As told to Ghadeer Ahmed
I recall going to see him first thing after I got back to Ismailia, and showing him the roll of toilet paper. He had taken the pregnancy test and kept it. I think he still has it. I, on the other hand, still have the bloody roll. He kept the test that shows I was pregnant; I kept the blood that shows I killed that baby.
I had just turned twenty-three when I decided to leave my family’s home and go out on my own as an independent young woman (mustaqella). I was working to support myself and was sharing a rented apartment with two friends in Ismailia. I was excited to experience life as an individual, under my own name, not my family’s. That step came following several years of growing financial and emotional independence. I worked part-time at an office and that’s how I met Khaled. He was one of those people known for being intellectually and sexually “open-minded.”
I had no experience with sex before Khaled. In my folks’ household, any mention of the word “sex” itself was forbidden, unless both the speaker and the listener were married women. At family gatherings, married women would hang out together — only recently married women could join their company. They would talk about sex and laugh, boasting to each other about how much their husbands desire them.
For my first sexual encounter with Khaled, we tried for three consecutive days. We could not get beyond a few touches. My unease was showing in my muscles. My pelvic floor clamped down. When we tried to relax it, it was like trying to stop something in its tracks and set it in motion in the opposite direction. We decided I should see a doctor. I assumed Khaled would come with me, but he did not even offer. Only time exposed that aspect of our relationship to me.
I was not scared about seeing the doctor; I was worried about people. I was very aware of the fact that I was a young woman going to see a gynecologist in Ismailia, alone. I was afraid to run into someone I knew. I was afraid I might be asked, why are you here alone, young lady? Do you not have a family? Are you here alone because a man took advantage of you?
I told the doctor I was married, and that my husband was not with me because he was out of the country. Later, I did not bring up my feelings about Khaled not wanting to come with me. I simply told him the doctor recommended longer foreplay to prepare my body for penetrative sex and Khaled complied. For everything he did, he asked me whether I enjoyed it. His asking me was an additional source of arousal and it drove me to take more initiative. I was thrilled. It felt like I was doing what I desire without restrictions, without the need to speculate whether this young man loved me or if he was lying to me. I was experiencing sex without having to marry. My outlook on my hymen changed: it was no longer something to fear, it was mine. My relationship with Khaled liberated me from several burdens — but added even more dreadful ones.
Our initial infatuation faltered, and we began to have fights. One night, during a major quarrel, we had sex. It was as intense as the strife between us, as profound as the gap — which I had not realized existed. Khaled was not allowed to stay overnight, according to the house rules I had agreed to with my flatmates. So he always left right after. We never had the time to talk or resolve our issues. A few days later, we were back at it each other’s throats. My period was late. I sarcastically pointed out that we were fighting while I might be pregnant.
He did not care to ask me, knowing that he had ejaculated inside, whether I took any pills or precautions. I do not know why I was so naive. I still do not have an answer to this, and I cannot forgive myself for not being familiar with these things. Nobody just lets themselves get pregnant like that, we are in Ismailia.
Sex was an entirely new world to me, one I was experiencing through Khaled. His sexual openness and knowledge gave me the impression that he must have been more cautious than I was — given that I did not know as much as he did about sex. It did not occur to me that his knowledgeability might cost me, just as my ignorance did, and that I would pay with my body.
I bought a home pregnancy test just before our last call and took it the following morning. I read the instructions on the box countless times to make sure that the two dashes really did mean that I was pregnant.
I walked out of the bathroom with the test in my hand. It felt like I was holding a question, like I was walking around with the question of my life in my hand.
My friend and flatmate, Sarah, saw me on the way to my room from the bathroom and saw what I was holding. She did not need to ask me about the result, it was starkly clear on my face. She rushed to hug me and said she would support me, whatever my decision might be. She drowned me in praise for my strength. She kept telling me how confident she was that I would be able to get through this, just as I had gotten through every tough thing before. She told me I was strong and mature, at a moment when I was feeling broken and foolish. I wished I could tell her to stop, tell her that I was vulnerable in that moment. That I needed to hear that it is okay to be vulnerable, that it is okay to feel helpless. I wish she had asked me how I felt so that I could say that that very same strong woman who had gotten through these difficulties was the same woman standing before her, powerless. That I was raking myself over the coals with guilt.
