What happens to illegitimate children

Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World

In some regions of the Middle East, young women are killed for the so-called "family honor" if they suspect an illegitimate pregnancy. But beyond the rigid social norms, everyday practice and awareness are changing. In recent years, support offers for single mothers have been created in the Maghreb countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria in particular. And in Egypt, the case of a prominent illegitimate child is causing a remarkable public debate. Martina Sabra reports.

Man and woman - sex usually takes two. But if the cohabitation takes place without a marriage license and a child is also born, in strictly patriarchal societies, it is primarily the woman and the child who are punished for the 'wrong step'.

This kind of double standard - which until a few years ago also prevailed in Europe including Germany - has now triggered a minor scandal in Egypt: the single mother Hend El-Henawy publicly urged actor Ahmed El-Fishawi to be the father of her 15-month-old daughter Confess Lina.

El-Fishawi publicly admitted that he was a possible father, but at the same time announced that under no circumstances would he formally recognize the child, as he was not officially married to the mother at the time of conception.

If El-Fishawi were to stick with his version, the child Lina would be illegitimate and would have far fewer rights than "normal" Egyptian children. In the worst case, the mother could be charged with prostitution.

The Egyptian public was divided. However, many secretly blamed the child mother for the embarrassing argument. "She could have given up the child for adoption or had an abortion," says one student frankly, reflecting a view that is not only common in Egypt.

High number of illegitimate children unreported

Not married, but pregnant - this is still strictly taboo in the Arab world. Almost all of the politicians in charge claim that the problem does not exist. But the number of children abandoned or given up for adoption in some countries speaks a different language, as does the mass of paternity lawsuits.

According to the women's rights organization "Women Living Under Muslim Law", around 14,000 such legal proceedings are currently underway in Egypt. Since unmarried pregnant women are suspected of prostitution almost everywhere in the Arab world, and thus threatened with fines and imprisonment, many of those affected try to solve "their problem" in secret.

It is assumed that there is a significant number of unreported cases, with the corresponding risks for mother and child. The Moroccan social anthropologist Jamila Bargach describes in her book on child abandonment and secret adoption in Morocco, which was published in 2002, among other things, how the problem has been exacerbated by socio-economic change.

As long as girls were married off very young, extramarital pregnancies were not a big issue. When it did happen, the matter was mostly handled discreetly by mothers and aunts. The pregnant woman has been sent to relatives in the past few months and somehow accommodated the baby after the birth. The main thing is that the whole thing was not made public.

Today the general conditions are completely different: most women in the Maghreb do not marry until they are in their mid or even late twenties. At the same time, due to rural exodus and urbanization, fewer and fewer women can fall back on functioning family networks. For Jamila Bargach, the victims are primarily the children: "Illegitimate children are stigmatized, marginalized and discriminated by laws. Their human rights are disregarded."

Help for pregnant women

For a long time, mainly Christian missionary sisters or international organizations such as Terre des Hommes offered unmarried pregnant women a refuge in the Maghreb. There are now some "autochthonous" offers of help in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

In Casablanca, unmarried pregnant women can find, in addition to Terre des Hommes, comprehensive advice from the Moroccan non-governmental organization INSAF and accommodation for the period shortly before and after the delivery. With the self-help organization Solidarité Féminine, which is also based in Casablanca, unmarried mothers can, with a little luck, receive training, their own income and childcare in addition to counseling.

In Algeria, several independent women's organizations advise single mothers in need and also offer accommodation in emergencies. The offer is most developed in Tunisia: Here young women can find shelter with their children in state maternity homes after giving birth.

Of the states of the Arab League, Tunisia has put illegitimate children on an equal footing through progressive family, adoption and naming laws and, at the same time, has established the densest social network for their mothers.

Notable study

Otherwise, Morocco has so far been remarkably offensive with the taboo topic. In 1996, an independent Moroccan aid organization published statistics for the first time, according to which an average of five percent of women giving birth in Casablanca's largest hospital were single - a surprisingly high proportion.

The most comprehensive study to date was completed in spring 2003 by the Casablanca city council with the support of the UN and Moroccan non-governmental organizations. Over a period of six years, the researchers interviewed a total of 5040 unmarried mothers in the greater Casablanca area, 3240 of whom raised their children themselves. 1,800 women had given up their children for adoption after birth.

According to the study, the average single Moroccan mother is 26 years old, in four out of five cases born and raised in an urban environment and tends to come from the lower or lower middle class. She has many siblings and the head of the family is usually either a farmer, a worker or a small trader.

Every third person affected is fatherless. Almost half (45 percent) of single mothers have not attended school, the rest have at most a secondary school leaving certificate. Very few unmarried mothers have graduated from high school or are studying. The proportion of women who have become pregnant as a result of rape or prostitution is 6 and 3 percent, respectively. One in five has tried to terminate the pregnancy.

At the bottom

The UN study published in 2003 confirmed what social workers, sociologists and human rights activists in Morocco had long suspected: There are far more unmarried pregnant women and illegitimate children than expected, and the phenomenon is spreading - but mainly out of ignorance and economic hardship, and not due to a change in values.

Unlike in the West, women in the Maghreb do not see motherhood outside of marriage as a voluntary choice, explains Moroccan sociologist Soumaya Guessous, co-author of a qualitative study on single mothers published in 2005:

"None of the women I interviewed made a conscious decision to have a child without a husband. Single mothers are at the lower end of the social scale. They are excluded on three levels - economically, socially and in terms of their families."

Martina Sabra

© Qantara.de 2006

Further information on the topic:

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

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


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To help single mothers and their children, Aicha Chenna founded the self-help organization "Solidarité Féminine" 20 years ago. In Frankfurt she has now received the Elisabeth Norgall Prize 2005 for her commitment. Martina Sabra visited Aicha Chenna in Casablanca.

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