(WNN) CAIRO: *Twenty-two year old Amira went through a clandestine abortion to escape society’s retributions. She was in love with her boyfriend of five years and insisted that the pregnancy was an innocent mistake.
When she first realized that she was late on her menstruation cycle she felt helpless and did not know who to trust.
“I couldn’t ask any of my friends because they would judge me as a sinner and would never speak to me again; if they said anything to anyone and the word reached my family, I could have been killed,” she admitted.
Amira is referring to the practice of honor killing, a social and cultural agency by families “to wash away their disgrace.”
The families murder the woman who as “sinned” as a means of reclaiming the family’s honor and pride in society. Hundreds of cases go unreported and undocumented, the few ones that do get little attention from the media or judicial authorities. Men are seldom punished harshly for the murder they have committed.
A lot of the time families do not need or wait for any physical proof of the woman’s indiscretions, rumors alone are sometimes sufficient to cause an honor killing.
In September, two brothers along with their uncle were accused of murdering their sister after hearing rumors about her. The three men had dragged the girl along with her three year old child to an isolated area and then strangled her with a head scarf in front of her baby. Police said that they stabbed her in the chest and the stomach with a knife to make sure she was dead. Later that night, they dumped the body in the sewer system where it was found and taken to the coroner’s office.
The deceased, Karima Metawe, 20, was married to a butcher who works in Libya. Her brother and uncle alleged they had heard rumors that she left the house to go out, while leaving her child behind. Therefore, they took her life to ‘restore’ their family’s honor.
Amira doesn’t know Karima, but she knows that the odds are against her if word got out about her pregnancy.
With no one to seek advice from, she turned to her boyfriend, who tracked down a doctor’s phone number from a friend who had faced a similar situation.
“Men are lucky that they are not judged by each other,” Amira commented on the larger support system that grants men a more privileged societal position in Egypt.
Despite all the social and moral ostracism that Egyptian women go through when faced with the question of abortion, a study by Huntington in 1998 found that the induced abortion rate in Egypt is is 14.8 per 100 pregnancies, a staggeringly high number. Compared to the United States – where approximately two percent of women aged 15-54 have an abortion- Egypt’s abortion rates are seven times higher.
22-year-old Amira had to wear a fake gold wedding ring around her finger and make up a story of how her “husband” and she couldn’t afford to raise a child at that point in time.
“I was aware that he knew I was lying, but I couldn’t tell the truth; I was ashamed,” she admitted.
Egyptian law criminalize abortion and courts would find a woman guilty if she seeks an induced abortion, even in cases where the woman has died of an unsafe abortion.
The law also finds a woman guilty if she willingly chooses an induced abortion with sentences ranging from 6 months to three years imprisonment.
However, if a woman’s health is at risk due to a pregnancy, doctors are allowed to perform the abortion after procuring written approval from two other specialists. If a woman’s life is in danger, the doctor is allowed to perform the surgery without the approval, but then must submit a written report detailing the circumstances and reasons for the abortion.
The cost of the surgery is around 800 Egyptian pounds ($165). The bill is broken down to around LE 600 for the doctor’s fees and LE 200 for the anesthetic, plus the follow-up medication to prevent infection.
Underprivileged women pay much less, but suffer greater health risks in ill-equipped facilities. A World Health Organization (WHO) 2003 survey found that 1.5 million abortions in the Middle East and North Africa took place in an “unsafe and unprepared environment or by an unqualified provider or both, making the percentage one in four women who undergo the operation are in danger of post surgery health risks.”
The post surgery’s complications are behind 11 percent of mothers’ deaths in the region, the report said.
Turkey and Tunisia are the only two countries in the MENA region that allow women to get an abortion during the first three months of their pregnancy based on her own wishes and as a result the percentage of women undertaking the surgery has dropped from 18 percent in 1993 to 11 percent in 2003.
In 2005 an official survey in Egypt showed that 56 percent of women use contraceptives, however, one in every five births in the country was unplanned.
“I was praying to God that if I die I don’t go to hell. I asked my “husband” to throw my body in the Nile so that my family cannot find it and learn why I died,” Amira admitted.
The 2010 Egyptian Parliament, approved an article of a draft law on the issue where it legalizes sterilization and abortions by a specialized gynecologist for married women who face “difficult living conditions.” The new article permits such procedures in the case of fetal malformations or a risk of malformation due to the mother’s age or health history.
The draft law was met with heavy opposition, especially from religious leaders.
“This law is in-Islamic because it is considered an intervention in God’s will,” Souad Saleh, professor of Islamic Jurisprudence at al-Azhar University, told Al Arabiya news in March 2010. “This should not be done unless it is absolutely urgent.”
Egypt’s Dar Al Iftaa -the institution that states religious opinions and is respected and followed throughout the region- however, has supported medical abortions in the first trimester for decades, stating clearly on the Q&A section of its website that in case of medical necessity, “abortion is allowed to keep the mother’s life.“
“If the medical specialists determine that the pregnancy does pose risks to the mother – then in this case there is no harm in terminating the pregnancy after consulting a Muslim physician,” the website states.
“This is a question of a woman’s ability to choose how she wants to live her life and Islam gives that right according to most scholars’ interpretations. So, it is very disappointing that we see Islamic leaders come out against abortion,” said Hibaaq Osman, head of al-Karama Organization for Women’s Rights in Cairo.
With a 2011/2012 government that is in transition, women’s groups inside Egypt are asking that rights for women be clearly included into Egypt’s permanent constitution.
“It is the right of a woman to not have someone else, mainly men, tell her how to live and do things in her life. Fundamental to women’s rights, and this is the case in the situation of abortion in Egypt and around the Middle East, is the freedom to choose how one wants to live. Women deserve this and this is why when parliament looked at abortion it was refreshing to get a more equitable approach beginning to take form,” Osman added.
What needs to be done to end the practice of honour-based violence and murder? How can the issue of honor violence be understood and dealt with? Riz Khan interviews two women who are experts on this topic – human rights defender and award-winning author and journalist for the Jordan Times Rana Husseini, who worked closely as a regional coordinator for UNIFEM to fight violence against women, along with Yakin Erturk, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Women and Violence, who was Chair of the Middle East Studies Program at Middle East Technical University. This 12:31 min 28 October 2009 video is a production of Al Jazeera TV (English) network.
For more information on this topic:
- “Spousal Violence in Egypt,” PRB – Population Reference Bureau Policy Brief, September 2010;
- “Honor Killing in Egypt,” UNDAW – United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, June 2005;
- “Abortion in the Middle East and North Africa,” Gynuity Health Projects with PRB – Population Reference Bureau, September 2008;
- “Abortion is Illegal and Common in Egypt – Medical abortion the situation in Egypt,” Norees Centre for Research, January 2006.
WNN correspondent, Manar Ammar is an Egyptian freelance journalist. In addition to WNN, her work has been published in The Daily News Egypt, All Headline News (AHN) and Cairo news agency, Bikya Masr. She is also a professional translator who continues to work on a number of international projects inside the region.