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She managed to escape in the very early morning. She walked the 50 kilometres that separated the house she had been living in for the past seven years and her parents’ home.
When she arrived, she saw her brothers and sisters. They had grown so much. She had never seen two of them before. They were playing around the water tap in the front of the house, splashing themselves and laughing.
She smiled. She had been sent away by her parents at the age of eight to work in Mr B’s house as a maid. She had not been home since. All her earnings were sent directly to her father.
All day she cleaned and scrubbed and polished, Mrs B always nagging her about how badly she cleaned and scrubbed and polished. She slept in the kitchen on a small mattress under the table.
She had few belongings. One of them she hid – a small doll with blond hair and blue eyes which she saved one day from the garbage where Mr and Mrs B’s daughter had thrown it after receiving a bigger one. She spoke to the doll every day. It was her only family.
She was often beaten with the bamboo stick Mrs B kept handy in the kitchen. Most of the time, she had no idea why.
A few months before she left the house, at the age of 15, Mr B had entered the main bathroom where she was scrubbing the bathtub. He lifted her skirt with his foot and as she moved away in fright he simply took her there, on the bathroom floor. The entire event lasted less than ten minutes. Fatima could only think of the donkeys she once saw climbing on top of each other in the field behind the house. She was left dishevelled and bleeding. Mr B left the bathroom without uttering a single word.
A few months later, after having missed her periods for the second time in a row, and feeling her breasts swollen and sore, she surmised that she was pregnant. That was when she left the house.
As she looked on her brothers and sisters, Fatima did not notice her father coming out of the house. He greeted her with shouts: ‘What are you doing here?’ She tried to explain that she wanted to be home and that she could work in Mr B’s house no longer, but her father kept interrupting her with more shouting and cursing. Her mother appeared and ran to give her a hug and welcome her. But that was short-lived as her father pushed the mother away and repeated: ‘What problem have you caused again? What have you done?’
Fatima entered the house and spent the entire evening in complete silence. She did not even dare approach her siblings. The next morning, she confided in her mother. Her mother uttered a long cry and repeated endlessly ‘A’udhu billah min ash-shaytaan-ar-rajim’ – meaning ‘I seek refuge in God, the All-Hearing, All-Knowing, from the accursed devil (Shaytaan).’ It is an expression used in time of distress.
The father appeared and as he was made aware of Fatima’s situation, he kicked her and threw her out of the house. ‘Never come back!’ you hear me, ‘Never!’ She left the house. The mother said nothing.
Left on her own, Fatima decided to go to the big city where she might find work and help. She begged her way there, riding on the back of carts, and receiving enough coins to get a bus ticket for part of the trip. After traveling for two days, she finally arrived at the large industrial city.
The cars whizzed by. Huge billboards advertised washing machines with women wearing scarves, while others advertised special whitening creams with women looking like the doll she had left behind. Everything made her dizzy. She was hungry, very hungry.
Fatima made her way to the port and after wandering around for a while, she decided to enter a restaurant and ask for food in exchange for cleaning or washing, whatever was needed. She got lucky. She was given a meal: kebabs, a plate of fries and a coke. Never had any of it tasted so good. The owner was kind, and he let her wash dishes and clean the toilet in exchange for the meal. When he realized she had nowhere to go, he told her she could sleep in the restaurant. And she did for a few weeks.
During that time, she would leave the restaurant in the few hours of rest between lunch and dinner, and walk the streets. Fatima met a few women and befriended them, but always hesitated to talk about her situation.
One day, one of them approached her. Fatima always wondered why she wore so much make-up and high heels, even in the middle of the afternoon. She asked, ‘You are pregnant aren’t you? What are you going to do about it?’
They talked that day and the next. Fatima’s new friend told her that she could take her to a place where she could get an abortion. She added that it would cost her the equivalent of at least three month’s salary. By that time, Fatima would put her life in danger should she decide to abort.
A short while after that, the restaurant owner also realized that Fatima was pregnant and threw her out. She had nowhere to go.
She wandered the streets. She was harassed by men and women, and pushed away by street vendors. She ate from garbage bins and slept in alleyways. Once she was tempted to follow a fat smelly man who offered her a meal for sex, but she shuddered and ran away.
Alone and desperate, one early morning, she stole battery acid from a car mechanic’s shop and drank it. She was found behind a large garbage bin not far from the sea. No one knew her name or where she came from.
Note: There are many associations across the Muslim world that care for women with unwanted pregnancies, taking them in until they give birth, teaching them how to take care of their child and often skills they may use once on the outside. Sometimes they even help in contacting the father so that the child may be registered, given a name and hence not deemed ‘illegitimate’ – a label that would ostracise him for the rest of his existence. Under Muslim Family Law, only the father’s recognition gives the child legitimacy or what is known as ‘nasab’ or ‘asl’ (lineage or roots), the most important social and religious identifier in Muslim law and society. These associations deserve our support.
Data: There is no data available as to how many unwanted pregnancies happen each year in the Muslim world. All I could find was data from WHO and the Guttmacher Institute dated September 2017, stating that 25 million unsafe abortions (45% of the total) are practiced every year, with 97% of them in the developing world. Most women abort because they have no means of support, whether material or emotional.
Kenza Saadi holds a BA from Cornell University and a PhD from Columbia University. Among other activities, she worked in the humanitarian field in war zones. She now lectures on ethics and publishes poetry.