Betty Tompkins, Abortion = Normal, 2019, via artnews.com
Twenty-five years ago I had an “illegal” abortion in Egypt and four years later I had a “legal” abortion in the United States. I use inverted commas because I reject the State’s attempt to control my uterus. I reject its power to declare what is “legal” or “illegal” when it comes to my abortions. The State can fuck off with its opinions about what I can and can’t do with my uterus. That control belongs to me.
I was not raped. I was not sick. The pregnancies did not threaten my life. I did not already have children. I just did not want to be pregnant. I did not want to have a child. And so I had two abortions.
I am glad I had my abortions. They gave me the freedom to live the life I have chosen. And yet, I have never written about my abortions before.
Why have I been able to risk my safety and my life by writing articles about a military-backed regime but I could not write about my abortions?
I have been daring myself to write this essay for years. Am I not brave? I would ask myself that question, which became a taunt that I would rebuff with a laundry list of courage--”proof” that I was indeed brave.
Surely, I am brave: I moved back to Egypt after riot police had broken my arms and sexually assaulted me there.
Surely, I am brave: one night, in a street thick with tear gas and death, I stood at the barricade of a protest, taking pictures of riot police shooting at us and each time they fired I was unsure if it was live ammunition or rubber-coated bullets and yet I ignored the voice in my head that told me it was wise to turn around and leave. I chose what I thought was fearlessness but perhaps it was recklessness, a trait that is often synonymous with courage in my lexicon.
Surely, I am brave: for years, as a journalist for a number of news outlets, I exposed the human rights violations of the Egyptian regime. The regime knew me by name, tapped my phone, and had me followed. It sent its riot police to break my arms and sexually assault me. Its military intelligence blindfolded and interrogated me. That same regime targeted me with cyber espionage and it put me on the front page of a newspaper where it called me a “sex activist,” a euphemism for a whore.
See! I was brave!
Then why couldn’t I, Mona Eltahawy, a woman born in Egypt to a Muslim family, write an essay under my own name, in which I say openly and without shame that I have had two abortions, that I am glad I had those two abortions and that had I become pregnant again I would have had another abortion because I did not want to have children? Why have I been able to risk my safety and my life by writing articles about a military-backed regime but I could not write about my abortions?
I reject the State’s attempt to control my uterus. I reject its power to declare what is “legal” or “illegal” when it comes to my abortions. The State can fuck off with its opinions about what I can and can’t do with my uterus. That control belongs to me.
The simple answer is because I recognized that it was immensely riskier to write about my two abortions than it was to take on a military-backed regime, which could have killed me 10 years ago on that street suffocating with tear gas and death. The more complicated answer...like Billie Holiday sings, “The difficult, I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.”
The personal is political, of course. Where I come from, the personal is more dangerous than the political.
I am from a country with the greatest number of women and girls in the world whose genitals have been cut in the name of controlling female sexuality. And so, fucking is personal and political and its consequences especially so.
Perhaps I have not written about my abortions because when I woke up on the day of my first abortion, I was convinced I was going to die as punishment--for having sex and then for getting pregnant and then for having an abortion. The day then became a countdown to my death. I would be talking to someone with an eye on the clock, thinking “I will die in seven hours.”
As my boyfriend drove me to the clinic, I asked him--a kind and gentle and loving man who was with me before and immediately after the procedure--to stop at a bookshop so that I could buy a copy of the Quran that I asked him to give to my family after I died along with the message that I loved them; not “if” I died -- “after” I died. When I came to from the anesthetic, my boyfriend was holding my hand. The first thing I said to him was “Am I alive?”
I never wanted to write any of that because it would feed into the shit that anti-abortion fuckers say to terrorize us of a medical procedure that is safer than giving birth. But when abortion is “illegal” it is traumatic.
The personal can be more dangerous than the political and perhaps more oppressive than the tyranny of a military-backed regime in Egypt or the religious zealots in Texas is the greater day-to-day tyranny of “What will people say?”
I was lucky because when I found out I was pregnant, my boyfriend’s cousin recommended an OB/GYN doctor in Cairo who performed abortions in his clinic. I was lucky because I could afford the procedure. Criminalizing abortion does not eradicate it nor does it make it rare. It makes it dangerous and often deadly for the poorest and most vulnerable people who can get pregnant.
And perhaps it’s because after my second abortion, which was “legal” and did not propel me into a countdown to my death, my husband and I had a fight during which he called me a “cunt,” and I knew then, a month into our marriage, that it was over between us and I would leave him; not “if” but “when.”
