as such should be respected without need for justification.

No doubt motherhood can earn women an elevated status in Islam, but entering into it without full disclosure of its headaches and heartaches can sometimes be detrimental to the spiritual growth and well-being of some women, their families, and society at large. The scene that comes to mind is all too familiar: a sheer kaleidoscope of frustrated, irritable, and miserable women in the mosque, complaining about their lives as mothers, yanking their children and crying babies during Friday prayer, obstinately talking about yet another pregnancy and their due date. For some women, motherhood translates into never fulfilling their educational and/or professional dreams, and for others it becomes an undercurrent of longing for companionship, when a couple’s quality time is indefinitely replaced with child-rearing and parenting quarrels. This is especially common in Western countries, where young families must juggle raising children without the support of an extended family structure.

Without mothers in our communities opening up and discussing motherhood realistically and in its entirety, with all its pros and cons, women are left to pursue motherhood blindfolded and beyond the point of no return. Having a forum where women can dialogue about womanhood, motherhood, and the relationship between the two, will foster better understanding about this life choice, leading women to make a conscious, well-informed decision on whether or not having children is their prerogative in this life.

Ultimately, Muslim women should exercise their limited free will as granted to them by Allah, and be given the opportunity to choose motherhood or a life beyond it. Allah, in all His wisdom, says: “Your wealth and your children are only a trial, whereas Allah! With Him is a great reward.” (64:15)
Enith Morillo is Events and Publicity coordinator for Altmuslimah.

16 Comments

  • tucompay1976 says:

    I think the issue here is to back up and get at the idea of marriage.  I know that many of us assume marriage is inextricably linked to procreation (if possible).  We need to rethink marriage in terms that get back to the purpose of bringing two individuals together in the holy union.  What was that purpose again?

  • muqarnas says:

    tuocompay: I could be wrong, but I think that most societies have traditionally seen marriage and procreation as one for as long as written history. It’s characteristic of communal/tribal/traditional societies to focus on procreating and maintaining their lineage, which is why their marriages are often arranged, with little consideration for how much two people are compatible with each other.

    It seems to me that it’s a relatively new idea to see marriage as being about the loving union of two people first and foremost, and procreation second. This is more characteristic of individualistic societies, which are relatively recent phenomena when looking at history as a whole.  So perhaps moving forward on this continuum, rather than going back, is what will further the idea that marriage is about the union of two people more than about having kids.

    The problem is that moving forward is always harder than “going back”, since people are more comfortable with tradition than progressive values. But I also think we can pull progressive values from the Quran and Sunnah, namely the verses on marriage in the Quran that talk about the love and mercy between husband and wife, and perhaps even the example of the exceptionally loving marriage of Muhammad (saw) and Khadijah (ra). Even though none of their children survived, the Prophet didn’t divorce or blame Khadijah or take on a second wife just to have kids, which is what often goes on in the Muslim world today.

  • tucompay1976 says:

    Muqarnas: “It???s characteristic of communal/tribal/traditional societies to focus on procreating and maintaining their lineage, which is why their marriages are often arranged, with little consideration for how much two people are compatible with each other.”

    Anthropologically speaking, you are both correct and incorrect.  I think it’s true that procreation has been an important feature of lineage construction.  However, if you peruse the anthropological literature, you will also find that “lineage” is not always blood-based.  There is what you call “fictive kin” in which children become part of a “tribe” without being born into it.  Furthermore, many tribes simply reconstitute their pasts in ways that reflect contemporary alliances.  In these cases, the tribe is constituted beyond marriage and procreation.

    The point of this anthropological banter is to underscore the idea that marriage and procreation aren’t always (or have to be) linked.  Obviously, it is a huge part of it and has been for quite some time. I thought that much was obvious.  But if today we are beginning to think about the “union” as such—meaning for the lives of the two individuals joined by the marriage—then maybe we have the basis for reconsidering the idea of marriage altogether.  The fact that something is new doesn’t negate its importance.

    Also, “tribes” and “clans” or what have you were not only trying to promote their genetic fitness; they had interests that defined the need for promoting lineages.  Thus procreation was linked to political and economic issues.  Certainly you wouldn’t promote that today, or would you?

  • Enith says:

    Thank you both for such great insight!  @murqanas: I agree that traditional societies had a vested interest in children, which went back to their way of life and economy.  @tucompany: your comment made me think of Adam (as), and how Allah created Eve as his companion, even as procreation in their case was a major part of their union.

  • Enith says:

    tucompany: thanks for so eloquently putting what was on my mind. 

    OmarG: Does 99% refer to marriage or the sexual encounter in itself? Based on how many times procreation is not the end goal of the sexual union, I would say the statistic is skewed.

