This article contains descriptions that some of our readers may find disturbing or upsetting.
As told to Ghadeer Ahmed. Direct quotes are in italics.
I was haunted by the prospect that, if I got arrested, I would face the public shame of being embroiled in an anti-LGBT crackdown coupled with that of being pregnant and unmarried. My parents would find out that I was pregnant. Everyone would find out that I was pregnant. I was scared that people would not sympathize with me, or that I would give birth in jail.
I became an activist after the January 2011 revolution. I did student activism and worked with rights organizations. I had years-long battles with my family over the hijab and over moving out and living on my own. The years went by. I took off my veil. I finally won them over on the issue of moving out. Over the years, I did more and more activism, I embraced more causes, I built connections with different groups, I drifted away from others. Years of marching, protesting and running away from police vehicles chasing us through the streets on one hand, and my personal struggles on the other. Until one year, when the line between my personal life and my public activism vanished. A storm was brewing on each front and I had to weather both of them at once. My port was a small apartment in the Cairo neighborhood of Muqattam, where I had been planning to move after I got a new job.
I was excited about the new place, I was making plans. But then I ended up trapped there. I hate it. Whenever I pass by the area, the memories come flooding back. I had a breakdown in every corner of that apartment. I remember the smallest details. I remember because my life almost … or rather, my life did actually fall apart there. Everything blew up in my face at the same time. I was expecting national security to come take me away at any moment.
Why? Well, because one day, I attended an event with a group of friends, most of whom happen to identify as queer: people with unconventional sexual orientations and gender identities. Our pictures from the event circulated on the internet. The whole country was against us because we looked like “faggots and dykes” to them. Everyone was up in arms. The police arrested my friends. A warrant was put out for my arrest, but they could not find me at my family’s home, whose address was still on my civil record although I had moved out. The media depicted us as those faggots and dykes who have set out to tear apart the fabric of society, and promote debauchery and depravity. The wave was too high for us to stand up and fight. I stood accused in a case that would stigmatize me and my family forever, my picture was brandished on talk shows on a daily basis as I was vilified as a criminal — that was the situation, and I had to cope with it. Our case was sensitive, and an environment that relegates women’s and queer issues to insignificance doesn’t really give rise to any kind of political heroism.
My mom called. “Hi. The police were here looking for you. They wanted to arrest you. They came in a van with a swarm of conscripts.” My parents live in a poor neighborhood. When the police carry out a raid in a poor neighborhood, they prepare for the possibility of meeting thugs and running into trouble. So they go in with large numbers to intimidate people. It was a scary sight for my family. The police were there at two in the morning to arrest their 21-year-old daughter. That was the first time the police ever came to their home. They were scared.
The prospect of going to jail at this time and place frightened me. No matter how much I might have defended myself against this non-crime, I would not get justice. My new house was hastily sealed off; I would not leave, and no one would enter. My big plans for the new job and the new place went out the window. My new primary objective was to survive this calamity. I broke my phone. I deactivated my Facebook, my Twitter and every online account I had. I only ever used my partner’s phone to contact my mother. He and my best friend were the only people I allowed to visit me.
I was too scared to order groceries to be delivered. I was terrified of everything around me. I couldn’t sleep. Whenever I heard a sound, even a cat out in the stairwell, I would think it was the police there to arrest me.
My period was late. I thought it was due to the stress, but I asked my partner to get me a home pregnancy test the next time he came to visit just in case. It was my first time being late, and my first time using a home pregnancy test. I thought it would be negative, especially since the last time I had sex with my partner was several weeks earlier. But it was positive. I stayed in the bathroom for a while.
I just stood there, staring at it in disbelief. This cannot be happening at this time in my life. I walked out. I told him it was positive. There was complete silence for a few moments. Then he said to stay calm and that we’d sort it out.
We requested a home visit by a lab technician to confirm the pregnancy and determine how far along it was. Five weeks. My first thought was abortion-inducing pills, given that I was early in the second month. We would buy the pills and I would have an abortion in my state of siege. There had to be zero mistakes: there was no other option in that situation.
