Illegitimate Children in the Arab World

A Taboo Crumbles

In some regions of the Near East, young women are killed even on the suspicion of extramarital pregnancy, in order to preserve so-called "family honor." But beyond the rigid social norms, everyday practice and consciousness are changing. Martina Sabra reports

Man and woman – sex normally takes two. But when intercourse takes place without a marriage certificate and produces a child, it is usually the woman and child who are punished for their "misconduct" in strict patriarchal societies.

This double standard – which also prevailed in Europe, including Germany, up to just a few years ago – has now triggered a small scandal in Egypt. The single mother Hend El-Henawy publicly challenged actor Ahmed El-Fishawi to admit that he is the father of her 15-month-old daughter, Lina.

El-Fishawi did own up in public to the fact that he might be the father, but also announced that he would under no circumstances formally recognize his paternity since he had not been officially married to the child's mother at the time of conception.

If El-Fishawi insists on his version, Lina would be considered illegitimate and would have far fewer rights than "normal" Egyptian children. In the worst-case scenario, the mother could be charged with prostitution.

The Egyptian public was divided on the issue. Secretly, however, many found the child's mother at fault for provoking the embarrassing conflict. "She could have given up the child for adoption or had an abortion," a female student remarked with chilling frankness, expressing an opinion held by many, and not only in Egypt.

Number of illegitimate children presumed high

Unmarried and pregnant – this is still an absolute taboo in the Arab world. The political powers-that-be maintain almost across the board that this problem does not exist. But the number of babies who are abandoned or given up for adoption in these countries tells a different story, as does the glut of paternity suits.

According to the women's rights organization "Women Living Under Muslim Law," there are currently some 14,000 such suits in the Egyptian courts. Since unwed mothers are automatically suspected of prostitution almost everywhere in the Arab world, facing the risk of fines or imprisonment, many of them try to secretly solve "their problem."

One may assume that there are a large number of unreported cases of attempted abortion, entailing considerable dangers for mother and child. Moroccan social anthropologist Jamila Bargach describes in her book about abandoned children and secret adoptions in Morocco how the problem has become even worse as a consequence of socio-economic change.

As long as girls were still given away in marriage when young, extramarital pregnancies were not an issue. When it did happen, the problem was usually taken care of discreetly by mothers and aunts. The pregnant woman would be sent for the last few months before the birth to relatives and would somehow find a home for the baby. The main thing was not to let word get out of what had happened.

Today, conditions are completely different: most of the women in the Maghreb do not marry until their mid or even late twenties. At the same time, with increasing migration and urbanization, fewer women can fall back on functional family networks for help. In Jamila Bargach's opinion, the ones who suffer the most are the children: "Illegitimate children are stigmatized, excluded and discriminated against by law. Their human rights are violated."

Help for pregnant women

For a long time, Christian missionary nuns or international organizations such as Terre des Hommes presented the main refuge for unwed mothers in the Maghreb. Today, however, there are also some indigenous sources of assistance in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

In Casablanca, expectant women who are not married can appeal to either Terre des Hommes or the Moroccan nongovernmental organization INSAF for comprehensive advice and a place to stay shortly before and after their delivery. The self-help organization Solidarité Féminine, also located in Casablanca, can with a little luck offer women not only advice but also training, their own income and childcare.

In Algeria, there are several independent women's organizations that advise single mothers in need and likewise offer emergency shelter. The services in Tunisia are the most highly developed: here, young women can stay with their children in state homes for unwed mothers.

Of all the states in the Arab League, Tunisia has come the farthest in putting illegitimate children on an equal footing with their peers by means of progressive family, adoption and name laws, while also boasting the strongest social safety net.

Remarkable study

Morocco is likewise noteworthy for its proactive handling of this taboo topic. In 1996, an independent Moroccan aid organization for the first time published statistics revealing that an average of five percent of women giving birth in Casablanca's largest hospital were single – a surprisingly high proportion.

The most extensive study carried out to date was completed in 2003 by the city administration of Casablanca with the assistance of the UN and Moroccan nongovernmental organizations. Over a period of six years, researchers interviewed a total of 5,040 unwed mothers in the greater Casablanca area, of whom 3,240 were raising their children themselves. 1,800 women had given up their children for adoption directly after birth.

According to the study, the average Moroccan single mother is 26 years old, in four out of five cases grew up in urban surroundings and is more likely to come from the lower or lower-middle class. She has many siblings, and the head of the family is usually a farmer, worker or small-scale salesman.

Every third unwed mother is fatherless. Almost half (45 percent) did not have any formal schooling, and the rest at most finished high school. Very few unmarried mothers have a university-entrance diploma or attend university. The share of women who became pregnant due to rape or prostitution is 6, respectively 3percent. One out of every five women tried to abort the pregnancy.

Low end of the social scale

The UN study, published in 2003, proved what social workers, sociologists and human rights activists in Morocco had long suspected: there are many more unwed pregnant women and illegitimate children than presumed, and the phenomenon is spreading – although primarily because of ignorance and economic desperation, and not due to a change in values.

In contrast with the West, the women of the Maghreb do not view single motherhood as a voluntary decision, explains Moroccan sociologist Soumaya Guessous, co-author of a qualitative study on single mothers published in 2005:

"None of the women whom I interviewed deliberately decided to have a child without being married. The single mothers live at the lower end of the social scale. They are excluded in three respects – economically, socially and by their families."

Martina Sabra

© 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

More information on this topic:

Soumaya Naamane Guessous/Chafik Guessous/Association Solidarité Féminine: Grossesses de la Honte. Editions Le Fennec, Casablanca, 2005 (French, Arab translation planned)

Jamila Bargach: Orphans of Islam: Family, Abandonment and Secret Adoption in Morocco. Rowman & Littlefield, Boulder 2002 (English)

Elisabeth Norgall Award for Aicha Chenna
A Muslim Heart with a Secular Mind
Twenty years ago, Aicha Chenna founded the self-help organization "Solidarité Féminine" to assist single mothers and their children. She recently received the Elisabeth Norgall Award 2005 in Frankfurt for her work. Martina Sabra visited Aicha Chenna in Casablanca

Virginity in Egypt
Double Standards and Hypocrisy
Operations to restore a woman's virginity are prohibited in Egypt, but are often performed all the same. They reflect a rejection of old concepts of morality which equate virtue with an intact hymen. Nelly Youssef reports

Marriage Counseling
A "School of Marital Bliss" in Cairo
Many Arabic men and women are unhappy with their sex lives. Recently a school opened in Cairo to tackle this problem through counseling, seminars and Koran verses. Nelly Youssef introduces the school.

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