    Personally, I believe parents ought to encourage their daughters to think about motherhood much more thoroughly, instead of indirectly pressuring them to see it as the ultimate goal in life.  There is such a push for women to go out there and seek an education, define themselves in a career, “be all they can be”, only to watch it all crumble the minute they say: I do. 

    To be a good mother, just like to be a good anything, you must possess and work on the skills that will help you excel at it. Some women are born with this innate sacrificial quality to give it all for their children, some are not. 

    Women should not be judged for consciously making the decision that motherhood is not for them.  It’s their choice, their life.

  • OmarG says:

    >how many times procreation is not the end goal of the sexual union

    It may not be the conscious goal, but the hormones and the very nature of intercourse strongly suggest the only possible, underlying goal is indeed procreation.

  • OmarG says:

    >>That too must be evolutionary biology at work.

    It could be a byproduct, perhaps even an inevitable one. I personally think its a genetic flaw like many diseases are. Yes, I said that.

  • OmarG says:

    @Enith: >>I agree that traditional societies had a vested interest in children, which went back to their way of life and economy.

    I think *all* societies do and indeed must do this. Societies which do not will age themselves out of existence and out of relevance. Although we tend to eschew the biological and think ourselves above it, one man and one woman come together 99% of the time for biological reasons. Evolutionary biology, I think, explains attraction and other “feelings” in biological terms, as well it must. However large our brains get, they can’t outgrow our innate biology. Instead of trying to outgrow, we ought to embrace it and the cultural institutions which seek to regulate our biology.

  • OmarG says:

    >>it’s unsustainable and based on an extremely
    unrealistic scenario.

    Not at all: European birth rates and Japan’s too are all below the replacement level. Their age pyramids are becoming increasingly narrow and their populations are beginning to fall as more people die than are born. Social welfare programs are buckling under the strain of having too many retirees to support but not enough young workers paying into the system. Civilizations before have disappeared before; why do we have so much hubris to believe that loving relationships will save us from extinction when we ignore our biology and our environment?

    But, yes, I do understand and mostly agree with the article’s original intent: that motherhood should be a choice for an individual. However, when so many people as in the West choose individual fulfillment ahead of procreation, we get the very existential social problems I’ve mentioned above.

    So, **do we really have a choice when we consider the group and how one individual is merely a cog in the machine of the group, and indeed cannot survive without the group we so dearly want to place ourselves ahead of?**

  • tucompay1976 says:

    OmarG: “Evolutionary biology, I think, explains attraction and other ???feelings??? in biological terms, as well it must. However large our brains get, they can???t outgrow our innate biology. Instead of trying to outgrow, we ought to embrace it and the cultural institutions which seek to regulate our biology. “

    Well, you are overstating your case.  Attractions may be fundamental, but the experience of attraction has some interesting complications.  For example, some men are attracted to men and some women are attracted to women.  That too must be evolutionary biology at work. 

    I don’t think the author is suggesting we “outgrow our innate biology.”  Actually, I’m not sure what that means.  I think the author is trying to argue that the idea of procreation as a primary function of marriage has led to some problematic circumstances for women, in particular.  Thus she is trying to make the case that although procreation should occur in marriage, it need not be the defining function of the union.  A woman’s value should not be dependent upon her ability to produce children.  Her value can be derived from other experiences within a marriage unconnected to children. 

    Clearly, not everyone is going to choose not to have children.  Thus the idea that the human species will “age themselves out of existence” sounds much like the claim that if homosexuality were “natural” then the human race would cease to exist;it’s unsustainable and based on an extremely unrealistic scenario.

    Finally, some argue that culture is an expression of evolutionary biology.  You say “we ought to embrace the cultural institutions which seek to regulate our biology.”  Which cultural institutions?  The author, at least, is saying the same thing, namely let’s embrace a cultural institution that doesn’t limit a woman’s worth to the issue of procreation.  Let women choose.

  • katseye says:

    Is there a dire need for procreation? Throughout human history, we have procreated in order to ensure the continuation of the species. Now, the human species is suffering from overpopulation, apathy, and huge social/enivornmental issues that are to continue if we do not change something immediately.

    As for the article…

    Girls often see their mothers suffering but do not understand the entire process until they become mothers themselves. I remember picking up the phone and telling my mom that I was sorry for 100 different things because now I understood her stare.

    It’s important for girls to be able to see their mothers satisfied with their own personal lives-whether it’s the mom who can do it all, or the mother who stays at home, or the mother who works constantly. Girls who see their moms happy will prosper.

    It’s also important for boys to understand the burden that is placed on mothers. The Almighty mentions it in the Qur’an as does the Prophet saws in the sunnah. If boys understand it, would they be so willing to not be 100% involved?

    And to be fair, I wonder what sort of sacrifices men would list that they’ve made since becoming fathers, if any.