We got the pills from a pharmacist acquaintance of my friend. My partner picked them up and got the dose information and the instructions. After my first dose, I went online to read up on what would happen next, how the pill works, how I would feel, when to consider my life to be in danger. For four hours, nothing happened except some moderate cramps. I kept checking my pad every 15 minutes. Nothing. After the second dose, a severe stomachache hit me, but nothing came of it either. Then I took a third dose, still nothing. I got in touch with a pharmacist friend of mine, she recommended no more doses for a week to avoid side effects. A week later, the same course and the same outcome: nothing. I waited one more week, then I switched to the Egyptian-made pills instead of the imported ones. The same outcome: failure.
I was barely keeping from losing my mind over these weeks. My friends were getting picked up by the police, one after another. I was hearing news that they were being subjected to rectal exams and virginity tests in prison. TV programs were showing pictures from the event, including one that clearly shows me, while the TV hosts were inciting hate in their commentary. Everybody was against them. Were they going to die in prison like many others before them? Or would they spend a few years imprisoned then come out to a society that would reject them, that would stigmatize them forever? Either way, the security crackdown and the social persecution against them was terrifying.
I kept thinking if, on top of being subjected to all that, I would have to bear the alleged “shame” of having had sex outside of marriage and of having been pregnant. My life and my family’s lives would be ruined. The fear consumed me more and more. I agonized over the possibility that the pills not working meant that I had to go in for a procedure. I obsessed over the possibility that I might get arrested while still pregnant — a nightmare on every level. I asked my best friend to ask a friend of hers to recommend a doctor who might be willing to speedily provide me with help. Having the name of an OB-GYN helped temper my anxiety a little. A visit to the doctor meant that I had to go out. I had no choice except to risk my personal security.
My partner took a taxi from a different neighborhood and gave the driver my address. I got dressed, changed my hairband, and slapped on a large pair of sunglasses to obscure my face. I was on the run from the police, from my family, from people who knew me, from the terrifying prospect of dying in a jail or while disappeared in a National Security Agency building; on the run from being arrested while pregnant, in which case I would never be able to get an abortion. I would give birth to a child in jail, a child who would bear the stigma of the case and of being an illegitimate child for his entire life — a child I do not want, a child I did not ask for.
We got out of the taxi on a street parallel to the one where I would meet the doctor. I asked my partner to wait at a distance.
Looking me up and down with disdain, the doctor asked me, “How did the pregnancy happen?” Why would she ask how the pregnancy happened if I was meeting with her for an abortion? I don’t know what answer she possibly thought might help with the abortion. She was cold and spoke in short sentences that were full of contempt. I told her that it was accidental and that I was careful about taking the necessary precautions. Harshly, she said that if I had in fact taken the necessary precautions, I would not have gotten pregnant. What the hell! Does she, a gynecologist, not know that no protection method is 100 percent effective? Why was she so judgemental with me? I bit my tongue — I needed her to help me get rid of the pregnancy. She told me to start a fourth course of the pills, and that she would follow up with me via WhatsApp.
I asked my friend after the visit if she had told her friend who had linked us up with the doctor anything about the case. I was looking for a reason for the doctor’s judgemental and harsh way with me. My friend swore to me that she hadn’t said a word — so the doctor could not have known. I tried to get it out of my mind and started on the fourth course. I followed her instructions: I used the word “period” instead of “abortion” and I never mentioned her name. Like the previous times, nothing happened. “I didn’t get a period, doctor,” I texted her. She told me to go see her. We made the same arrangements as the previous time. My partner would take a taxi from a faraway neighborhood, he would come to my address, we would get off on a street parallel to the meeting place. She jotted down the name of a drug I would have injected on a blank piece of paper that bore no name, telephone number or business address.
