Why are more women freezing their eggs in the Arab world?
Egg freezing or mature oocyte cryopreservation is gaining traction among Arab women who want to secure their ability to get pregnant in the future.
A combination of public awareness and social media campaigns by women who have done the procedure have prompted many to pursue their dream of motherhood by banking their eggs for future use when the time is right.
"We have seen an increase over the past two years of proportionately more Arab women freezing their eggs," Katherine Borge, CEO of the UAE branch of Bourn Hall fertility clinic, told The New Arab.
"In 2019, about 40 percent of our total egg freezing patients were of Middle Eastern descent, including from the GCC, compared to now where over 60 percent of our total egg freezing patient population in 2021 are Arab women," added Katherine.
"The number of Arab women seeking fertility preservation is on the rise thanks to the increasing awareness around the subject, with influencers sharing their fertility preservation journey, and with the law in the UAE being recently amended to allow single women to undergo the treatment"
Awareness campaigns on social media
UAE-based fertility doctor Ahmad Fakih agreed that more Arab women are going through the egg freezing procedure.
"The number of Arab women seeking fertility preservation is on the rise thanks to the increasing awareness around the subject, with influencers sharing their fertility preservation journey, and with the law in the UAE being recently amended to allow single women to undergo the treatment," Dr Fakih told The New Arab.
Several Arab influencers who had gone through the egg freezing procedure posted about it on social media to their thousands of followers; among them was Tracy Harmoush, who has over 200K followers on Instagram, and Alanoud Badr, who has over 1 million followers.
"We hope that this will help break down potential barriers or misconceptions about this procedure and choice and open up a more healthy dialogue," said Katherine.
Jordanian businesswoman Zayna Al Hamarneh who went through the egg freezing procedure after she turned 35, told The New Arab that she had personally chosen to delay getting married to focus on building her business and being financially independent.
Zayna, who has been vocal about her journey on social media, said she would recommend it for every female over 25 years old.
"It's not only for becoming mums. There is research indicating that you can extract stem cells from eggs and use them for medical treatment. The more medicine develops, the more we have the ability to cure ourselves of different diseases."
Zayna said that while she was not the first who did the procedure for social reasons in Jordan, she believed she was the first to speak about it publicly in her country.
"A number of my friends approached me after I spoke out and told me they had already done the procedure outside of Jordan, but were embarrassed to talk about it."
Despite the rise of several Arab women going through the egg freezing procedure, the concept is still not fully embraced in the Arab World.
Egyptian business coach Reem Mehanna who had done the procedure in her mid-thirties and posted about it on social media was fiercely attacked online.
"After I talked about it on social media, my video went viral, and I was attacked from all fronts; from women and men, from people from different educational backgrounds and different social standards, religious and non-religious," she told The New Arab.
"Criticism comes from the family because they don't want their daughter to go through a procedure. They are worried about her virginity"
"Even members of the Egyptian parliament discussed my case and criticised me," she added.
"The men who oppose it is because it is empowering for women," she said. "They don't want to marry a woman who is in her forties and has the power to choose whomever she wants to marry and who doesn't want to rush into marriage just to have kids."
However, many women approached Reem asking her for advice.
"It made me happy that I helped women who would have married anyone for fear of missing on motherhood, instead of waiting for the right person."
Soon after her story went viral, Dar al-Iftaa, Egypt's primary Shariah law legislature, issued an edict in favour of the procedure. The organisation deemed egg-freezing legal, halal, provided the husband's sperm fertilised the oocytes.
"That was a very positive step, said Mehanna. "After it was announced that is allowed in Islam, many women came forward to do the procedure."
Jordan-based fertility doctor Dr Suleiman Ghunaim said that most of the criticism his patients initially receive is from their families because of a lack of awareness.
"Criticism comes from the family because they don't want their daughter to go through a procedure. They are worried about her virginity," Dr Ghunaim told The New Arab.
"If the women are not sexually active and want to do the procedure, there are ways to keep their virginity intact such as going through the abdomen," explained Ghunaim.
Dr Ahmad Fakih conquered. “Yes, most virgins have concerns over their hymen. The procedure could be done vaginally or abdominally. Vaginally the risk of complication is much smaller and yield of eggs much higher at the expense of damaging the hymen,” he pointed out.
He went on to explain that it is a “trade-off.”
“After proper counselling, all patients elect the vaginal route as it’s much safer with much better oocyte yield,” he explained.
The future of eggs
So, what happens to the eggs if the women change their minds about having kids?
"I will call the lab and ask them to discard the eggs," said Reem. "I don't want them to be in an experiment or get donated."
"I won't have kids if I'm not married," she added.
"[If] we empower women to be represented amongst the leadership and decision-making roles in healthcare, we'll see that impact in regulations, research, education, and patient care, especially in the fertility industry"
Meanwhile, Zayna said she would keep her eggs frozen. "Maybe the rules and regulations will change in Jordan, and I can help someone else become a mom if I didn't want to become a mother," she said, adding that she would want to raise kids within a family setting.
Egg donation is still illegal in many Arab countries.
"When it comes to the law in Jordan, you can preserve eggs for many years as long as you pay your annual fees," explained Dr Ghunaim.
"The eggs are a priority for the patient. She can discard them or she can ship them with her to another country. However, frozen eggs will only be fertilised if there is proof of marriage," he added.
So, what does the future hold for women's fertility in the Arab world?
Starting with women's empowerment is the first step in the right direction, according to Katherine.
"I think that as we empower women to be represented amongst the leadership and decision-making roles in healthcare, we'll see that impact in regulations, research, education, and patient care, especially in the fertility industry," explained Katherine.
Natasha Tynes is an award-winning Jordanian-American author and communications professional based in Washington, DC. Her byline has appeared in the Washington Post, Elle, Esquire, Al Jazeera, Huffington Post, and the Jordan Times, among many other outlets.
Follow her on Twitter: @NatashaTynes