Last week, the world began the 1,000-day countdown to the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) deadline. Created in 2000, the MDGs spurred action from governments, international organizations, and civil society. In recent years, we have cut the global poverty rate in half, reduced the prevalence of deadly diseases, improved sanitation, narrowed the gender gap, and more. Although we have made progress toward these Goals, there is still much to be done, especially for the girls and women of the Muslim world.
Despite the ample evidence that ensuring the wellbeing of girls and women spurs development, gender equality indicators in many majority-Muslim countries are some of the worst in the world. If we are to continue making progress towards the MDGs, we must prioritize the health and rights of our Muslim mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters everywhere – including those in our own Eastern Mediterranean Region. Twenty-two of the 23 countries in our region are majority-Muslim, and at least 10 of these countries (namely Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) are expected to fall short of the 2015 MDGs deadline.
Investing in women
It has been shown time and time again that we can accelerate progress towards the MDGs when we invest in girls’ and women’s health and rights, including their rights to reproductive health. When women have access to contraceptives, maternal and child mortality rates are greatly reduced; sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are prevented; the number of safe and unsafe abortions is lowered; and pregnancy and birth-related complications are avoided. Girls and women are more likely to stay in school and spend more time in the workforce when they are able to plan their pregnancies. All of this helps us close the gender gap, reduce poverty, spur economies, and stabilize nations.
Yet women in many Muslim communities face barriers to contraceptive access and family planning services due to religious and cultural misconceptions. The reality is that Islam is – and always has been – supportive of women’s reproductive rightsGamal Serour
Yet women in many Muslim communities face barriers to contraceptive access and family planning services due to religious and cultural misconceptions. The reality is that Islam is – and always has been – supportive of women’s reproductive rights. The family is the basic unit of a Muslim society, and the mother is the keystone of this unit. Islam is a progressive religion that encourages its followers to uphold principles and practices that ensure maternal and reproductive health, and family planning is a central component of such practices.
Islam does not forbid a woman from controlling the spacing and number of her pregnancies. A thorough review of the Holy Quran reveals no text (nuss) prohibiting the prevention or planning of pregnancy, and there are several traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) that indicate such practices are permissible. Many modern contraceptives and family planning methods, by analogy (kias), are similar to coitus interruptions (al-azl), which has been practiced since the time of the Prophet (PBUH). Modern contraceptive pills, injectables, implants, and other reversible methods were not known at the time of the Prophet (PBUH), but serve the same purpose as coitus interruptions as they temporarily prevent pregnancy. Hence they can – and should – be used today.
A number of majority-Muslim countries in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, including Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Morocco, have made great commitments to increasing contraceptive prevalence and are seeing the benefits of doing so. Yet others, including Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, are still some of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Such disparities are unacceptable and debilitating to development, and we must continue to strive until they are eliminated.
This May, the world will come together to do just that. Muslim community leaders will join other women’s health and rights advocates from all over the world for global advocacy organization Women Deliver’s third global conference, Women Deliver 2013. Women Deliver 2013 will take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 28-30 May. This is the first time a Women Deliver conference will be held in a majority-Muslim country. Malaysia has made great strides in improving women’s health and rights, and serves as a strong example of how investing in women pays. Women Deliver’s estimated 5,000 attendees will drive conversations that ensure that global commitments to girls and women are kept at the top of the international development agenda.
With the world’s Muslim population expected to reach approximately 2.2 billion by 2030 and the MDGs deadline fast approaching, this is the time to act for the girls and women of the Muslim world. It cannot be denied that Muslim girls and women in the Eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere are subject to a unique and complex web of political, social, cultural, and religious factors, but this does not mean that the battle for their health and rights is lost.
To win this battle, we must continue to uphold the commitments we have made to our mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives, including those made to their reproductive health and rights. These commitments cannot waver based on cultural or religious misunderstandings. Reproductive rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights. We must keep fighting for them until every girl and woman has access to the life-saving contraceptives and family planning methods that she deserves.
Dr. Gamal Serour, Director of the International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research at Al-Azhar University. Serour, an Egyptian, was President of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) from 2009-2012. He joined the FIGO Ethics Committee in 1994 and became Chair in 2003.