This is the fourth in a series of articles from Keeping Our Promise: Addressing Unsafe Abortion in Africa this week. The conference has brought together more than 250 health providers, advocates, policy makers and youth participants for a discussion of how to reduce the impact of unsafe abortion in Africa.
There are different opinions among Islamic Scholars about when life begins and when abortion is permissible, but most of them agree that the termination of a pregnancy after 120 days (the point at which, in Islam a fetus is thought to become a living soul), is not permissible. Every Muslim Scholar knows that the termination of a pregnancy before 120 days is not an issue for discussion. These statements were made by Miss Asma’u Jodah of the Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment during a discussion at the conference Keeping Our Promise to explore the contributions of faith-based groups in promoting women’s reproductive rights from the Christian and Muslim perspectives.
Speaking in the context of Islam, she explained that abortion after four months is only allowed where the health of the woman is threatened. This is based on the principle that “the greater evil (the woman’s death) should be warded off by the lesser evil (abortion).” To support this point she quoted the 12th century Muslim scholar, Imam Al Ghazzali, who believed that abortion could be done to preserve the wellbeing of the woman.
“In my view therefore, abortion is restricted but not forbidden after four months” she intimated. She was however quick to add that for some, however, abortion in the absence of a reasonable excuse is detestable.
On the issue of the life of the woman, Miss Jodah said, Muslims universally agree that the woman’s life takes precedence over the life of the fetus, because the woman is considered the original source of life, while the fetus is only “potential life.” So while the Koran is silent on abortion itself, it talks about breathing life into the fetus.
Despite the open question of abortion in the Koran, the patriarchal system does not want to let go, she intimated. They will prefer that women in labour ask for permission to go to the hospital or even eat. It is virtually impossible for women to break out of the strictures religion places on her life. And women often accept the prospect of dying from pregnancy because they say it is Jihad (i.e. they will go to heaven). However, she stressed the need to let women know that they have sexual rights that could save their lives.
Even in the history of Islam, there have been indications of a support for reproductive rights. Miss Jodah noted that in the days of the prophet Mohammed, the withdrawal method was an acceptable form of contraception. And while, the Koran is silent on abortion, it is clear that safe abortion is preferable to the great killer of women and adolescent girls is unsafe abortion.
“There is the need to keep looking at the realities of the women which include the fact that there will be abortion when a woman does not want a pregnancy. The only thing is to make it safe. It does not matter what religion or culture says, when you need it”, she pointed out.
Talking about the hypocrisy of religion, she said when a daughter of a religious leader gets pregnant; she is forced by the parents to terminate it because it is a disgrace. The one who suffers then is the poor who do not have the money to do safe abortion.
Participants in the discussion agreed that religion and culture present confusion and contradictions. Most people, they said, confuse religion with culture but education, exposure and understanding of one’s religion liberates one.
Heavy reliance on religious leaders for interpretation of religious statements is another hindrance and there is the need for advocacy to bring about standardization.
For advocacy to succeed partners must have understanding of the beliefs of the people, some felt, and not stir up controversy otherwise they will lose support. Rights can only be exercised in the confines of what is culturally acceptable.
Participants also agreed that it is about time women turned the tables around, reunite and think about all the impositions. They called on women to pick and choose according to what suits them. “You either shock or be nice. But if you want a change, you must shock people”, a participant added.