A recent incident in Egypt ignited a controversy regarding women’s bodily autonomy and the coercive control that men could exercise. The incident concerned a woman who needed a lifesaving hysterectomy but was entangled in a divorce battle that she initiated. The hospital required the husband’s written consent before operating since she was still legally married. The husband was evasive to gain some leverage in the case.
After the issue spread on social media, a surgeon agreed to perform without the husband’s consent because it was a life-threatening situation. This time the woman was saved. How many women died because they were deemed unfit to make informed decisions about their bodies?
In a scramble to find the right questions to ask to shed light on this moral travesty, I see many issues arise within my mind.
First, there’s the question of why medical professionals advise a mentally fit human to undergo a lifesaving surgery barred from this decision? The obvious answer is because she was a woman. Yet on closer inspection, women are allowed to experience other medical procedures without the written consent of their husbands.
So perhaps we shouldn’t make blanket statements concerning the oppression of women. Instead, we should focus on the particular issue underpinning this incident. Maybe the problem wasn’t relating to women’s bodies in particular and whether we are allowed to have agency over them. Perhaps the issue isn’t anchored in the body’s materiality but in the ethereal dimension of the perception of women.
True, the problem is manifested in a woman who could bleed to death and a husband more interested in negotiating a good deal with his future divorce. One could say it doesn’t get more material than that. Yet, I’d like to claim that the issue doesn’t merely concern women’s bodies but women as a concept.
A recent video was posted online from a supreme judge confirmation hearing. In the video, a question was put to a judge: define the word woman? The judge declined to answer the question stating that she wasn’t a biologist. The judge manifestly appeared to be a woman, yet she refused to answer the question. It is pretty telling of the problem we are facing when it comes to the understanding of women.
Thus maybe the second question we should ask is what is a woman? And if it takes a biologist to answer this question, then the allusion is that a woman’s identity is the biological differences that set her apart. She can reproduce to bring forth new life and sustain it on her own.
I agree that a tremendous gift and burden endowed to women is exemplified in having children. Pregnancy’s material and spiritual experience is allowed through the particularity of female biology. Suppose you ask any woman who experienced pregnancy. In that case, she will narrate a draining personal experience that is, and at the same time, also a universal experience that we all partake in. It begins with puberty, when young girls experience the first pangs and get the initial glimpse of being a woman. The violence impacted on women emerges primarily from their biology. The pain, the violence, and the struggle mandated by our biology are strictly our own. It defines womanhood and ushers motherhood.
Thence, when the pain associated with our biology is being relegated and authorized by a man who lacks the basic understanding of what we endure, we need to pause. When men, who could never fully comprehend or experience the oppression of female biology, become the legal guardians of our bodies, then we must question what women mean to our society. Women’s value has become effectively associated with their ability to bear children. And though I believe this is the highest and most noble aim. It is our experience. It is our pain. And it impacts our bodies, not our husbands.
Islam tells us that our bodies do not belong. On judgment day, we will be judged on how well we’ve taken care of them, both men and women. Islam also tells us that a mother should be honored partly because of their hardship. Nevertheless, the divinely ordained respect for women, for the Divine miracle of bringing life to the pain mandated by their biology, is met with disrespect. It should enrage all of us.