Boy, or girl?

After having four baby girls, Mouna was sure her fifth would be a boy. How did she make sure of this? Did her dream come true? 

In their podcast, Jordanian podcast media Sowt tries to answer this question in their series Eib (Shame). This series discusses taboos and subjects that are considered shameful, let those who feel shamed share their personal stories and shed light on issues that are silenced in public conversations. 

Listen to the original podcast in Arabic or read the English transcription below. 

(Illustration by Sowt)

Transcript in English

If we could remember the first sound we heard when we were born, it would probably be something like this: (heartbeat, baby’s first cries)

As well as the baby’s first cries, we might also hear roars of welcoming joy, or we might hear sighs of disappointment… It all depends on the sex of the newborn. In today’s episode, we will try to understand the reasons behind this difference, and I will discuss the relationship between medicine and the assignment of a baby’s [biological] sex.

I’m Tala al-Isaa, and I present to you the Eib podcast, a Sowt and 7iber production, on real gender-related issues that are still considered socially controversial and even taboo —or in one word: Eib [shameful]

(Mouna) He was with me when I went for an ultrasound. He asked me what I wanted and I answered “a boy.” He asked “Is that your wish?” I answered, “Yes. What do you have, doctor?” He answered, “two girls and another on the way —so he too has girls—and I want to let you know that you too will have another girl to your three.”

When Mouna decided to get pregnant for the fourth time, her aim was clear: to have a boy after a string of three girls.

(Mouna) “A third girl.” I started arguing with myself, between me before I got married and me after. I used to be surprised at women who say they want boys, and that one must have a baby boy. What a silly thing, I used to say. It made no difference for me whether it’s a boy or a girl. It doesn’t matter, as long as you are giving birth to someone who is part of you, and you are raising them to become decent and honest, and an all-around good person. It doesn’t matter if it’s a girl or a boy. But in reality, after I had my second baby girl, I thought, “No, I want a boy.”

The absence of a boy in the family made Mouna feel an emotional void, and she was convinced that no one will fill it except a baby boy who would provide her with unconditional love.

(Mouna) I mean, there is the kind of protection that a male can provide, or his ability to do things that girls, or my girls at least, wouldn’t do because society doesn’t allow them. It could be that my girl will be married, and move to her husband’s house. It will still be possible that distance or geography will separate us, but the boy stays, and his wife will join him. But, I mean, I felt that the boy will stay attached to me more, and that I’m his responsibility more than I’m the girls, so I wanted this type of love./In addition to her conviction and personal will, society had a role in making Mouna feel “less-than” [for not having sons] which only increased her desire to have a baby boy./

(Mouna) When I delivered my second girl, all those who came to congratulate me said, “May God compensate you!” It was as if you didn’t have a baby. I mean, one time when I was in the hospital where I gave birth, an old woman saw me walking—considering that walking supposedly helps C-section scars heal faster. The old woman said, “What is the matter with you?” “I just gave birth, and they operated on me,” I responded. “And what did you have, my dear?” I told her it was a girl, and she replied, “Wow! They put you under the knife just to deliver a girl?!” I was very sad. What does that mean? Is this not a human being coming to life, and only because she was a girl? You see? I was very annoyed by her, and so I asked her what she meant. [laughs]

But don’t you expect to be met with the same words if you had, say, two boys? Only then, when you have two boys, will they wish your third to be a baby girl.

(Mouna) Yes, they won’t be as miserable [at hearing the news]. They won’t say, “May God compensate you!” It will not seem as if you lost something instead of gained it. And only when you have a lot of assets, say two boys, then you can afford the loss of having a girl, you see?

By the time she had delivered her fourth baby girl, Mouna was already 40. Consequently, her husband tried to convince her not to try again, especially in light of high living costs. But Mouna insisted on trying one last time, and promised her husband that this time it will be guaranteed. The boy will come, whether he liked it or not, because medicine will intervene.

Mouna was convinced that luck wasn’t on her side, so she resorted to using what is called Preimplantation genetic diagnosis or PGD, a technology that appeared in the early nineties that allowed the possibility of assigning sex to unborn babies.
The main aim of this technology was to identify and avoid genetic diseases, but its usage has evolved to fetal sex assignment by implanting sperm with the required sex into the mother’s womb via artificial insemination, or what is known as in-vitro-fertilization. I met Dr. Aref Al-Khaledi to hear his opinion on this topic. Dr. Aref conducts PGD operations in Jordan, and is now the president of the Jordanian Society for Fertility and Genetics.

(Dr. Aref Al-Khaledi) Today, we won’t talking about choosing the sex of the baby, because I myself dislike that phrase. Instead, we will discuss what we call “family balancing”, the balance between boys and girls. No one has the right to come from outside the clinic and tell me that they just got married and only want boys. I will tell him thank you but I will be unable to help. As for families with one or two children, say two children at least, in case the kids were of the same sex, they have the right to choose the sex for the next one. Nowadays, families are unlike the extended families of the past. People now can barely raise two or a maximum of three children, due to the high living expenses and the difficulty of life. Therefore, we cannot keep repeating [relying on trial and error] forever until a baby with the desired sex arrives. In this sense, one in my position helps in building a healthy family, medically, psychologically and socially.

