The end of illegitimacy

The newborn boy, Adam, had barely let out his first cry after leaving his mother’s womb when the firestorm began. News travels fast in the 21st century and the story of Adam’s arrival was online minutes after birth. Photos of him flanked by rejoicing parents circulated in cyberspace. Facebook pages and blogs teemed with activity, leaving the parents little time to celebrate.

Adam’s father is Mohammed Zidan, Egypt’s national football team star.  His mother is Stina Rohde, a young Danish lady and Zidan’s long-time girlfriend. In Germany where Zidan plays for the club Borussia Dortmund, news of the birth was treated with the usual festive remarks. The parents publicly celebrated as the footballer shamelessly referred to Stina as his “girlfriend.” The word alone seemed to have opened the gates of hell. The innocuous reference to the German press could have cost Zidan fame and following in his country of birth, where such an admission is a declaration that the player had violated Islamic practice and social custom by having a child out of wedlock.

News coverage of Adam’s birth reverberated differently in Egypt than in Europe as papers scrambled to find the “correct” terminology for the relationship between Zidan and Stina. Is she a girlfriend, a partner, a mate, or a fiancée? Connotations for each of these terms can make or break the public’s perception in a country where obedience to religious custom is becoming a test of one’s character and where loyalty is judged by abiding by prescribed rules. Were they sexually involved before marriage? Is Stina a non-Muslim? Was the child born out of wedlock? From German press accounts, Egyptians could only see Adam as an “illegitimate” child.

Zidan had few courses of action to salvage his image in a country of increasing religiosity where responsibility for judging and subverting religious failing is born by all. The only thing Egyptians wanted to hear was a tale to quench their curiosity and resolve their conflicting feelings. The footballer, who is notorious for his mischief and liberal lifestyle, passed the test with flying colors. He declared himself a devout and practicing Muslim, argued that he had married Stina according to Islamic law in 2006, and proclaimed that their sexual relationship and first born child, Adam, were appropriate on the basis of Islamic jurisprudence. In a single interview, he redeemed his image to a skeptical public. In fact, Zidan went even further by condemning German marriage laws as prohibitive because of their prenuptial clauses that financially privilege the wife. He used this rationale to explain why Stina remains his “girlfriend” to the German press. According to Zidan, all Egypt can rest assured that Adam is a legitimate Muslim child born to a devout father who deserves sympathy for facing a draconian German legal system undermining the man’s marital rights.

Adam’s birth could have opened a can of worms, but Zidan’s fabled response sealed it shut before any of the pressing issues could be addressed. An opportunity was lost to discuss Egypt’s truly controversial personal status laws, the interpretation and application of Shariah to marriage, the multiplicity of marital options including ‘urfi and mota’a, the skyrocketing rates of divorce, the growing ranks of unmarried women, the absence of civil marriage options, and the outrageous shame of “illegitimacy.” All these issues were postponed until the next scandal.  

News of an estranged Saudi princess trickled into the British press a couple days later. This time it was a Saudi royal who was granted asylum in the United Kingdom to avert execution after having birthed a child out of wedlock to an Englishman while being married in her home country. The “adulterous” princess’s nationality, status, and gender pre-empted the public from affording her similar benefit of the doubt enjoyed by Zidan. Her status as a Muslim woman ill-affords her the right to polygamy, which allowed Zidan (according to his tale) to remain married to Stina while being engaged to Egyptian actress Mai Ezzeldin. Unlike Muslim men, she has no right to divorce her marriage partner “at will” to pursue another relationship. And if she were to secure a divorce, being a woman prohibits her from marrying a non-Muslim without his conversion. So while Zidan can in a moment brush away the label of “illegitimate” from his son Adam, the Saudi woman’s child will have to carry that label for much of his life. And while the child may have to remain anonymous, over the years, other similarly unfortunate children have not gone unnoticed.

History is replete with examples of notable “illegitimates” from artists and musicians to actors and entertainment personalities. Italian painter and mathematician Leonardo de Vinci, whose masterpieces include the Mona Lisa, The Birth of Adam, The Last Supper, and Vitruvian Man, was born out of wedlock. Television hostess and media mogul Oprah Winfrey was born to a poor single teenage mother from a sexual encounter in rural Mississippi. The ranks of human rights advocates are filled with those who would otherwise be seen as the fruit of “unbecoming” acts. Among them is African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, one of the most renowned and accomplished black orators who fought against slavery and wrote the seminal 1845 text Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Booker T. Washington was an African-American educator born to a white father he knew nothing about and an enslaved black woman at a Virginia plantation. He grew up to become one of the most prominent black statesmen in America at the turn of the 20th century.

