Habiba Ahmed is a second generation Somali, born in Melbourne Australia. She is a mother of two and a community advocate, mainly in the maternal health space. She feels strongly about protecting and advocating for women who are being oppressed during the most vulnerable period in their lives.
Synopsis: So often, health professionals focus on the baby, but birthing parents need nurturing, continuity and community too. Restoring power to Black women and reclaiming joy is what doula Habiba Ahmed’s work is all about. She believes in helping mothers to empower themselves with information while tuning into their bodies, learning to trust themselves and their intuition. Habiba talks about restorative post-partum care, what it’s like to be judged and treated differently on the basis of appearance, and the acceptance and support that a ‘whole of community’ approach can offer.
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Music in this episode includes ‘Salientia’ and ‘Webbed’ by REW<<, used under a Creative Commons license from Free Music Archive.
INTRO — You’re listening to Birthing and Justice: a series of conversations about birth, racism and cultural safety. I’m Ruth De Souza. I’m speaking to you from the unceded lands of the Boonwurrung people of the Kulin Nations. I pay my respects to all the Elders and Warriors who’ve resisted colonisation, invasion and genocide. And to any Indigenous people listening. This land always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
Today I’m joined by the dynamic Habiba Ahmed. Habiba is a Somali mother and community advocate born in Melbourne. Her sister’s challenging experience of birth heavily influenced her career as a doula and advocate for African women. A reminder also that parts of this conversation may be distressing for some listeners. So without further ado, let’s start.
RUTH DE SOUZA (host) — Hi Habiba. It’s wonderful to have you here with us, on a Melbourne evening, where the air’s getting warmer—it’s starting to feel a tiny bit like spring [restrained laughter]! And I’m going to start with my very first question for you which is: why do you care about birthing?
HABIBA AHMED (guest) — Yeah. Firstly thank you so much for having me, it’s a pleasure to be here with you Ruth. But yeah, why do I care about birth? I care about birth so deeply and passionately. As a mother and a birth educator, I know there are long-term impacts that occur within birth, you know the way in which a woman experiences her birth can have a spiraling effect, right? So women… statistically we know that women can suffer from birth traumas, mental health issues, feelings of helplessness, doubting your own identity and motherly intuition, you know. And with stress comes, you know, high levels of cortisol hormones. And what that does is it reduces a mother’s milk and all of that, so it just has a real spiral effect. So why I care so deeply about it is because it can be prevent[able], you know? And if women have the right information and women have the right support, then most birth trauma can be avoided, you know? So that’s, that’s why I’m such a huge advocate for what I do.
Thanks Habiba. And I’m wondering, how has been a second generation Somali, born in Melbourne Australia, and being a mother of two, and a community advocate, shaped how you think about birth and birthing people?
Mmm. So this one’s a really interesting one, because I’ve dealt with both sides of the coin, you know? Being… like obviously looking different, you know, I experience that kind of preconceived judgment that occurs, you know? And in the hospital setting I’ve noticed, you know, the tone change and the dismissive nature that occurs, just by seeing me Ruth, you know? But instantly after I speak—
because I am born here, you know, and I can advocate for myself, I can articulate myself well—it’s almost like I earn a level of respect, you know, and the care and the treatment that I receive, shifts. And it always baffles me because… sorry can you hear my kids in the back? [Both laugh]
This is keeping it real!
Okay yeah it is keeping it real. They’re playing downstairs, okay. But what this really does, you know, it baffles me because I always sit there, and I sit on that thought where it’s like: women that can’t… you know, English is not their first language, you know, women that can’t, you know, articulate themselves well, because you know, they don’t have the words or the language, knowing that you don’t receive the same care—and especially when you’re trying to seek health assistance—scares me. And that’s why I’m really passionate about it, because I see that—I see both sides. As soon as I speak, it’s a difference; you know I know my rights entering a hospital setting, or just in general, you know? I love reading, [restrained laughter] so I am constantly seeking that knowledge. And, yeah, you get afforded different kind of treatment, which is, you know, based on racism and people’s biases.
Absolutely. And you also have some personal experience of supporting your sister who had a baby. And it sounded like that experience really shaped how you practice in your own work…
which I hope you’ll tell us about as well.