Dr. Aref confirms that most of the people he operated on in his clinic prefer males to females. Nonetheless, he considers his operations useful if they are governed by ethical standards. This is especially the case as it might lessen family fragility, which unfortunately can lead to the husband divorcing his wife or marrying a second if the wife doesn’t deliver a male.
As for those opposing this technology, they think that it calls for increasing hate and discrimination against women, particularly in patriarchal societies that prefer the birth of males to females. This is due to reasons related to the right of males in inheritance, passing the family’s name, and considering them the providers for their parents in the latter’s old age.
Dr. Aref estimated the number of women in Jordan who undergo in-vitro-fertilization only for the sake of controlling the fetus’s sex as ranging between 1,500 and 2,700 a year. There are at least 14 centers in Jordan that can perform the operation, and all are specialized centers.
Returning to Mouna, who decided to do an artificial insemination even though she doesn’t face difficulties getting pregnant…

ِ(Mouna) And of course, I consulted with my husband. He said to me, “How much will it cost?” We had even just bought a new house, so he said, “Now with the new house, and also…” I said, “Yes, yes. N new house because we want to make a room for little Ahmad!” I started already calling myself Um Ahmad, and thought it was sure that Ahmad would be coming. The cost was around 3,000 dinars.

After many medical procedures, the time came to implant two male fetuses into Mouna’s womb.

ِ(Mouna) To tell you the truth, when I knew that I was pregnant with two male boys, you should have seen the happiness I was in. I got goosebumps. Oh God, is it possible after four girls that I could also have two boys? God must like me too much, that I got two in one go. What overwhelming joy it was, that experience? Can you imagine?
I mean, I really flew to a dreamland. Enough pink, enough barbies. I started wanting guns, shorts, and things like that. Male things, I mean. I started making plans. I planned a lot. How this boy… these two boys, I mean, are not going to be affected by their sisters? I don’t want this effect. I want to make them tough, not spoiled.
When I leaned the news I was very happy, but I always had this odd feeling telling me, “Wait for it Mouna, there is a surprise.” [Laughs]

In the third month, Mouna had to abort one of the fetuses, but that wasn’t the surprise. The real surprise came in the fourth month, during the ultrasound.

ِ(Mouna) My husband has never gone with me to see the sex of the fetus, but this time I insisted that he joins me to the ultrasound test and see something new, and that it will be a beautiful surprise. I sat there, telling him this with full confidence, you see? For the first time, I entered that ultrasound room without any fear or concern. Why? Because I was sure that it would be a boy. The ultrasound doctor was different from the doctor who did the artificial insemination. It was another one, who didn’t know anything about the story and had no idea that I had an in-vitro-fertilization.Yes, we were happy in the ultrasound room. He was watching the screen and I knew it. The doctor said, “Congrats! A little bride is on the way!”I cannot describe how that felt. I was dizzy, as if the entire hospital collapsed over me. I said, “What do you mean? What bride?”He said, “Yes, there she is! See how beautiful she looks?” The footage was clear. He then asked, “Why are you so sad? What do you have?” I told him, “It is not a matter of what I have. I have four girls. What matters is that I have done this and that to have a baby boy. I’m supposedly guaranteed that the fetus; that this is a boy.”

Inquiring into the matter, Mouna found out that a mistake happened at the lab, as they filtered the semen. They fertilized the egg with a sperm carrying a girl’s genetics, not a boy’s. Though the operation’s success rates are high, there remains a margin of error, between 1-5%. 

ِ(Mouna) What happened is that I cried myself to death through the pregnancy. I was so melancholic and depressed that I would be having a fifth girl.

ِ(Interviewer) I know it’s a tough question, but why didn’t you consider an abortion?

ِ(Mouna) No, no. I never thought of it. Being my dream, it doesn’t mean that I become that cruel. On the contrary, when she was born, I called her Hiba, because she’s really a blessing, meaning a gift. When she was born, she was the most beautiful of all my girls. She was amazingly beautiful. She was like snow white with long hair. That is what I thought when I saw her. I had been concerned how she would look like, given the psychological circumstances I went through. I thanked God, she is healthy. But still, when I was leaving the hospital, I told myself that I should get pregnant again. I will have baby number six. But when I got a little older, I said well it’s done. I won’t be selfish. My obsession was like a mask, blocking my reason. As I told you, I plan a lot. I just wanted to have a boy, period, regardless of my age or whether I could raise him; is that a healthy thing, or a bad one? I had to deliver Ahmad; Ahmad shall come no matter what, but Ahmad never arrived.

In the beginning, a condition for selection of sperm cells was based solely on avoiding congenital diseases, to alleviate the suffering of parents and children. The rules were then loosened, that it even became possible to choose the baby’s sex. Today, the discussion is about using technology to pick the baby’s physical traits, such as the color of their eyes. Where do we draw the line? Who is going to decided the intersection between technology, discrimination and medicine?

Translated by DocStream

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality