x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

On Mother's Day, changing opinions and options

It's not just in the West that more women are opting out of motherhood. The internet is littered with sites supporting the "child-free".

It's not just in the West that more women are opting out of motherhood. The internet is littered with sites supporting the "child-free". Acronyms have surfaced, such as Dink: "Dual Income No Kids." A recent BBC broadcast tackled the subject by asking whether it was ethical from a religious perspective to opt out of parenthood. Many churches and spiritual leaders look down upon the choice, including the Pope. Some conservative clergymen in the US have called not having children a rebellion against God.

In the Islamic tradition, the conversation about opting out of motherhood has not yet gained traction as it has in many other faiths. When I submitted a query to a fatwa centre asking for their opinion on the matter they responded: "The primary purpose for marriage in Islam is to procreate." One of the most common sayings you will hear today is that "heaven runs under the feet of mothers". But that does not necessarily answer my question. What is behind the growing number of women in our society who are choosing not to become mothers?

I know about a dozen women who are vocal about their choice to remain child-free. By contrast, my mother knows none from her generation. The child-free women I know who are of child-bearing age, whether married or single, endure a great deal of social pressure to remain so. They have prepared answers for questions such as: "What will you do when you get old? How will you secure your life?" These questions emerge from a tradition that adult children are obligated to look after their elderly parents. Even that expectation appears to be diminishing.

"I really would not expect my child to take care of me when I'm old," said Kinda, a 30-year-old, who says she does not want children. The number of residents at homes for the elderly - a taboo subject in parts of the Arab world because many consider the failure of children to look after their parents as society's failure - is clearly on the rise. A generation ago such institutions were practically unheard of, but today I see their services advertised in the media.

The idea that a young girl is a mother-in-the-making and that all women are inevitably mothers is nothing new to western audiences. Feminists in the 1960s dealt with this line of argument by asking whether biology was destiny for a woman. But this question is rarely asked in this part of the world even as women have made incredible gains in education and in their standard of living. One of the overriding arguments for educating girls is that they will become mothers some day and pass on this education to their children. The idea has became so pervasive that it is still used to convince even the most conservative of the value of schooling for women.

"Educate girls and you've educated three quarters of society," is the oft-repeated slogan. I heard it recently said by bedouins in eastern Syria, where it is commonplace for girls to leave school in the 6th grade to prepare them for marriage by age 15. Today in the US a record 44 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 do not have children, according to figures from the last decade. Though the numbers do not distinguish between those who want to have them and don't and those who have made the choice not to have them, the latter have been on the rise, according to the National Centre of Health Statistics in the United States.

Japan and many European nations are experiencing declines in population because more women are opting out of motherhood. Will this trend go hand in hand with wealth, education and development in other parts of the world that experience them? Recent studies in the US show that some of the most common reasons given by the child-free to explain their choice are not wanting to sacrifice privacy, personal space or time for children, having no compelling reason to have children, not wanting children around and being perfectly content with pets.

"They tell me I don't want children because I am not a responsible person," said Rana. "But it is the other way around. It is precisely because I am so aware of the responsibility and commitment that children require that I feel I don't want to have them." Rasha Elass, formerly a reporter for The National, now lives in Damascus