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So to be very straightforward, the way I became a doula was through supporting my sister. She was appointed a doula through the hospital, and she was a white doula. She was just, yeah… she was an Australian doula and she didn’t understand my sister’s needs, you know? She was doing her best; she was great. But my sister felt like there was too many questions being asked and, you know, and she just wasn’t respecting her space. And whenever my sister spoke she would internalise it and then it was like carrying her emotions. And, you know, you don’t want that drink when you’re birthing and going in between contractions, you know? [Laughs] And I remember there was a point where she said, ‘Oh, you know, thank you so much, my sister’s here and she’s really supporting me.’ And I had my six-month-old daughter with me at the time, breastfeeding and then, you know, rocking her to sleep then going… tending to my sister’s needs and holding her hands and telling her, ‘You got this, you got this,’ you know, ‘You’re doing amazing.’ And I remember there was a point where the midwife was like scrolling through her Instagram and was like, ‘Oh, that’s not a real contraction, that’s just [Braxton Hicks]. Yeah yeah! Like really dismissing her. And she was like… then I saw instantly how that shifted my sister’s thought process. She started saying, ‘I don’t know what this one is.’ I remember just saying, ‘Tune into your body, really tune in, don’t worry about any external factors. Like just, you know, tell us.’ And she was like, ‘Um, okay.’ And she was loud and proud and she was screaming whatever she felt. And after she came down and the contractions kind of eased, she looked over to the midwife. And firstly, before she looked at the midwife, she said to me, ‘Habiba, please don’t leave me.’ ‘Cause I had my three-year-old daughter at pre-kinder, and then I had my six-month-old with me. And she knew that I eventually would have to just tap out and then come back. And she said, ‘Please don’t leave me—I need you.’ And I said, ‘I’m not leaving. I’m not going. I will call my husband like after work and he will go pick up my daughter,’ you know. I said, ‘I’ll work around it.’ I knew how much it meant to have that support. And it’s like, I was living that through her, really. And I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I know, I know—I’m here.’ And I organised that with my husband and—bless his soul—like he was like, ‘I got you.’ Like of course, yeah, easy. And when she looked over to the midwife and she said, ‘Thank you so much for your support but I think my sister’s got it.’ She’s like, ‘My sister’s here, I’m well supported, thank you.’ And the doula was like, ‘Oh, you know, um, no I’ll stick around it’s fine, you know, I’ll just sit here and whatnot.’ And it was like kind of a breakup; [laughs] it was really uncomfortable. And then I found myself in a position where I had to advocate for her, you know. And I was just like, ‘Oh look, she can’t go back and forth, she’s in-between contractions. Yeah, she just needs the space right now.’ And from there, like… and she respected that, she was like, ‘Okay,’ like once she heard me like be firm and say, ‘Oh look, it’s not you. You’re doing amazing and thank you so much for everything you’ve done, but this is what she needs and we need to respect it.’ And she was like, ‘Okay, I got it.’ And then she gave me a card and she said, ‘Please, I need to see you again.’ And she just happened to be like a huge person within a doula organisation. And she said, ‘Please, I want to talk to you.’ And I was like, ‘Okay.’ Then I was like, ‘My sister, [laughs] like, you know.’ Anyways, then she left and I found myself advocating for her. Like the obstetrician that came in was like… you just, you see things and you catch on vibes, Ruth.
And the obstetrician, when they will come, they will belittle her. She was like five months [pregnant] and she was giving birth to a premature baby, so you can imagine all the emotions she’s going through, wondering every contraction that comes, ‘Will my baby make it.’ So she was really stressed and she was overwhelmed with emotions. And I remember sitting there and really advocating, like to her; everyone, when they came in with their own biases, their own prejudice, their own agendas, I would make them sit there and explain it to her, and really give her the adequate care that she deserved. And from that point on, I knew, I understood wholeheartedly what it means to support women, and support women of colour, and support any woman that is being dismissed.
Absolutely, absolutely. So tell me about your journey after that Habiba.
