Wednesday 21 March 2018

The incredible courage of Sudan's Meriam Ibrahim

What impact will being brought up in a prison by a mother on death row have on these children?

Meriam Ibrahim, her husband Daniel, and their son
Meriam Ibrahim, her husband Daniel, and their son
Daniel Wani holds his and his wife, Meriam Ibrahim's, daughter

Patricia Casey

THERE are occasional examples of courage and fortitude that transcend all the barbarity and evil that is visible in the world. Meriam Ibrahim is an example of such a person.

By her strength, love and faith, she has become a beacon of light for the oppressed and for those experiencing incomprehensible cruelty.

She says she would rather face death by hanging than give up her faith. And that is a prospect she faces unless a Sudanese Sharia Court overturns the sentence. Recent media reports are that she has won a reprieve and should be released.

Meriam, a doctor, has been in prison for the past four months charged with apostasy, in other words rejecting the Muslim faith. She says she was brought up a Christian after her Muslim father left her Christian mother. She was arrested in September 2013 when her American husband returned to Sudan to take his pregnant wife and his then 16-month-old son back to the United States.

Her husband, Daniel (27), married her in Sudan in December 2011. He had escaped the brutal war in that country in 1998 and went with his brother to the US. He is a biochemist. He then returned to the US after the wedding and visited her when he could since then.

Meanwhile, she had a baby son but, following her arrest, the Sudanese authorities will not allow this 20-month-old boy to live with his father because he is not Muslim, according to reports. This little toddler is with his mother in the Omdurman Women's Jail in Khartoum along with his newborn sister, Maya. Meriam gave birth to her two weeks ago, while shackled to the floor.

Her husband, initially refused visiting rights, has now been able to hold his baby daughter, cuddle his son and see his wife.

To add to the tragedy, Daniel is wheelchair bound due to muscular dystrophy. Meriam, according to official sources, will be allowed to mother her baby daughter and son for two years and then she will be taken away and hung for her faith. She is parenting on death row.

This is truly a terrifying story of mercilessness and indescribable injustice. There are several layers to this. That anybody should be executed for any reason in 2014 bears no explanation. Yet, even so-called "progressive" societies still carry out this punishment and doctors have to participate, giving the lethal injection and assessing the mental capacity of those likely to be executed, in some US states.

That anybody should die for their faith is equally preposterous since freedom of religion is guaranteed by all but the most repressive of cultures. Even commentators from Sudan have claimed respect for religious freedom.

A further concern is the impact of this woman's incarceration on her young children. This is likely to be enduring unless they can be rescued from this unimaginable situation.

It is not clear how the little boy spends his day, but my guess is that it is unlikely there is a play area for him or that he has any toys, but let's hope he has. It is clear that he will have little access to any human beings other than the prison guards and his mother and so his social development may be impeded.

Baby Maya has been in her mother's womb during her terrible arrest, trial and incarceration and she came into this world in what is likely to have been a painful birth for her mother while shackled to the floor.

The effects of stress on the unborn are recognised, although this is still a relatively new area of scientific investigation.

The more enduring the stress, the greater the likelihood that it will have some impact on the unborn, potentially continuing into the future.

There is growing evidence that the stress hormone cortisol, produced by those under stress and found in the blood, is also present at similar levels in the amniotic fluid surrounding the baby in utero, after the 17th week of pregnancy.

The likely effect of this is yet to be definitively established, but higher levels of childhood anxiety may be one of them.

Recent 4D imaging studies from the University of Durham show remarkable pictures of babies in utero seeming to hold their clenched fist to the mouth, as we adults often do when we are frightened or under pressure.

Other babies were seen to be mopping their brow. The mothers in the study were questioned about their levels of stress in the month prior to the scans.

According to the study, the more anxious the mothers were, the more frequently the babies mopped their brows. The author of this study, the first to show photographic images of the pre-born child's reaction to stress, is Dr Nadja Reissland. She believes that the stressed babies were picking up on the increase in the stress-related hormone, cortisol, secreted by their mothers.

Irrespective of the physiological impact of stress on baby Maya or the effect of being under stimulated on the little boy, these children were facing the cruel fate of being separated from their mother in a few short years if the execution were to go ahead.

Despite the obvious love of their father, they will not have lived with him, as the authorities are refusing this. They will be deeply traumatised and the world of child psychiatry has, likely, never been confronted with the effects of such psychological cruelty.

The world must vehemently demand the release of this woman and act in solidarity with Meriam and Daniel, if their children are not to be irrevocably harmed.

This is truly a War on Women and their children. The barbarity and injustice that has been shown to this woman, her husband and her children, in the name of religion, is a travesty.

My many Muslim friends, some of whom are from Sudan, are as appalled by this act of human desecration as I am. This is not the God I know or that they recognise.

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