“You have to have it administered at a pharmacy,” she said. “It’s a drug for cancer patients. It also happens to be fatal to fetuses. Pregnant women are not supposed to take it. You’ll get the injection then start another course one or two days later. The fetus will have died, and aborting it will be easier.”
I walked into a pharmacy to get the injection. The pharmacist said to me: “You’re too young for this. Get well soon, sweetheart. I wish you a speedy recovery. What a tragedy.”
If she had known that I was having the injection to facilitate an abortion, she probably would have kicked me out.
I went on another course of the pills. Nothing happened. I texted her, she told me to get an ultrasound. I was up to my eleventh week. I was forced to give another performance, this time at the lab. The doctor asked me if I’d been experiencing problems with the pregnancy. I feigned sadness and told him that I was bleeding and that my doctor ordered the ultrasound. He smiled at me as he gave me the “good news.” “The baby is perfectly fine,” he said. I was shocked. I had taken copious doses to terminate it, and got injected with a drug that causes miscarriage. Fine? How? Nevertheless, I put on the performance of a good wife relieved to learn that her pregnancy was still intact, while a fire was raging in my chest. I sent a picture of the ultrasound to my doctor.
“This means that you have to undergo a procedure,” she said. “It’s too far along now, drugs won’t terminate it.” I asked her, when should I come in for the procedure and what would happen? No, she said. “I don’t do that type of procedure!”
“What do you mean?” I asked her. “Wasn’t there a possibility that the drugs might fail?” She said, “That was a possibility. But the fetus should have died. And if it dies, you can have an abortion at a hospital because it would be a danger to your life, in which case it would be perfectly legal.”
But the fact is that if I had gone to a hospital, they would ask for a marriage certificate — even if they wait until after the procedure is performed. She hadn’t told me that she wouldn’t help me all the way through it. I asked her to recommend another doctor. She refused. It felt like she’d set me up for a trap only to abandon me.
She was not honest with me from the start. She did not tell me that there was a limit to the assistance she was willing to offer: two visits and a conversation via text messages for LE2,500 that she insisted I pay her upfront. I kept replaying in my mind her “I don’t do that type of procedure,” and I remembered how she shamed me. She reprimanded me, as though she held my fate in her hands. I took it because I believed she did. And when my fate came to be dependent on having a surgical abortion, she denounced “that type…” What type would that be, doctor? And how would you categorize your earlier consultations, what type were they?
Thank you for adding to my guilt and shame. I already blamed myself before I came to you. I felt like my carelessness was the reason I got pregnant, and when you called me careless, I did not object. I did not object, doctor, and I object to everything and anything. One of the reasons I ended up in this situation is that I am someone who objects to everything: I objected to my family; I objected to state repression; I objected to the way I was brought up, to the dictate that sex can only happen in marriage; I objected to the norms that condemn women who have sex. But I did not object to what you did. To object was a luxury I could not afford. You were my last resort because you were a doctor.
The days went by, the pregnancy was growing, the hunt for me continued, and everything was saturated with fear. Long days and nights I spent alone in my own little prison that, harsh as it was, was nothing compared to a state prison. The details of every wall are imprinted on my brain. How many tiles. The pots. The trinkets. I kept myself busy with cooking and cleaning. I needed something to hunt myself so that I would not go crazy. I hunted dust day in, day out. Even though no door or window were ever cracked open, I spotted dust all around and fought it like a mortal enemy. I would exterminate every last particle on the tabletop, only for it to respawn under the sofa. It is cursed, that dust. The more days went by, the more I became aware there was something in my belly. Something in there trying to talk to me. Something I knew. Something I resisted while unsure of my feelings toward it. I would feel my belly, I would see milk stains on my bra, and I would get swarmed by a mixture of sadness, guilt and love. It was as if that pregnancy was permeating my being.