Yeah. So I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been doing this, I’ve been helping friends in their birth and, to give you a bit more background, I guess that started with my own, as well. Because when I gave birth to my first, I kind of went in really naive, and I didn’t really understand. You know, I was reading and whatnot, but I didn’t really do the birth… childbirth education thoroughly. I just went to any, and I didn’t understand why we need to have all the information and be well-equipped, because there is this systemic issue. So very… like right after my sister’s birth, I did reach out to that doula. And I ended up going through with qualifications, and went through to volunteering for women. And through that experience, I was dealing with coloured women and I was dealing with also Australian women, and I could see the difference in treatment. I could see that women, whether they needed the interventions, they were sat down, you know, their emotions and their mental state was considered. They had time to process all the information that was being relayed to them. They would be asked, ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’ But in other cases, when I was a doula for a Black woman, a woman would tell me, ‘The doctor told me that I can’t have a VBAC [vaginal birth after caesarean] because they don’t know how I birthed back home. So, because we don’t know, yeah we’re not going to take that chance.’ And I could see that, the women that looked like me, they were taking these words like it was factual and they had absolutely no say. And I said, ‘No, sis. This is not how it goes down.’ And I felt this real drive to be like, ‘Let’s sit down, I’m coming to that next appointment. I’m coming with you. And if you want to try for a VBAC, we’re going to do everything in your power to make sure, you know, you’re maybe a wow, firstly, and secondly, that you can try for a VBAC. And as soon as I sat there, Ruth, as soon as I was at that next appointment with a sister, instantly the conversation shifted—it changed. You know, ‘Oh, no we never said that. We never… oh, you want to try it? I didn’t even know.’ And it was really like… it’s sad because if a woman doesn’t have an advocate and doesn’t fully understand her rights and doesn’t have that prior education, you know, she gets taken advantage of.
What a beautiful and powerful gift you’ve given your sisters in just being present and giving them a voice, you know, in those context where the encounter is full of power.
It’s full of power. And your presence disrupts that power. I just think how fantastic that you’ve been able to, you know, to be there and…
And I was kind of wonder about where your voice has come from? You know, I mean, I was talking to a Somali friend on Friday last week. And when I told her I was interviewing you, she says, ‘Yes!’
[Laughs] How’s this!
and I don’t know if it’s this stereotype that I have but, you know, all my Somali friends are so stroppy and passionate and full of their, their…
their internal power and defying all those kind of stereotypes that are held by the dominant culture, you know?
Right. And I feel like a lot of us feel that we need to take charge for our parents, you know. Because as they were first generation, you know, they would have taken a lot of what… I will relay it back to a hospital setting: what they have to say as authority or they know best and whatnot. And we’re like, no! We’re here. We demand our rights. We demand this and we’re really speaking up and taking charge. So a shout out to the sister you spoke to, you know, that’s my girl. [Laughs]
You know as you’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking about women of colour, or people of colour, or birthing people that might be listening to this podcast. What kind of advice would you give them—apart from imagining there was a Habiba in the same room as them. Like, what if they don’t have a Habiba, how would you encourage them to find their voice in that situation?
Please seek education, you know? I understand childbirth education is not accessible to everybody. But whether that means you do that research yourself, and really take charge and that agency within you to understand what your rights are, to have the ability to make informed decisions is empowering. Because if we go in blindsided, if you go in without knowing our options, they’re not going to give that to you—let me tell you that right now. And if we pull our care for… like whole heartedly… and I’m not here to say the hospital’s a bad setting, but there is real institutionalised racism and policies that do not work in our favor. So please, it’s not the same as it was when our parents were birthing, and it was really mother-led care and it was, you know, really nurturing and loving on the mum, and respecting her wishes. It’s different because we look different. And if you don’t understand all the information being relayed to you, it’s not a collaborative care. And a lot of the time what happens is you will experience obstetric violence, you will experience, you know, coercion. So, you know, they will throw at you fear-based information where it’s like, ‘Your baby’s in danger; you need to do this,’ and it’s not favorable outcomes for us. So you’re just going to comply because you’re scared. But in reality you… I love to tell every woman, you should know at least the acronym[s] B.R.A.I.N.[s]: What are the benefits? What are the risks? What are the alternatives? What are the… going with your own intuitions, and what if I do nothing? What if I do nothing and just sit here? So it’s really important to ask these questions and have a back-and-forth. It’s not sitting there… a lot of the times I get told as well, Ruth, you know, ‘They told me this…’ and it’s like, ‘No, but it needs to be a back-and-forth, sis. You’ve got this, like, you know, it’s not… it’s your body, you know. It’s your baby! This is the happiest time in your life! You know what’s best.’ And my whole drive, my whole drive is reclaiming the joy, you know. And even within myself, I’ve made this whole shift of… Yeah, like it’s… our reality is we do have a lot of trauma because of what we’ve dealt with, but I’m trying to make this shift and bring the power back into ourselves where women know, ‘I have rights to my autonomy. I have rights! I can make my own choices’ and, you know, and not scare them. That’s my whole objective.
