Deeyah Khan is rarely riled, she’s faced neo-Nazis, jihadis and other radicals too. Speaking to her this is apparent; Khan’s presence is calming and she speaks with such thought on difficult matters.
But face-to-face with pro-life campaigners, Deeyah felt a rage like never before, “for a second, I was like, I’m going to prison because I’m going to punch him. And I am not that way inclined, at all”, she says. Outside the Alabama Women’s Centre, a picket line of white red-necked men were shouting abuse at women arriving for abortions. Soon they turned on Deeyah too, “You’re one dumb female Muslim,” said one as another said, “you are provoking rape, wearing those jeans. I wouldn’t be surprised if you got raped tonight.”
Deeyah was in Alabama filming for her new programme, America’s War on Abortion, which premiered on ITV last Friday. She spent a gruelling twenty months in the US, with her baby daughter in tow to paint a picture for viewers across the Atlantic of how fragile abortion rights are in Trump’s America.
Rarely is Deeyah placed in the film, in a move she says was conscious. “It should have nothing to do with me. Especially when it comes to the women’s stories, who are often put to one side and almost erased from the stories about abortion, whereas that’s who it actually is about.” She explains that yes, her voice narrates the story, it’s her perspective but “human beings need to be at the centre of these really complicated topics.”
One woman central to the story is the devoted Dr Yashica Robinson, the black doctor who runs one of Alabama’s three remaining abortion clinics in the state which Deeyah had intimate access to. Yashica is a tireless soul who is unwavering in her commitment to providing care. “I’m a proud abortion provider and unapologetic about the care that I provide”, she says in the film. Her job is no easy feat, she never travels alone and has her arrival to work down to military precision. Since 1977 there have been 11 murders, 26 attempted 42 bombings and 182 arsons directed at abortion providers from pro-lifers. The Alabama Women’s Centre provides terminations for women who are victims of rape and incest, women carrying fetuses with abnormalities, and women with little money too — showing the breadth of complicated reasons a woman may choose to end a pregnancy. Alabama is one of the most ruthless fronts in America when it comes to Abortion.
One heart-wrenching story is Alex’s. A gay woman in a hellish position, she was raped by two men but still felt attached the baby inside her. When asked if she thought about keeping the baby, she wept as she said “every day.” But she knew she couldn’t, “this is my uterus, I am my own woman and it is the right thing to do.” She was 20 weeks pregnant by the time she had enough money to terminate the pregnancy and travelled over ten hours to Yashica’s clinic, spending more of the little money she had to stay in a hotel.
It’s a wonder how the pro-lifers can hurl abuse at these women when they are simply drawing presumptions and have no idea what the women are going through. “iIf they obey god’s commandments and not fornicate they wouldn’t get pregnant would they” and “you deserve to be stoned” are just some of the scold’s shouted across the car park.
Deeyah says, “our bodies aren’t the battlefields for politicians or for religious communities, or for the media or for the structures within the society that we live in. Everybody has so much jurisdiction over our bodies and our decisions.” Her convictions became even stronger when she was editing the film and popped out halfway through for her 12-week scan expecting everything to be okay, only to be told there was no heartbeat. The next week the fetus was removed by surgical evacuation – the same procedure that you would have if you have an abortion. “I continued working on the edit and I just remember thinking, how lucky I was. If I was a woman living in Alabama, I would have to go to Dr. Robinson’s clinic to get this done and not to the local hospital. I would have had to walk through all those protesters shouting at me calling me a whore and a baby killer.”
During filming, we witness the watershed moment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. Now Donald Trump has inaugurated Amy Coney Barrett in the supreme court, cementing a conservative majority. Trump has promised that the supreme court’s 1973 right to abortion will be overturned and with Barrett in place, this is likely to happen. “Populist politicians have made this very unholy alliance. They’ve been chipping away at this for decades now and now it’s starting to bear fruit”, Deeyah continues, “A woman’s right to choose in America is definitely on the ballot at this time.”
This searing film couldn’t have come at a more pertinent time.