The Strength of a Woman
SISTERS Magazine editorial, September 2012
We all dream of a simple, straightforward birthing experience. We do our research, write up our birth plans and discuss them with our midwives and doctors. We dream of a quick labour, of pain that is not completely unbearable. Some of us even dare to dream of more: a natural birth, a home or water birth; not merely a bearable birth but an empowering, beautiful birth.
While some may scoff at the idea of birth ever being described as beautiful, I can safely say that I experienced such a birth, not once, not twice, but four times, alhamdulilah. As a result of my experiences, I have always a staunch natural birth advocate, extolling the virtues of water, homeopathy and the calming scent of lavender. But more than that, I believe in the wisdom in Allah’s creation, in our bodies’ innate ability to give birth, in every woman’s right to labour as she sees fit, in a respectful and supportive environment. I was known locally as a homebirth junkie and I wore my badge with pride, often saying that I actually enjoyed giving birth, much to the shock and horror of those around me who merely endured it.
All that changed with the fifth one.
By the qadr of Allah, I had my first hospital birth. And it was in Egypt, where intervention in the form of epidurals, forced sedation and ‘womb cleaning’ are often the rule, rather than the exception.
It was easily the most horrific experience of my life.
From that hospital smell to the brightly lit surgery, from the sight of my doctor in a mask and ‘scrubs’ to the stirrups and fetal monitor, it was an utterly alien environment, one that I found extremely upsetting, to the extent that my labour stalled and all I could do was lie on my back and weep.
I won’t bore you with the details of the birth itself. Perhaps that is for another article. What I will say is what I was left thinking about afterwards was this: women are strong, subhanAllah. Amazingly, dauntingly, miraculously strong. To think that, every minute, in every part of the world, throughout the ages, women have gone through this process of birth – the pain, the anxiety, the blood – and borne it with patience, with love to give to the baby at the end of it, with the stamina to go through it all again.
I had never thought about it before because, prior to this, I had had wonderful, easy births. I had never experienced birthing in an unsupportive, alien hospital environment: the sense of helplessness, of isolation, of being at the mercy of doctors who don’t listen, of being stranded on your back like a beached whale, all the while wracked with the pain of contractions. It was only after it was all over, when I was lying in a hospital bed with a drip in my arm, aching, bleeding and broken, that it occurred to me: for most women, this is a normal birthing experience. That was when I thought of all the sisters I know who have had multiple children under those same conditions and worse and I shuddered with horror – and admiration. I said to myself, there in that darkened hospital room, ‘SubhanAllah, women are strong.’
And we are strong. We are brave. We are resourceful, daring and will give our lives for the ones we love. And we always have done. Allah SWT fashioned us that way. The difference is that our strength is usually exhibited differently to that of men.
Historically, we have rarely used our strength to dominate, subdue or destroy. Our strength, whether it was in the fields, by the fire or on the birthing stool, was used to nurture, preserve and protect. Our innate strength is a creative, not destructive, force. It is a life- giving force. It is a force that scales mountains, crosses deserts, faces starvation, all for the sake of a malnourished child at the doors of death.
If, in some cultures, women are thought of as weak and fragile, it is a result of our cultural conditioning, not a reflection of our natures. Learning about the fortitude of Maryam (AS) is proof of that. Fir’awn’s wife, Asiya, Musa (AS)’s mother, Hajar (AS) are all proof of that. Khadijah, ‘A’isha, Asma, Umm Salamah, and countless other Muslim women, may Allah be pleased with them, are all proof of that. The mothers, the resistors, the survivors in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Syria are all proof of that.
And we are proof of that. Think of the terrible crimes committed against women on a daily basis around the world, every hour, every minute. Abuse, exploitation, violence of the worst kind, as well as poverty, starvation and war are the reality for too many women the world over. And yet, by the grace of Allah SWT, we are unbroken. Still we smile. Still we love. Still we resist. Still we fight, speak out, reach out. Still we give, even when it would appear that we have nothing left to give.
So it is in this spirit of sisterhood, in celebration of the strength of women, that I welcome you to this issue of SISTERS. What we have tried to do in this issue is speak honestly about some of the taboos that affect us as Muslim women. In speaking about them, in telling these untold truths, we are acknowledging that they exist, that there are issues to address, that there is work to be done. It is the first step towards healing the wounds in our communities. It is a way to hold the hand of every sister who is suffering and tell her, ‘You are not alone.’ It is a way to fulfil our potential as believers, as Allah SWT says,
“You are the best of peoples ever raised up for mankind; you enjoin Al-Ma’ruf and forbid Al-Munkar, and you believe in Allah.” Surah Aali-Imran:110
May Allah SWT bring about healing and justice and accept our efforts to enjoin the good and forbid the evil amongst ourselves. And may this only be the start of an important conversation in our communities.