I wanted to ask you about the decision you’ve made to focus on supporting Black women. Can you tell me a bit more about that, as your main client base?
The reason why—’cause there’s a lot of institutionalised racism and personal biases that we deal with—and I want to put the power back into our women. I don’t want them to feel like, ‘Oh, I just went through this and my birth was just… it was crazy, but it is what it is.’ A lot of the times that’s what I hear, ‘It is what it is. And they told me I have to have a caesarean, or they told me “Have this,” or they told me I need to be induced.’ And the thing is, as soon as medical intervention is brought upon, and if it’s not necessary, it has a spiral effect. It has a whole cascade of interventions. And because we’re just being lightly thrown these options, and we don’t have all the tools, and we don’t understand that, you know, there is real institutionalised racism that we’re dealing with, and it’s not working in our favour and we can’t just sit there blindly. And it makes us feel that we lose rights over our autonomy—which we do! So it’s about really equipping women with the right tools and information, and just restoring the power back in them.
Yeah, awesome! Now tell me, you’ve recently developed a new partnership with a council and maternal and child health nurses. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yeah, so honestly it just felt right. Like it felt so right because it is with the City of Wyndham—so that’s on the west side of Melbourne—and there is a high population of Africans that live here. And again, like going back, my whole support and intention is about creating preventative care. So when they reached out to me, it was about really facilitating childbirth classes for women, and equipping them with the right information—evidence-based—and informing them of all their options, and really restoring all the power back into them. And also it was about really creating mother groups that are relatable. Because maternal child nurses really work towards… about making sure the baby’s okay; seeing the child’s development, you know? They’ll see you about eight times throughout the year, you know, to make sure baby’s doing well. But mothers need that. Mothers need to be nurtured, you know, they’re constantly giving and they need that love, that support, that nurturing, that continuity of care. So yeah, so when I had a talk with the maternal child nurse and the council, it was just like a huge gap that needed to be filled, really.
That’s so exciting. And I guess it leads me to thinking about many of our communities which have developed rituals that really are designed to restore the mother’s health and wellbeing postpartum. And there’s so many beautiful rituals around food, around being nurtured, everyone else looking after the boring jobs around the house and so on. [Both laugh]
And you know I think you call this, and many others call this, the fourth trimester, but you’ve called your business this, the Fourth Trimester. Can you tell us about why you chose that name?
Yeah, ‘cause I just feel like, like you said ancestrally we have that practice, like within my own culture, that forty-day period where we will look after the mother, nurture her, let her body heal, you know, and really create that space for her to tend to her baby’s needs and just, you know, really initiate that first stage of breastfeeding. But somewhere in Western culture it got lost. The focal point was at the baby and the mum is deteriorating, and the social expectations that are occurring is unrealistic. It’s like: give, give, give, give, give, but have nothing left for yourself. Which creates burnout, which creates emotional irregulation—like you can’t regulate your emotions, you’re going… you’re getting angry, you’re feeling out of touch. And we know when a woman gives birth, the way she even perceives the world changes, the way she interacts with her loved ones changes, the way she even sees herself changes. And this is a beautiful evolution, you know, I really want to emphasise that—it’s a beautiful evolution—but a woman really needs that support. Because what happens most of the time is she will internalise that, and she will feel, you know, like she has nowhere to fall, you know for support, she will feel isolated. And that’s what my whole intention is, to really restore that for her, and tell her—and guide her—that, you know, this is an evolution, this is a new meaningful you, and this is a great time for you to bond with your baby and find that joy and that love and that purpose. So yeah, that’s really the whole objective of it all.
So you’re also a childbirth educator and you facilitate mothers’ groups. How do you think the groups that you facilitate differ from other groups?
Mmm. They’re real, Ruth. They’re real, they’re raw, they’re just transparent. The focal point is the mum—come as you are, and nothing less. And the best way to describe it, I would say, is a mother said to me at our mother group, ‘I can be dysfunctional, and comfortable.’ And to me, [restrained laughter] that brought me the biggest joy! I can’t even explain. Like, when she said that I was like, ‘That’s all I want; that brings me joy!’ because, it’s hard enough feeling that everything’s changing around you, and then feeling like you have to show up as your best self when you’re not ready. I want that vulnerability. I want that growth. I want that, you know, evolution. I want you to feel like you are kickin’ it, you’re killin’ it. Like I want that whole process, but not just from A to Z. I wanna see the whole growth period, and I want that amongst a whole community. I wanna… I want you to feel that you have your child growing up with other kids that look like your child, and really, really grow up together. And it was great, like our mother groups are really… I’d say the mothers are really louder than the kids, [laughs] you know. They’re louder than the kids ‘cause it’s that enjoyment, like everyone can be themselves, you can be loud and proud and not feel like, ‘Oh my God, I’m, I’m too much.’ And we welcome… it’s not just the mother group that is just Black, I’ll put that out there. But it is a mother group that welcomes everyone, but you can be you, sis. That’s the main thing. We have Afrobeats pumpin’—like lightly, it’s not a club, but lightly—but you can feel like you, and not just feel like you don’t belong or, ‘I need to make friends’ or, you know, I… ‘This is too daunting.’ So our mother groups are not like any other where you feel like ‘I have to come well presented. I need to have the best pram. I need to have the best this.’ Come as you are, and you are welcome.
And I’m thinking so many people would love that kind of space, because there’s so much judgement, there’s so much criticism, there’s so much evaluation that’s happening in the broader world of everyone’s parenting, right? So to have a free space like that must be so beautiful for them.
Aww, it is, it is. And it brings me just as much joy seeing other mothers in their element, feeling free, feeling happy and seeing their children interacting with kids. ‘Cause a lot of the time, even statistically, women don’t want to leave the house after that early postpartum phase, because they are sleep deprived. They are tired. They are trying to adjust to, you know, your babies… your routine and you’re really finding your sense of self. So it is a hard adjustment, but what is better than coming to a place that understands where you are at with like-minded mothers. And it’s like, literally every mum will see, like even if a child is doing something that they shouldn’t, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to get that.’ Not from a place of judgment, like, ‘Oh, your child is doing that,’ you know? That’s the kind of environment that I just want to exude out for every person, every mother, like: ’Come as you are, come enjoy nature.’ And even… what we do is, Ruth, we create that spontaneity where women tend to lose that after they have a baby, they can’t just do random things and find that joy because they feel, ‘Oh okay. I need to tend to my baby and I’ll just stay.’ And I need… they have that social anxiety because they have to really watch how much noise they’re making in public, if their child’s crying and whatnot. And they’re like, ‘You know what, I’m better off at home.’ So what we do is we create monthly… a random place we’ll go. So we’ll send out a message and be like, ‘Okay, today we’re going to go to an arts museum in Geelong, so come down and whatnot.’ And then everyone will just come and it’s like, everyone, you can just be, and it’s like, ‘Okay, cool. See you there. I’m packing up.’ And it’s not, you don’t have all these social expectations to be somebody that you’re not. And you can be vulnerable.
Habiba thanks so much for sharing your work with us. It’s been fabulous talking to you, and a great reminder of the importance of having birthing advocates who understand your culture, and how important this is for people already embarking on one of the most vulnerable periods of their lives.
OUTRO — You can find more episodes, transcripts and links at ruthdesouza.com/podcast. I’ll add some links to Habiba’s work there too. And if you enjoyed this episode, chuck us a rating or review wherever you listen to your podcasts. Next time on Birthing and Justice…
ANNABEL FARRY (guest) — You know and, what I always find fascinating in that space is that wāhine Māori are never victims. You know it’s always like, it’s a celebration to be able to give birth, to be able to be pregnant.
I’ll be talking with the incredible Annabel Farry. She’s a midwifery educator living in Auckland New Zealand, with Lebanese and Scottish heritage. Annabel will be talking about how living in Aotearoa, and being married to a Māori artist, has shaped her midwifery practice and teaching. Birthing and Justice with Doctor Ruth De Souza is written and hosted by me, and recorded at my home on the traditional lands of the Boonwurrung people of the Eastern Kulin Nations. Sound design and mix by Jon Tjhia, artwork by Atong Atem, design by Ethan Tsang, theme music by Raquel Solier and produced and edited by Jon Tjhia. This podcast is supported by funding from the RMIT University Vice- Chancellor’s Fellowship Program.
Thanks for listening, and I really look forward to spending time with you again soon.
END NOTES — Audio transcript edited and designed by Abbra Kotlarczyk, 2022. Note: the purpose of this audio transcript is to provide a record and pathway towards accessing all Birthing and Justice conversations. Editorial decisions around the omission of certain words and non-verbal utterances have been made purely for stylistic purposes towards greater legibility, and do not infer a desired ethics of speech.