Many a ruler and revolutionary were conceived under “questionable” circumstances. Fidel Castro, Cuban revolutionary leader and former president of the country, was born to a household servant mother and her prosperous Galician keeper. Others born under dubious circumstances include Alexander Hamilton, an economist, political philosopher, and one of America’s founding fathers, who held the position of Secretary of the Treasury and drafted the Federalist Papers which formed the foundations of the US Constitution.

America’s third president and the main author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence himself fathered an “illegitimate” child with one of his slaves. The same is true of Albert Einstein who fathered his first child Lieserl before marriage. Even Lawrence of Arabia was born out of wedlock to an Irish Baronet and his own daughter’s governess.

Famed novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas, author of French classics such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, as well as his countryman Jean Genet, were born out of wedlock. Even early 16th Century Catholic Pope Clement VII of the famed Florentine Medici family had an ambiguous birth record. But none had to battle the label of “illegitimate” more than William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England who annexed the country in 1066. Known to his adversaries as “William the Bastard,” his “illegitimacy” affected his early life–from assassination attempts in hope of preventing his coronation to incessant taunts by his nemeses.

 “Illegitimacy” has been a source of fascination for literary giants such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy. In Dickens’ Bleak House, the heroine and narrator of the story Esther Summerson is “illegitimate” but raised as an orphan. The discovery of her “illegitimacy” is the crux of the story and Dickens ensures that while she may have been born of “sin,” she embodies the heart of morality.

Unlike the time of Dickens, today bearing and rearing children outside of the traditional institutions of marriage is increasing worldwide. In the US last year, the National Center for Health Statistics announced that nearly 40 percent of babies born in the country in 2007 were delivered by unwed mothers (1.7 million out of 4.3 million total births), a 25% increase from five years prior. European figures are even more staggering, as more than half of all births in many countries, including France, UK, Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Czech Republic, and throughout Scandinavia, occur out of wedlock. The frequency of births outside of marriage has resulted in a shifting perception of “illegitimacy.” Even language is being overhauled to reflect a de-stigmatized view of these births. In many countries, where such births constitute a significant percentage of total births, the term “illegitimate” has been replaced by “natural birth” and “out of wedlock.”

The rise of “illegitimacy” is also evident in much of the Arab world. Statistics are hard to come by because most “illegitimate” children are either camouflaged and assimilated by their families to avoid public shame, end up without paperwork (hence outside the state’s purview), or find their way to orphanages where they become invisible among those whose parents have died. Nevertheless, few Arab government entities are prepared to release studies examining the extent of the problem for fear of national dishonor. The Algerian Ministry of National Cooperation, one of the more transparent institutions in the region, announced that between 1100 and 1200 “illegitimate” children are born every year in Algeria.

In other Arab countries facing military conflicts such as Iraq, Sudan, and Somalia, the increasing incidence of rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and forced marriage has led to additional “unwanted” pregnancies. During wars, women are often forced to offer sex for survival, food, shelter, or “protection,” all contributing to a rise in the number of “illegitimate” children.

Today, Egyptian orphanages are filled with more children thrown away by their parents than children orphaned by their parents’ death. The act of disownment is often a result of anxiety about judgment by society, culture, religion and the law. Many children are placed in the garbage or left at the doors of mosques, churches and orphanages due to paranoia about Egyptian law and the desire to avoid social stigma, shame, fear of retribution. These children have been the subject of many literary and cinematic productions including Khaled Yousef’s film Heen Maysara.

Most attempts to reduce “illegitimacy” rates in Egypt focus on invigorating religious teachings and prohibiting gender-mixing. Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa has argued that “illegitimacy,” premarital relations and challenges to traditional marriage, can be averted by increasing polygamy. This is an impractical approach that does not address the conditions and lived experiences of “illegitimacy.” We need civic, not religious, solutions to this problem. We need solutions that unravel patriarchy, not entrench it. We need solutions that help integrate those who are different and forestall deepened ex-communication. Instead, we must tackle the economic disparity which has redrawn Egypt’s marital patterns.

 Despite the overwhelming social and religious barriers to change, the last few years have witnessed the emergence of new laws, albeit at a sluggish pace, to improve the fortunes and livelihood of these children. One law came after the highly public saga involving the paternity of Hind El-Hinnawy’s “illegitimate” child with Ahmed El-Fishawy. While in the past only a father could sign a birth certificate, the amendment enables a mother alone to sign it for her child. Prior to the law, there was an exponential rise in the number of children admitted to orphanages and living on the streets. However, still much remains to be accomplished.

For the tens of thousands of Egyptians who were born out of wedlock, mostly away from the public eye, they deserve a measure of dignity that starts with the obliteration of the very notion of “illegitimacy.” Let us use this term in its rightful legal context, reserve it to describe what is unlawful in the eyes of social, economic and political justice and resign it from undermining those born pure. If given their rightful place in society, Egypt may find among those legitimate children its own da Vinci, Genet, or William the Conqueror.

Adel Iskandar is a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University. His column appears every other Thursday.

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