Why I collect Egyptian women’s stories of abortion
Courtesy: Rana Rafik

On September 28, 2017, International Safe Abortion Day, I published the first part of the “Abortion Tales” series with Mada Masr. The tales narrate real women’s experiences with unsafe abortion in Egypt, in light of its criminalization in the Egyptian penal code. I began to collect and write stories as a starting point to get more involved with women’s experiences with their bodies. This involvement is not only through writing, but also the emotions, bodily memories and affects resulting from direct encounters with the women who offer to share their accounts in the series. Here, I share the story of my journey.

I did not decide to gather these stories just to document them, or to shift public opinion on the question of abortion’s legal status in Egypt, and not even to make these women’s voices heard by decision-makers so that they can understand how women seeking abortion suffer from its criminalization. I compile these narratives for women who had, or may have an abortion under such circumistances. I write these stories to be a companion for women at a time when nobody is there for them. Perhaps the stories can offer some answers to questions women ask themselves when they find out they are pregnant. I collect these tales to be a mirror, in which women see other women’s experiences marked by fear, anxiety and survival. I write these stories for women to know they are not the only one going through this experience, and whatever she feels is real, that it is her right to feel it that way and that she owns it all. By writing “Abortion Tales,” I want to make women’s experiences with unsafe abortion more accessible for us — experiences that help us, as women, to know we are not alone. 

It’s bad enough that our fear of legal consequences and social stigma renders us unable to speak about a sensitive, personal experience such as abortion. It’s bad enough that we think of ourselves as criminals, and that we show no mercy to ourselves, trying to balance the fear that comes from outside of us. It’s even worse to realize that we literally do not own our bodies. Other people do. The legislator does. The reader, who even after reading about our experiences, declares confidently that abortion should not be accessible to us.

Maybe if we realized that our abortion experiences come with similar feelings, confusion, loneliness and pain, we could extract a greater sense of ownership over our bodies. Maybe this could make women readers’ experiences a little less harmful if they knew there is another woman somewhere who went through that very experience, who knows very well what it means to seek an abortion in Egypt. 

I can’t tell if I have been lucky to be part of women’s experiences with abortion, or if it has been a curse. I can’t say explicitly if I myself had an abortion, or if I was with friends and other women seeking an abortion. And that is okay. What I want to say is that I have been part of women’s experiences with unsafe abortion, and they were not easy to move on from. Abortion marks a turning point for everyone involved. It is also a complex experience, in which women’s personal feelings intersect with the external pressures of criminalization and social stigmatization. 

Abortion is a human moment that manifests itself in every thought, every action and every reaction of the woman concerned. In abortion, every thought matters. Every word matters. Every obsession matters. Every confusion matters. Every feeling of guilt matters. Every act of self-abasement matters. Every secret arrangement matters. Every part shared with others matters. Every person involved matters. That’s why I decided to write about these complexities. As a feminist, I thought I already knew much about abortion: It turned out to be me who cautiously listens, learns, and becomes immersed in every abortion tale I am told. 

In most of the stories, surgical abortion was inaccessible due to its high cost and the difficulty of finding a doctor willing to perform the operation. Many of the women I have met for this series use abortion-inducing pills that are not sold over the counters in pharmacies, so they must search for it on the black market and take it without any medical supervision. Such circumstances mean that women seeking abortion are risking their lives. Added to this are the psychological burden and the physical pain of the process. Abortion remains inaccessible even if the woman is married. And if she is not married, or does not have money or a safe place where she can stay for a few days, or if she is targeted by police forces, it gets harder.

The concept of writing these tales became clear in my mind when an editor from Mada Masr contacted me in August 2017. She told me she was thinking of commissioning me to write about abortion after I published an article with Mada on the discourse about abortion in progressive circles. I smiled and explained my idea, which she found appealing. When we met, our ideas were similar. I suggested the stories be women’s experiences with abortion in Egypt. I meet them, listen to their stories, then write them in a literary form. Every story is told by a woman, written by a woman and meant to be read by women. We know that men also read “Abortion Tales,” and that they play a silent role in abortion as partners, friends or readers, which is important, but it is not as significant as women telling stories for other women. I insist that I write these abortion stories for women. We started our writing journey and published the first story in September 2017. 

On “Abortion Tales” 

Each story has a plot that helps spotlight a particular debate linked to women’s sexual and reproductive rights. The first story highlights the inaccessibility of safe places where women can stay during non-surgical abortions. I received comments on the scene describing how the woman was hiding in a house that was not her own and how she would get down on her knees when passing by windows, so that nobody would see her. 

The second story shows that, although one of the few exceptions to the legal ban of abortion is if pregnancy risks the woman’s life, the procedure is still virtually inaccessible for women in this situation. Many doctors refuse to operate due to their personal beliefs. I received comments on the brutality of the scene in the story when the narrator was left alone by her doctor until the fetus came out. Convinced that abortion is haram (forbidden in Islam), he did not even cut the umbilical cord. She wanted him to cut the cord to sever her, which became the title of her story: “Severed and not severed.”

The third story focuses on two controversies: motherhood as social labor and the emotional dissonance between mothers and children when they fail to get an abortion that they wanted. I personally think this story is significant since it is concerned with reproduction as a social mission and abortion as an inaccessible alternative. Many of the comments I received were from women who were mothers. They felt somehow that they related to the narrator when she was describing how motherhood is a social burden. 