  • tucompay1976 says:

    OmarG: “European birth rates and Japan???s too are all below the replacement level.  Their age pyramids are becoming increasingly narrow and their populations are beginning to fall as more people die than are born.”

    Europeans and Japanese are not seriously threatened.  One could argue that, assuming your stats are in order, what we are seeing is nothing but a check on population growth and that the consequence will be a smaller, more sustainable number.  I think we are jumping to extreme conclusions that need to be proven, not assumed. 

    OmarG: “Civilizations before have disappeared before”

    Such as?  I’m sorry but I am an anthropologist by training and have yet to read of a single example in which a known population ceased to exist as as result of not procreating enough.  Population declines are usually linked to complex changes in ecology and human practices, not a decline in biologically driven “child-producing-pleasure-seeking.”  For heaven’s sake, the disappearance of civilizations has yet to be tied to such a cause.  We really don’t need to worry about that and, to be honest, a decline in population may be a good thing.

    OmarG: “why do we have so much hubris to believe that loving relationships will save us from extinction when we ignore our biology and our environment?”

    It’s not hubris; it’s evidence. Producing children and loving relationships ought be linked but need not be.  No one is arguing that children should be omitted from loving relationships.  Again, what is being argued is that having children should not be the defining value driving a woman’s marriage.  Children should be a consideration.  Love can exist without producing children.  That won’t threaten the existence of the Muslim population; on the contrary, it will enhance the very loving relationships you hold sacred.

  • Enith says:

    @katseye: “now I understood the stare”

    Being raised by a single mother, and having been one myself, I recall more than a stare.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Committed”, relates a striking story of a woman who in her elderly years rejoiced in her reverie of a coat she had owned.  The coat was so much more than a weather accessory, but a mark of fulfillment.  When asked about what had happened to the coat, she mentioned she had cut it into pieces, and made something with it for her children. 

    This story struck me as a perfect example of what motherhood can do to some women.  It can what they relish and transform it into a continuous and never ending series of sacrifices.

    And yes, although we are seeing more men truly become fathers, making sacrifices as well for the well-being of their children; the unspoken assumption is that in the end, if anyone has to be with those kids, it has to be you (the woman).

    @Omar & tucompany:

    Far from being an anthropologist or historian, I can only say that women who choose not to procreate are in the minority, and thus probably won’t cause a dent on this heavily populated Earth.

    In the end, marriage should equate the union of two souls for their mutual fulfillment, not a baby-making business transaction.

  • marjani says:

    in the west, before WWI and WWII motherhood was automatic when one got married. and a “woman’s place was in the home”.“barefoot and pregnant.” now whether the husband appreciated his wife for what she did at home. we will assume so. because she was responsible for things that he could not do. cook, clean, etc. most men worked long hours. and the wife was a comfort emotionally, sexually, etc.

    things changed during WWII. so many men were being drafted that the jobs became empty. someone had to fill them. so USA asked the women to go to work to help their country. women felt a different purpose besides having children and being a wife. the women’s movement (and feminism) began. now women are not getting married and having children. choosing years of education, career, and money instead. women have the right to their body. so they are more sexually active than before. choosing to live with someone over marriage. and then biological clock starts ticking around 37 years old. and now women fill unforefilled. something is missing. now they want a husband and a child instead of being alone.

    this is the new christian western mentality. and muslimahs have fallen for the trap. muslimah might feel unhappy in the beginning by only being viewed as a baby making machine. but the children will grow up and then they can find a new purpose and search for other things that make them happy. if they have a supporting husband, they can find a hobby, while having all these children. and then when they are 40 or so, the last one will leave the nest. muslim husbands love and appreciate their wives. if muslimahs do it the other way, they will have a career, a baby at 40 then the child will not leave the nest until the mother is 60.

    who wants to have children to raise while they are 50, 60 years old? when the parents are retiring and on a fixed income, now they only have 1 or 2 children to depend on. and in the USA, people do not take care of their parents in their old age. but the muslimah has 4, 5,6, or more children to rely on in their old age. its pay back for all the years that mom took care of them.

    isn’t islam beautiful and perfect!! isn’t Allah the greatest, the most wise, the all knowing! better than christianity or pseudo western christianity.

  • Siddiqah says:

    The people who have children will swallow up those who do not. After how many generations can you sustain the idea? Not much.

    I think the issue should be rather to raise our children with maturity and awareness of the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood so that they can enjoy both. There is no point in rushing new wives to become pregnant. Let them enjoy being married for a few years. Motherhood is for the rest of your life, not when your child becomes 18.

    I’ve been married for 5 years and I don’t have children. I am enjoying my married state. And when sisters ask when are you going to have kids (annoying as this question is), I just let them know: when Allah blesses me with children.

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