And again, I was lucky. It was 2000 in Seattle. I did not have to drive for miles to access abortion care. I did not have to take time off that I could not afford from work or find overnight accommodations because there was no clinic in my town. Since the year I had my second abortion, many such hardships have increasingly become the reality for pregnant people in towns across the south in the U.S. Long before Texas banned abortion and offered a $10,000 bounty for those who report abortions, Roe v Wade had ceased to become a reality for Black, Brown, and poor women.
When I was 19 years old--ten years before my first abortion--I was babysitting the infant of a professor in her office at the university I was attending in Saudi Arabia when she and a group of her friends, all Arab and Muslim women, began the most extraordinary conversation I’ve ever heard about abortion. Each woman, a professor in her own right, shared how many abortions she’d had, with some also adding what contraception had failed them thus leading to a pregnancy they did not want. Again, obviously, these were all privileged women who could afford access to a safe abortion in their various countries of birth, all of which criminalized the procedure with rare exceptions, either for rape or if the mother’s life was in danger.
I wish I had a group of friends like that to share my abortions with when they happened. There was love and camaraderie in that office and no judgement as each woman shared stories, whether it was two or three or more abortions.
They were sharing openly and talking about abortion as if it were the normal thing that it actually is. Hearing the women talk about their abortions normalized it. And that’s the thing: abortion is normal.
The Diamond at the Meeting of My Thighs, Jaishri Abichandani, 2015
The closest I’ve experienced to such a warm and loving network of sharing came at an exhibit in New York City just before the pandemic actually called Abortion is Normal, co-curated by Jasmine Wahi and Rebecca Pauline Jampol. My dear friend the artist Nadine Faraj told me about it because she had a piece in it. And there at the exhibit I made a new friend, the artist Jaishri Abichandani who exhibited The Diamond at the Meeting of My Thighs.
“I made it after my third abortion at the age of 47. Even though I had had 2 before and committed to one child, it wasn’t an easy decision because in my heart I longed for a girl,” Jaishri told me. “My friend Imani helped me release that desire to another Yoniverse where my daughter could exist without facing any violence. I channeled that into the work. She’s birthing a child but there are so many eggs at her feet that she won’t birth as children but as art.”
As much as I love The Diamond at the Meeting of My Thighs, Jaishri’s explanation for her other work on abortion was the best punch in the gut I’d ever had.
“I explored the theme of Abortion in another work called the Shrine to the Abortion Goddess where I made one to bless all the women who chose themselves instead,” she said.
Abortion Goddess, Jaishri Abichandani, 2016-2018
I chose myself instead. That was exactly why I had two abortions. And here I am finally saying so.
I know that the women professors could share with each other their abortion stories because each one of them was a cisgender, heterosexual woman married to a man with whom they had children. Those of us from countries that criminalize abortion, which are intent on punishing us for daring to take ownership of our bodies and our sexual desire outside of the norms, and that police our bodies and punish us for sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman also need those conversations. And it is incumbent on those of us who can, to talk. Not everyone can talk and survive.
And so here I am finally accepting the dare to myself for my younger self who had no one to talk to about her abortions; for anyone who recognizes that their abortion is considered especially shameful or outrageous because it does not follow the few acceptable abortion narratives.
The personal can be more dangerous than the political. Perhaps more oppressive than the tyranny of a military-backed regime or the religious zealots in Texas is the greater day-to-day tyranny of “What will people say?”, a collaboration of social silencing so complete it leaves the most effective state security services envious of its ability to control.
This essay is long overdue. I have long owed it to those who look like me and who rarely see themselves in abortion narratives. Last year, I was asked to blurb Dr. Meera Shah’s powerful You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion, in which she shares the personal narratives of people who have had abortion but who have rarely if ever told anyone.
Dr. Shah, a family medicine physician currently serving as the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic in New York, is of South Asian descent and three of the people whose abortion stories she shares also come from South Asian families, one of whom is Muslim. I enthusiastically blurbed Dr. Shah’s book because the narratives are vital and because she is one of the few women of colour doctors I know of who write openly about providing abortion care. But I felt like a coward because I had yet to share my own stories, especially when the three women of South Asian descent told Dr. Shah that not seeing more women from their ethnic background in abortion narratives made their abortions lonelier and harder.
Am I not brave? Yes, I am. But courage wilts and withers when it is not challenged, like muscles that need heavier weights. And so I dare myself to say/write the things that scare me the most and that I've avoided saying/writing and I accept the dare. Always, always, whatever scares me the most, in just the thinking about doing it, is what I need to do the most.
Abortion is normal. Remember that as we mark International Safe Abortion Day on September 28.
And remember that women you know have had an abortion, even if they have not (yet) told you. One in four women has had an abortion, including me.
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2105) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. It is now available in Ireland and the UK. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.
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