I visited the woman’s home, where she told me about how her inability to get an abortion means she now has two daughters. She left me momentarily to bring her infant daughter from the bedroom to the living room. I remember very well how she lifted her top, giving her breast to the baby, how she touched her softly and patted her forehead gently — all while she was telling me that she had wanted to have an abortion and how she feels nothing of this so-called motherhood. The breastfeeding scene in the story was inspired by this. 

I was fascinated with how she was doing something that, had I just seen her without hearing her words, the image of the ordinary mother would have jumped to my mind. This made me question myself: How many women in my life, including my own mother, have felt what this woman is feeling, but have never spoken about it? How many women have been defeated before our perceptions of motherhood?

The fourth story, which will be published in the next few days, focuses on the kinds of support offered by those close to a woman who might be seeking an abortion. I argue that those women should be seen as the owners of their own moments, given the space to express their feelings, and that we should not impose our perceptions about how strong they should be so we do not steal these moments from them. I argued that the most important thing in abortion is the woman herself, and that it is an experience that we should stop and think about in a world that subjugates women’s experiences with their bodies and constantly buries the realities of women who do not reproduce. Throughout this story, I wanted to emphasize how women often need someone to recommend abortion, a voice outside their own heads to argue with an internal voice telling them that they are criminals and that motherhood is too holy to be refused. Sometimes, women need to share their decision to get an abortion with other people, so they don’t fall prey to self-blame and believe that they deserve their pain for committing a crime. 

The fifth story, which may not be published for some time, discusses how the experience of abortion varies from woman to woman according to her social class. In the story, a woman gets an abortion under medically and legally safe conditions at a well-known clinic, where she is treated respectfully by the doctor and nurses. Her friend, who went to the same doctor for an abortion at a different facility some years earlier, had a different experience. Of a lower social class than her friend, she went to a run-down clinic that did not advertise the doctor’s name and that worked under conditions that were not medically safe. The doctor extorted her for money and sexual favors.

In the sixth story, which I’m still working on, a woman narrates her experience seeking an abortion while she was about to get arrested on a political case. She explains how this made her abortion particularly horrifying, as there was a moment when she felt that what was inside her was a battle for survival. When she saw the blood she did not feel victory, but relief. She felt that what threatens her life after is less threatening than it was minutes before she saw the blood. 

Stages of writing and recalling personal pain

For the tales I collect, I rely on the personal relationships I develop with the women. Ashamed, I ask them if they are willing to share their stories of abortion. I am ashamed of this step because I am concerned that they may judge me as someone who is using their suffering for my work. In fact, these are constant concerns as a feminist and researcher. 

You may be familiar with the criticisms directed at knowledge production in the social sciences, as a field where there is a hierarchy between researchers and their interlocutors as “subjects” of research. Some of these critiques argue that this is a hierarchy of power turning human experiences into produced knowledge, one validated by social research methodologies. I usually think about my relationship with the women sharing their abortion experiences with me. I try very hard to avoid reproducing that division of labor between us. I write the stories, to the best of my ability, as the women want them to be read and heard. Within these attempts, I came to realize that my subjectivity matters, too. My subjectivity, both as a woman and a researcher, is a cornerstone of the stories I write. I realized that telling a story requires a partnership between who owns the story and who produces it. I realized that my affects, bodily interactions and emotions are all important for the final text to be a sort of humane knowledge production. 

Some of the women I reached out to did not want to share their experiences, either because they did not feel comfortable doing so, or because they were trying to overcome the trauma attached to their abortions. Other women welcomed participation and decided to share their stories. 

When I meet with the women, I listen carefully, interacting with them through my own emotions and my personal experiences with abortion. I feel the bond between their stories and mine. Sometimes, my body shakes while listening, because I remember a situation that I thought I had forgotten. I find myself too attached to my experiences and traumas, like them, and that I need to listen to them to move on. I need them. My heart tightens each time they tell me how they felt knowing they were pregnant, the moment when they decided to get an abortion, and when they saw the blood for the first time. I will never forget the moment when a woman described what she went through, as if she was me, or if I were her, and how this helped us interact on an emotional level. 

I concluded that writing these abortion tales is worthwhile. I realized there are other women who need to hear these stories, like myself, but such tales are often inaccessible even between close friends. I committed myself to making these stories accessible, to being a link through which women can realize that they may be alone in their experiences, but they are not the only one who feels this loneliness.

I record audio of the interviews so that I can write the stories down later and visually interact with them. Listening to the recordings over and over triggers whatever I felt during interviews but I feel it is important to read and listen to the story at the same time. 

The writing stage is the hardest. It depends on my listening to the story, blending my feelings with the woman’s, realizing what she wants to focus on and the core of her story. Writing one of these stories requires me to merge my being into in hers to produce a text about a woman having an abortion, written by another woman, and read by others. I intentionally use gendered verbs in Arabic that are directed to women listeners and women readers. 

Writing takes so long due to these complications, along with editing, translation and illustrations for each story. Sometimes I have the energy to conduct interviews, and many times, I simply don’t. I have some recorded interviews waiting to be transcribed, but I have no energy to start working on them, and I have no clear reason not to.

These narratives are heavy, and writing them is a responsibility to which I have committed myself. I give myself space and time to move freely between stories, so they do not turn into a labor completed at the expense of quality or my mental health. I do not hurry myself to complete the work on the stories for what will be my first book. I cannot handle it if I am not satisfied by its content, either because it does not serve its purpose, or because I failed at transmitting the women’s experiences. I am afraid not to meet their trust and expectations, telling me their stories. I am obsessed with ensuring that this series merits their trust in me; a series where our souls mix together.

Ghadeer Ahmed 

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