The pregnancy was no companion to me in my solitude. The guilt made everything heavy and bleak. A relationship developed between me and it, dictated by the confinement and the passing of time. I spoke to it. I knew its sex — male, the radiologist told me. The fetus was no longer completely unknown, it now had an identity of its own in a way. Maybe if it had remained unknown, it would have been easier. After the third month, it seemed as though it was an adversary in conflict with me, and it was me who was more powerful. It was growing, becoming more attached to me, and I rejected it. A battle for survival we were both locked in, not on the same side. We were two opponents, each of us fighting the other to make it.
In my uterus resided a boy, growing and consuming me for nutrition. The idea was petrifying, because he would never be born. I would do anything, pay any price to ensure that. Maybe, if I had planned for a baby, the toll exacted on my body by the pregnancy might have been worth the reward at the end of it: I would see him. Maybe I might have been joyful when I saw him, maybe we might have been joyful together. But that is not how it was. Sometimes, I would apologize like he could hear me. I would explain my situation, why his striving for survival would fail in the face of my determination to save myself first. Maybe if it had not gone on for that long, my relationship with this thing inside me would not have been so tempestuous and fraught with guilt.
By week 13, I started showing. I used to leave the house to see my family at meeting points far away from their home and mine. Eventually, I stopped seeing them altogether because of my bump, using the risk of getting arrested as an excuse. I was a hair away from falling apart. I went to see my psychiatrist, whom I had stopped seeing since the crackdown. She put me in touch with a friend of hers, who put me in touch with an OB-GYN and accompanied me to the appointment. The doctor asked how far along it was. Dreading that he would shame me like the other doctor, I felt like I had to explain why I waited for four months but he did not ask me for a reason. I was relieved. He told me that pills are ineffective by the fourth month, and that the path most likely to be successful would be to undergo a procedure, but that he would give medication one last try all the same. He handed me a pill and told me to take it 12 hours before our next appointment, when I would be observed at the clinic. I took the pill, even though I did not know what it was called or what it did. The doctor told me that it was a type of pill that could only be smuggled into the country because it is classified as a potent abortion-inducing drug.
I took the pill that I knew nothing about. I couldn’t even have looked it up. If something were to happen to me, nobody but him would have known what I had taken. I made sure my partner knew to call him and only him if something happened and I lost consciousness.
It was relatively calm at the private hospital, without judgment or contemptuous looks. The legal requirements were reassuring: no special arrangements, just a consent form that said I would undergo a “uterine curettage” that the secretary gave me to sign after she checked my ID card. She did not ask for a marriage certificate. I did not feel much different from the other women in the room. Most of them were pregnant or in labor. I do not know if that was because I was there through a “connection,” or if he just routinely performs abortions but hasn’t been found out yet. The abortion cost LE10,000. I paid half, and my psychiatrist’s friend covered the other half.
I went into my room and waited there for the doctor. He came in with a pill and after I took it, I spent the next four hours reading up on what to expect after an abortion procedure. The negative side effects are rare, but fear drove me to familiarize myself with them. I kept thinking what would happen if this course, my fifth now, failed. Would I have enough time to recover before the police found me? That day, I was accompanied by two friends, my psychiatrist’s friend and my partner. I felt supported, and to an extent, safe. After the second dose, I had severe cramps. This time they were unbearable. Excruciating pain shot through my whole body. I started shaking. I never thought it would be that painful. I went through some fairly severe physical pains in my life. I never thought the pain would be more than my body can handle.
Each time I went to the bathroom, the air was thick with anticipation. Everybody would ask, “Anything yet?” They were on edge, waiting for an answer that I had already waited for hundreds of hours while my body defied my command. It was a struggle that placed my body as an obstacle between me and my survival. Every time my friends and my partner asked the question, I got even more nervous. These people woke up early and came all this way just for me, because they care for me. They were asking from a place of love and support. I couldn’t find it in me to ask them to stop.
Multiple trips to and from the bathroom. A few drops of blood, not much different from a regular period. I went in for a pee and that time I did not even feel the drops. I pulled down my clothes. I sat down. I peed. Just as I was getting up, I felt something rushing through me. It was large enough that I felt it coming out. I spread my legs to see, I could not believe it. The pregnancy was terminated, and it dropped out of my uterus. I saw it. The body had started forming. It looked like an infant but smaller. It had a head and a face, and two little arms and legs. It had ribs and a skull with two grooves where the eyes would be. I saw it and I saw the placenta attached to it. It was hanging in the air upside down — neither inside me nor underwater in the bowl. I moved my body all around to shake it loose, but it kept hanging on.
I jiggled around in every direction I could, it still wouldn’t drop. For several minutes, I kept thinking of ways to make it fall. I didn’t want anybody to walk in on me. I realized that the only way was for me to yank it off. I grabbed a lot of toilet paper and made a big roll. I absolutely did not want to touch it. I had no idea what it would feel like against my skin. And indeed my hand didn’t touch it. I grabbed onto it with the toilet paper and yanked it off with a fairly strong pull. The placenta broke. It was weak. So it broke and easily came loose.
I kept thinking, would they throw it in the garbage or flush it down the toilet? What would happen? I considered taking it with me and burying it. I just stood there. I didn’t get dressed. I wrapped it in the toilet paper and put it aside. I just stared at it in that wrap that looked like a burial shroud, remembering how it looked before I’d wrapped it up.
This stunned staring was interrupted by the gestational sac gushing out, and the entire bathroom floor was covered in blood. I had never seen so much blood pouring out of my body before. I did not want to share that sight with anyone. I did not want anyone to see what was coming out of my body, what had been inside it, not even my partner. An intimate, private moment: The first thing I felt after it dropped, the first expression on my face, my first shake and my first attempt to sever it from my own body. None of that was seen by anybody but me.
I started cleaning the bathroom floor. I grabbed the mop, every tile I cleaned was covered again with the blood streaming down my legs. I asked my friend to get me some clothes. She asked me if the fetus had come out. I gave a short answer. I put on my clothes and a pad for the bleeding. It took me a few minutes to pour water over the bloody floor and wipe it up. The floor was finally clean, and the last bit of blood was on my flip flops. Two steps to the toilet roll, one grab. I wiped it, looked back at the fetus one last time, and walked out. I still don’t know why I cleaned like that. I could have just walked out, there are people who could have done it. But I had to bring that whole thing to a final close. By myself.
I was discharged that evening. Even though the pregnancy was a heavy burden and a ceaseless four-month struggle, I did not feel victorious over it. I don’t know why. Was it because, heeding what was ingrained deep within me, I had felt like a mother? The one who never stands up for herself against her children. Mothers never prevail over their children. Mothers deny themselves. But, I walked out of that clinic much lighter: My body felt light on the ground. The pregnancy had not been physically heavy, it was too small. The crushing weight was that of the struggle for survival we both went through.
A few months after the abortion, the warrant for my arrest expired. I moved to another place that did not make me think of imprisonment. I stopped having sex, consumed by feelings of guilt and self-blame. For a while, I contemplated whether the fetus was an actual child. During the pregnancy, it felt as though I was touching it, that it could sense my touch. Did my guilt and my attachment to it originate within me? Or did they come from outside of myself — from how I was brought up, from this idea instilled in me that it was my role to be a mother and it was something I would inevitably do. Did those feelings arise independently, free from pressure? Or was it something that seeped into my subconscious as a result of constantly being addressed in language like “when you’re a mother…” and “when you get pregnant…” over the course of my life? I was very confused, I could not decide whether or not I really wanted it. Now I realize it was the outside pressure, and that I never wanted that pregnancy.
Now, years later, I understand that that pregnancy or fetus or whatever you want to call it was never a life to begin with, I understand that the only life I needed to save was my own. Now I can say that I stood up for myself and prevailed. I felt victorious over society. My body is mine, and I took a decision to terminate the pregnancy. I did what they say you should never do. I walked into that hospital with a fetus in my belly, and walked out without it. Fuck your values.