Every time I tried to express anything like that, she would jump in and praise my strength — so I fell back and kept it to myself. I wished Sarah would cry with me, break down with me. I did not need rational and serious as much as I needed incensed ranting and crying.
When I left my folks’ house to get to know life on my own, I was enthusiastic, filled with confidence and courage. I believed — as I still do — that experience accumulates consciousness, and that I am capable of taking responsibility for my actions. But sometimes, I wish someone would share that responsibility with me, understand that decisions can be difficult, would be brave enough to head into that unknown with me.
Just as our experiences enrich our consciousness, they make us less sympathetic to others. When we are most in need of compassion, people praise our strength and endurance — as we collapse inside and wish we could stomp our feet and split the ground in indignation. But reality does not allow us to search for alternatives. Our experiences are our experiences. Each one puts more distance between us and our naiveté. They the world to turn its back on us even further — after all, we are perceived as more mature. We may expect the world to stop turning and to share our pain, but it will not. It will continue to disappoint, and we must acclimate to its progression and interact with its unknown course.
Sarah called Khaled and told him. But I did not wait for him to come to me. I changed and headed to the office where we both worked. When I saw him, I saw there was joy in his eyes. Every bit of my body was shivering with terror. I saw a man glad to hear that his partner was pregnant, as if it was all fine, as if we were allowed to rejoice at such news. Khaled’s happiness was a luxury I did not have, and I never forgave him for it. He was selfish in showing his feelings in this way, and ignorant of the most basic things to say at a moment that was — in all of its pain and severity — entirely mine, turning it into a celebration with his smile and jubilant voice. He proposed marriage, as if it were really possible, as if the pregnancy was going to pause for the arrangements, as if people were not going to ask how I would have given birth prematurely, and as if I were sure to accept, strong-armed by my pregnancy.
Sarah did not ask me how I felt, nor did Khaled. I was trapped between her serious calm and his merriment. My friend addressed the situation according to her outlook, and my partner addressed it according to his. There was no place for mine.
Nobody thought to ask me how I felt. I felt that I should not have a child, that I was too young, that I had not built a career yet, that I was only recently independent. I was still figuring out my own life, how I would be supporting myself, whether the relationship I was in was the right one for me. It was too early to commit to it, to get locked into parenthood with him. Sometimes, it felt to me like the good news for him was that it was evidence of his potency that I saved him the expense of fertility tests.
Khaled apologized for our constant fighting, the sensitive place I was in, the fact that my trust in him had been shattered. But his apology did not help. Nothing he did helped fill the void inside of me, not even when he held me in his arms. My uterus was full, but a forlorn desert sat between me and those with whom I shared that experience. The feeling that I was the only one to blame in all of this left very little space to be kind to myself. I felt like I had wronged myself by handing the steering wheel over to someone I thought was more experienced than me.
Sometimes, all we need is to assign some of the responsibility for the consequences of our decisions to others, to blame their actions as the reason we end up where we do. Sometimes, what we need is to feel for a second that their actions are what caused things to go how they did, for everything to be a shared responsibility. It takes courage. To recommend something to someone as the proper choice, assuming part of the responsibility for the result, opening ourselves up to blame, preparing our shoulders to carry additional burdens, that takes courage. Sometimes, all we need is to be humanely defeated.
I decided to have an abortion. Access to a willing doctor was pretty much impossible in Ismailia. We looked up how to do it at home, and found the name of an abortion-inducing drug. The search took a few weeks, and during that time I read enough stories about botched home abortions to scare myself that I would end up needing surgery — especially that by now my third month had just begun. We could not find the pills at any pharmacy. Khaled decided to ask a coworker, who had connections giving him access to drugs listed on the Health Ministry’s controlled substances list. Although abortion pills are not on the list, and despite my concerns (especially that the entire office would find out about our sexual relations and my abortion), Khaled asked him for the pills and got them. He was told they should be administered orally and vaginally simultaneously, and that intercourse is the best way to ensure that the tablet is retained in the uterus.
I was crying a lot. I did not know what to tell him the reason was. I felt humiliated. I felt like I was having sex, a beautiful thing that is to be enjoyed, that brings life, for the opposite purpose.
