Do Women in Muslim Countries Have More Reproductive Freedom than American Women?

When the U.S. House of Representatives voted recently to pass a law that would tighten restrictions on abortions performed after 20 weeks, it followed the lead of state legislators across the country. But U.S. legislators are bucking global trends to increase women’s rights and access to reproductive care.

Every day in the U.S., restrictions are placed on women’s ability to safely terminate a pregnancy— longer waiting periods, dubious and unfounded claims about the reversibility of medical abortion, placing discriminatory regulations on health professionals through Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws and the latest offense strategy in North Carolina: claiming that abortion providers must be ob-gyn board certified. What is perhaps the most surprising about efforts in the U.S. to limit women’s privacy, choice and rights—supported by the Supreme Court—is how out of touch the laws are with policies around the world, especially in the so-called “Muslim world” that is often depicted as oppressive to women.

One in four world citizens is Muslim; 57 countries are official members of the Organization of Islamic Conferences. Muslims comprise close to half of all Africans, one-third of Asians and growing numbers of Europeans and Americans, and represent great variation across racial, ethnic, linguistic and geographic lines. While all Muslims share certain core beliefs, official and practiced Islam manifests itself in different ways as it intersects with local cultures, traditions, histories and politics. The diversity found across the Muslim world is apparent in different countries’ abortion laws and practices.

Family planning and abortion have a long history in Muslim thought. Early Muslim theologians supported contraception as long as both partners consented. The Prophet Mohammed practiced coitus interruptus, or withdrawal, and encouraged others to do the same as long as there was mutual consent regarding sexual pleasure and pregnancy. Non-permanent methods of contraception were supported. These disagreements over continuing or ending a pregnancy focused to a great extent on what did the least harm and most benefitted women, their existing children and communities.

Building on this history of support and adapting existing laws to current context has led to vibrant debates about gender equality and women’s status in majority Muslim countries. Many of them are ahead of the U.S. in recognizing the centrality of abortion access in the bigger context of women’s health, rights and opportunities.

In Morocco, for example, efforts are underway to decriminalize abortion and support gender equality. Unlike in the U.S., where anti-choice efforts exist across our political spectrum, the Islamist-based government has asked for abortion-law reform to protect women from unsafe practices. A legislator and former family and social development minister, Nouzha Skalli, situated the reform process within a broader framework of promoting female education, protecting women from domestic and sexual violence and supporting gender equality. The King Mohammed VI recently approved incremental changes to allow abortions in cases of rape, incest, danger to women’s health or fetal anomalies. While these modifications are a far cry from the broader demands made by Moroccan advocates, the vitriol present in the U.S. and the incessant focus on embryos at the expense of women, were largely absent from the debates. (Read more about Morocco’s changing landscape in the new issue of Ms.)

Tunisia is known for its pioneering role in the areas of gender equality and equity, family planning and abortion. In 1973, it became the first Arab and African country to significantly liberalize its abortion law, the same year as Roe v. Wade but with much less controversy. Tunisia was unique in that it adopted an approach that situated women’s reproductive decision-making in the broader context of their overall rights and decision-making status. Parallel to the abortion law change, laws were reformed giving women near-equal rights to divorce and greater educational and economic opportunities. These efforts in North Africa are similar to those across majority-Muslim countries. In Indonesia, women’s groups worked through the pesantren—Muslim boarding schools—to study and overturn discriminatory interpretations of religious texts. Maria Ulfah, one of the leading advocates of an organization of young female Muslims and wing of the biggest Islamic organization in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), recently published a critical analysis of abortion in Indonesia, critiquing conservative efforts to limit access based on religious beliefs.

Groups such as Sisters in Islam and the Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance of Malaysia have translated female-centered reproductive and sexual knowledge into practice and are developing training courses on Islam, gender and reproductive rights. In Bangladesh, menstrual regulation, which allows for early evacuation of uterine contents after a missed period, has been an integral part of Bangladesh’s primary health care for close to 30 years. As such, Bangladesh has one of the world’s most decentralized systems of pregnancy termination.

When women in Tunisia need an abortion, they do not have to worry about the waiting periods, TRAP laws or limited access to publicly funded abortions that exist in the U.S. Instead, abortions are funded by the government and offered as part of comprehensive reproductive health care with few restrictions. For a woman in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, or in Mississippi, for example, obtaining an abortion is nearly impossible. The women of these states have to navigate political, geographical and legal barriers just to get to one clinic. The movement of Muslim women’s activists upends American stereotypes about the role of women in Islam, and shows that they set a path of activism and agency from which U.S. women could benefit.

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Photo via Flickr user FaceMePLS licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 


Leila Hessini is the vice president of programs at Global Fund for Women. She has over 20 years of organizing and grant-making experience promoting an intersectional lens to advancing human rights, gender equality, and economic and reproductive justice in the United States and globally.