Salaam alaikum everyone, thank you for coming out on this freezing day. I am glad to be invited by Hirra [New Horizons] to speak about Muslims for Choice. I am also an executive committee for the Abortion Rights campaign. Abortion Rights is the UK’s national pro-choice campaign fighting to defend and extend women’s abortion rights, fighting against attempts to impose any restrictions against the current legislation and to remove barriers or any obstacles preventing women from accessing abortion.
When I tell people that I founded Muslims for Choice and that I am part of the Abortion Rights campaign I am met with a lot of surprise and incredulity. Lots of people ask how I reconcile being Muslim and being pro-choice.
I would like to say my views have changed over time. I didn’t have as a liberal approach to abortion when I was younger to how I view abortion now. This liberalisation manifested through multiple stages at which point it will be helpful for you [the audience] to know more about my background.
When I was a student campaigning for Palestine solidarity, working with the local community against the BNP and the EDL as well as the Black Students Campaign meant I came into contact with an array of politically and socially active Muslims who had a variety of opinions and views. They were in agreement over certain issues but not aligned in other areas.
This experience helped me think through what it means to be Muslim and politically progressive. In particular it gave me the confidence to be more open about what I stood for. When it came to thinking through abortion at the time around the time I first started campaigning I had lots of discussions with my Muslim peers.
The mainstream Islamic stance on abortion is that it is permissible in certain circumstances. Whilst there is no mention of it whatsoever in the Qur’an, there are hadiths that many Muslims refer to for guidance. Many scholars say that within a 120 day period abortions are allowed as the soul has not yet entered the fetus. They also say if a woman’s life is in danger or if she has been raped then abortions are also permitted in these circumstances.
So when I discussed abortion with other Muslims, one of the conclusions I drew was that there is no one monolithic view of abortion in Islam and that diversity of views needs to be respected. And Islam should be about fighting for justice, but to me it is also about showing compassion and not pass judgement on a woman’s circumstances. We don’t know why she must have an abortion but we don’t need to know. What we do need to do, as compassionate and socially minded Muslims, is to provide a network of support.
I spoke to one of my friends yesterday, who is a GP, and she was telling me how many of her Muslims colleagues have fallen pregnant who also have multiple children. These women are reluctant to have another child – it’s hard to be pregnant and give birth! So when they speak to their husbands about whether or not they should have another child, the men’s reactions are ‘it’s up to you, do what you want.’
You might be thinking ‘men shutting up is a good thing is it not’? Well yes and no. My friend’s colleagues were not looking for orders, they were looking for positive support from their family and from their loved ones. Whilst they will continue to carry the pregnancy to term, I wonder what the outcome would have been if their husbands had simply said ‘if you want to have an abortion then you have my full support and the same goes for if you don’t want an abortion.’ Fighting stigma is another battle and I suspect that’s what prevented many of these women exercising their right to choose.
How did I formally get involved with Abortion Rights? Well it started when a Conservative MP, Fiona Bruce, attempted to roll back abortion rights by implementing a sex-selective amendment to the current legislation on abortion.
To make everyone aware, abortion is not a legal right as such. It is part of the criminal code which sets out a strict criteria for women to have an abortion [for example, they have to get two doctors to sign off the procedure]. Should that criteria be violated, women could potentially be charged.
So the implication of the sex-selective amendment was that if a woman decides to terminate her pregnancy on the grounds the sex of the fetus is female, she could find herself on the wrong side of the law. This was a very divisive tactic from the anti-choice movement and it left many pro-choice campaign groups in a disarray over how to respond. Even some politicians found themselves questioning their feminist credentials as they were initially in support of the amendment.
What Abortion Rights [AR] did was it opposed the amendment on the following grounds. Firstly, AR categorically opposed the amendment in the strongest terms saying it was a clear attempt to roll back the 1967 Abortion Act. Secondly, that criminalising any woman from having an abortion does nothing to address the root causes of sexism and misogyny. Thirdly, and this is most relevant to everyone here, is the racial implications of the amendment.
In society right now, who is being targeted the most for being uniquely backwards on women’s rights, who is being targeted for supposedly dictating what women wear and who is being smeared as child sexual abusers? Muslims and South Asians.
The implementation of this amendment would have also meant a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality as medics would be obliged to report cases where they thought a woman was terminating her pregnancy on the grounds of the sex of the fetus. These cases can’t be proved, but as the PREVENT strategy shows – the programme designed to combat terrorism and extremism in the UK – it is being used to scapegoat Muslims and Muslim children as young as 5 have been reported to the police because the teacher overzealously thought the child was expressing ‘extremism’.
At this point, Abortion Rights was the only women’s rights and feminist organisation that was threading all these arguments together, making it very clear why the amendment had to be opposed. It propelled me to stand after a lot of encouragement from my friends!
From there, I set up Muslims for Choice. At the minute, this is an online initiative that is designed to bring together Muslims who want to defend a woman’s right to choose and want to be more active in the pro-choice movement as well as reach out to other Muslims and give them confidence in expressing their views. One of the projects I am trying to bring about is to interview different Muslims from all walks of life on why they are pro-choice and what they think the obstacles are for a pro-choice Muslim. If anyone wants to participate in that please let me know. Stemming from Muslims for Choice, I also set up a Facebook group called ‘pro-choice Muslims’ for us to come together and discuss where we want this campaign to go.
We all know Muslims are well organised, look at our activities for Ramadan, for Hajj and for poverty relief programmes. We should harness that collective power and use it in defence of justice which includes defending the current legislation on abortion rights.
Rashida Islam, Muslims for Choice Founder
Note: This is not a transcript of the speech, so there may be differences between the written and actual speech