My body was engaged but my mind was sober, observing and analyzing every detail, and my heart was in a sensitive, vulnerable state. The most memorable moment was when we were done: we got dressed, he left, and I waited alone for the pain that was about to come.
It was like I was waiting for death, alone. Every tick of the clock beat aloud in my head for four hours. I was anticipating the pain and the bleeding. When is it going to start? Right now? Tomorrow? Am I going to die? I was waiting for a special kind of pain, having taken pills that I had never heard of before all this without medical supervision, to overcome something that I had never even thought was a possibility before.
The cramps started, and the bleeding followed a few hours later. I did not panic when I saw the blood. There were more notable and painful moments: the intercourse; when I realized that I had embarked on a new life, the gravity of which I was only just starting to grasp; when I realized that secrecy was essential, that my secret must not be known to anyone beyond Sarah and Khaled; when it sank in that I may have gained independence from my family, but not from people’s talk. These feelings overtook the intensity of seeing the blood and robbed me of the chance to heal.
It was not like menstrual blood, it was thicker and had a heavier flow. The following day, I had a social event to attend at our apartment. It was an obligation I could not shirk. I could not leave my flatmates alone, and my absence would have aroused suspicion. Despite the severe cramps, I pretended I was fine, preparing food and drinks for our guests in the kitchen.
I could not even enjoy the basic human need of lying comfortably in my bed. I do not know why I did not think to just say, to hell with it. My flatmates could have just said, “She is tired and resting, that is all.”
The barrier between what I felt and what I was doing dissolved. I got dressed and went to the office. Although I was mad at him, I thought he would hug me like he did the day he found out I was pregnant. I desperately needed a space to express how I was feeling, to express my anxiety and fear, to ask my questions out loud. I was going crazy. When I arrived at the office, Khaled was in a meeting. Before I could apologize for interrupting, he invited me in and started asking me work-related questions.
The meeting ended. I left and switched off my phone. For days after that, Khaled was not able to contact me, and the bleeding did not stop. I decided to go to Cairo for a break. My feelings toward him were a mix of rage and frustration.
We both had sex. Neither of us was careful, but I alone bore the consequences. We both paid for the pills. We shared everything, except the pain, shame, fear, the feeling that I was committing a crime.
Twenty-one days had passed since I started the abortion process. I had taken the pills in three doses. Every time the bleeding tapered off, I took another pregnancy test. Each time, I found that the pregnancy had still not been terminated. My fears were becoming real: This is how it will end for me, I will give birth to a deformed child. I was constantly smoking, drinking, and taking abortion drugs.
In need of distraction, I went to City Stars mall with my friends. There, I felt the flow becoming heavier, so I went to the bathroom.
I sat down on the toilet. I felt something heavy descending from my uterus. I cupped my hand underneath to catch the blood. I saw the fetus. It was so small. Its features were distinctive enough that you could tell it was a fetus, but it was not fully formed. That was a monumentally brutal moment.
In a desperate attempt, I resolved to preserve the bloody lump. I looked around, saw the roll of toilet paper. I unrolled it as fast as my heart was beating. I uncupped my right hand and caught the blood in the toilet paper with my left hand. I took in a breath as deep as my pain, as deep as my relief. Everything was over, finally. I grabbed my purse, took out my wallet, and stuffed the blood-covered toilet paper inside. I changed my menstrual pad, pulled up my trousers, washed my hands and went back out to my friends.
It feels like I am carrying around a piece of my soul in my wallet. I was not able to make sense of what was happening. I thought that the roll of toilet paper might one day help me, but during that moment, I did not understand how.
I tried to tell Sarah what happened, and that I knew without a doubt that the pregnancy was aborted. But it was too loud, children were screaming everywhere around us. Then the check came, and we were busy calculating what we owed.
It felt like I was not important to anyone. What happened was significant only to me. But I, and everything that was significant to me, were unimportant. Nobody had the time or capacity to pay attention to me. Nobody took the time to observe that moment.
When we got back, Khaled gave us a warm welcome, as if we had just returned from a holiday. We were now living in two different worlds. We shared certain things, but things between us remained awkward. Khaled kept the positive pregnancy test; I kept the bloody toilet roll. And we broke up.