In Indian society, infertility is seen as a woman’s burden. If, immediately after marriage she is not able to bear a child, she is usually stigmatised and blamed. They are derogatorily called manhoos and vanjh (meaning barren) or are accused of possessing an evil eye.
The prevalence of infertility in India is estimated to be between 3.9 to 16.8 percent, according to the World Health Organization. Yet, couples who are struggling with infertility do not receive adequate health care. This has an often unseen and unmeasured impact on women, who remain trapped in religious beliefs and traditional practices that limit their control over their own bodies and their exercise of sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Fatimabiwi is a 35-year-old Muslim woman from a village in Tamil Nadu, India. The youngest of nine children, Fatimabiwi only finished second standard. As a Muslim girl from a conservative family, she was not allowed to pursue her education. “Double standards still prevail; there are different rules for boys and girls. People talk about development but women and girls are suppressed and their mobility is restricted,” she wrote in her journal.
She got married at the age of 18. It was a marriage arranged by her parents but the choice of groom was with her consent. “My parents showed me the photograph of the groom, I liked him and we got married,” she recalled. She described her marriage as a generally “smooth” one. However, her pregnancies always resulted in miscarriages, almost two a year.
“During the fifth month of each pregnancy, I would get a dream. In the dream there would be someone saying that there is a blood cyst in my womb and not a baby. After that, there would be no movement in the foetus and I would feel uncomfortable. In the hospital, the doctors would say the same reason, that I have a blood cyst or tumour, and ask me to go for an abortion,” Fatimabiwi wrote.
The frequent miscarriages made her sick and bedridden. “Sometimes, I was so tired for months that I couldn’t even get up and cook or carry out my daily household chores,” she shared.
Her medical condition did not improve. Thus, she resorted to traditional religious practices that are based on the underlying belief that infertile women are possessed by evil spirits.
“I started visiting the ‘Darga’ or the mosque regularly and involved myself in the practice of ‘ghaspos’ and ‘mudikairu’ (a practice done by spell healers and witch hunters to get rid of evil spirits). I did all sort of things that spell healers or witch hunters say… Once I even went to a spell healer, he asked me to give INR 10,000 (approximately USD 167). My husband said it is just a false belief and that they will take the money and there will would be no remedy for me, but I did what the spell healer said. I gave a lot of importance to religious practices with the trust that ‘Allah will answer my prayers.’ But nothing happened,” Fatimabiwi wrote.
Her husband and family were very supportive throughout these ordeals. But there was a lot of social pressure. “People strongly believe that a life of a woman is not complete until she begets her own child. The language people in society use for women who do not have their own child hurts the woman,” she said.
Fatimabiwi relates not being able to attend ceremonies and other occasions. “I couldn’t take part in cultural practices and even occupy the front seat in functions, because of the fear that people may object ‘my womb is empty.’ So I preferred to stand at the back…Even if people said something, I kept quiet and did not utter a single word or reply back. Sometimes I felt like crying, and I just distanced myself,” she said.
One day, Fatimabiwi decided to take control of her own body. She informed her family that she was undergoing a tubectomy to prevent miscarriages and protect her health—even if it meant not being able to conceive her own child. What happened next was fortuitous.
When Fatimabiwi had her tubectomy operation, an unmarried girl in the hospital bed next to hers gave birth to a baby girl. She asked to adopt the baby, and the girl’s relatives agreed. Thus, the couple went home with their much-awaited child.
“We are happy for her, with the grace of ‘Allah’ she is studying well and we strongly believe that she will be supportive to us during our old age. She takes great care of us and loves us very much,” Fatimabiwi wrote.
She is aware that like her, her daughter will face many challenges in a patriarchal society as she grows up. But she is also confident that like her, she will surpass these challenges and be able to assert her rights. “I am sure that she will lead a comfortable life, take care of herself, and be independent and well educated,” Fatimabiwi concluded.