Abandoned Children in Modern-Day Crisis

By Muaddi Darraj

Orphans of Islam:

Family, Abandonment, and Secret Adoption In Morocco
By Jamila Bargach
Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. 304 pp.

In "Orphans of Islam," Jamila Bargach's investigation of child abandonment in Morocco lingers on the border between scholarship and personal narrative. She examines the social, cultural, and religious factors that contribute to a modern-day crisis of abandoned children who are subsequently socially marginalized in the liberal North African nation. "Orphans of Islam" also features first-person accounts, revealing interviews Bargach conducted with orphanage and social workers, adopted children, and adoptive parents, as well as other "hands-on" aspects of her field research in Morocco. While these anecdotes are illuminating, they are not woven smoothly into the text and awkwardly interrupt the highly theoretical discussions that precede and follow them. The book as a whole, however, contributes significantly to the literature, tackling a heretofore rarely discussed issue with poignancy and intelligence.

Because a family needs to be able to track and continue its lineage, delivering biological children is vital for preserving its purity. Even in modern Morocco, a child adopted by a family is not legally permitted to take on the family's surname, making "the name thus the nucleus of the crime." In other words, the "crime" of not having a father is borne completely by the child.

Before she analyzes the legal aspects of abandonment, orphans, and adoption in Morocco, Bargach adeptly dissects the religious background. She quotes and offers a summary of the historical interpretation of the Quranic verse on the topic: "Proclaim their real parentage. That will be more equitable in the sight of Allah. And if ye know not their fathers, then (they are) your brethren in the faith, and your clients." The interpretations of Islam's various schools regarding this verse, says Bargach, established primarily two things: 1) a family cannot regard an adopted child as equal to their biological children; and 2) the fact that the Muslim family is "a unit based on the dual criteria of marriage and blood." The family becomes the embodiment of social order, and the notions of either a child without parents, or parents unable to bear children, are, over time, regarded as undesirable: "The very idea of a family without children could not stand; it is rather a non-family, or better yet, an anti-family."

Indeed, argues Bargach, the emphasis on this exclusive entity of the family leads to the concept of "lineage - nasab," which she describes as "the backbone and most fundamental organizing principle in and of Muslim society." Because a family needs to be able to track and continue its lineage, delivering biological children is vital for preserving its purity. Even in modern Morocco, a child adopted by a family is not legally permitted to take on the family's surname, making "the name thus the nucleus of the crime." In other words, the "crime" of not having a father is borne completely by the child.

Bargach eloquently calls for major cultural and legal reform on the question of orphaned and abandoned children who suffer the stigma of an unforgiving society. For example, an educated Moroccan woman, when asked her opinion of adopted children, describes the "fact" that orphaned children, no matter how generously they are treated by their adoptive parents, will return by nature and instinct to their base roots, that is, the low-class and immoral behaviors of their biological parents.

In addition to investigating the class issues of this problem, Bargach wants to deconstruct the gender issue that lies beneath the surface of this crisis: "To blame the being of these children on the looseness of the women is but a simple and facile excuse that actively downplays the structuring powers of force and violence." Save for the awkward incorporation of Bargach's anecdotes and personal experiences with her more academic and theoretical treatments of the issue, the book is informative and persuasive in its message that abandoned children are "the product and the embodiment of a society that operates and builds on (un)spoken laws of silence and victimization."

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, no.40 (Summer 2002)


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