Overpopulation, religion and fatwas on demand in Egypt
The state blames overpopulation for the continuing economic crisis and awkwardly courts the support of religious institutions in its battle

In the midst of an economic crisis, the Egyptian state has focused on the question of overpopulation as an impediment to economic growth and recovery, calling on people to bear only as many children as they can provide for.

In a 2015 address at an Armed Forces seminar, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi said, “If you are asking the state to look after your children, then you are the ones oppressing your children, not the state. Have as many children as you can spend on and care for.”

In January of this year, during the second state-sponsored National Youth Conference in Aswan, Sisi broached the topic again. Tackling criticisms about failing to fulfill promises to improve the economy, the president pointed to the question of overpopulation. “But Egyptians,” he cajoled. “Have you actually done what I asked you to do? Didn’t I ask you, gently and nicely … Remember when I told you that population growth is one of the main impediments to our progress? You all deny that it’s your fault. We have to deal with this.”

These comments referred back to his 2015 address, in which he called for families to limit themselves to three children, drawing on Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, who was seated opposite to him, for back-up. “I want to suggest that a couple with one child waits three or four years before having a second. Those who have two children can wait six or seven years before having a third, and those who have three shouldn’t have more, so that the nation can stand on its own feet as an educated and capable being. Is this haram or halal, honorable sheikh?” Tayyeb’s answer came quick and clear: “Halal and halal.”

“If you are asking the state to look after your children, then you are the ones oppressing your children, not the state. Have as many children as you can spend on and care for.”

There has been much talk about population density and how it relates to the economic crisis. However, questions remain about how seriously the state is taking measures to confront the crisis beyond laying blame on citizens and seeking religious fatwas.

Sisi insists that population growth is one of the main culprits in the economic crisis, as did the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak who organized intensive media campaigns and wide-scale health programs. The president also adheres to his predecessor’s path by calling for support from religious authorities, whose position has always been opposed to the idea of birth control (known in Arabic as tahdeed), instead permitting birth planning (known in Arabic as tanzeem).

Birth control vs. family planning

“We must clearly distinguish between the two terms: tanzeem and tahdeed,” says Amna Nosseir, member of Parliament and professor of religion and philosophy at Al-Azhar University.

“Organization or planning (tanzeem) is an entrenched cornerstone of Muslim thought, meaning that a Muslim can plan the periods of pregnancies using their own mind’s reasoning,” Nosseir says. “But we don’t support restriction (tahdeed) — when ­a person makes a prior decision to have a certain number of children and behaves accordingly from the beginning by preventing pregnancy.”

At high-level state meetings addressing the question of population, these views have been reiterated. At a joint meeting between ministry heads and the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics to raise awareness about the risks of population growth in December, Endowments Minister Mokhtar Gomaa stressed the necessity of working on “planning” the reproductive process “in a way that ensures for the child, family and society the dignified life that we all aspire to.” The minister made no mention of birth control.

The Islamic religious establishment’s jurisprudential viewpoint is in clear opposition to birth control — as evidenced by various fatwas issued by Dar al-Ifta. This contradicts the fatwa issued by Tayyeb during Sisi’s 2015 speech, designating it halal. For instance, one fatwa responding to a question about birth control states, “If what you’re intending is to restrict the number of children out of fear of poverty, then this is inadmissible. Allah the Blessed and the Exalted states in Surat al-Israa, verse 31: ‘And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you.’”

In a sign of ongoing tensions between the state and religious institutions over the issue, media outlets reported that Social Solidarity Minister Ghada Waly suggested imposing penalties on families that exceed a certain number of children. These claims, later denied by the minister, were met with a fatwa from Dar al-Ifta which reiterates the inadmissibility of birth control. The fatwa states that “Islam does not impose a certain number of children on a Muslim. Islam urges all able Muslims to reproduce and multiply.”

The Coptic Orthodox Church’s stance on birth control is not substantially different from the official Islamic position. Natural birth control methods accepted by Islamic and Christian institutions include timing intercourse before or after the period of fertility following menstruation or using the withdrawal method where the man ejaculates externally. Their promoted methods do not include the use of birth control pills, diaphragms or even male condoms.

Religion and politics

While Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh presented the president with the fatwa he wanted on birth control — in contradiction to other official fatwas presented on televised public occasions — he refused to do the same when it came to the issue of verbal divorce.

During his National Police Day speech on January 25, Sisi suggested bringing an end to verbal divorce by making the presence of a government authorized cleric necessary for a divorce to take place. Addressing the Grand Sheikh, he said, “What do you think virtuous Imam?” This time, Tayyeb simply smiled but provided no fatwa. The fatwa came days later in the form of a statement issued by the Council of Senior Scholars at Al-Azhar, refuting the president’s view.

Some have perceived Tayyeb’s lack of compliance as an indication that he is reaching the end of his patience with the president’s insistence on collecting fatwas on-air without prior agreement.

Tensions intensified when days after the statement was issued, Mohamed Abu Hamed, parliamentarian and a member of the pro-state Alliance to Support Egypt revealed that he was preparing a bill intending to transfer the power to appoint members of Al-Azhar’s senior council from the Grand Sheikh to the president. The bill would also limit the Grand Sheikh’s post to eight years.

“The problem is not the position of Al-Azhar, Dar al-Ifta or any other religious establishment. The problem is the state’s attempts to transform their opinions into legal legislative references.”

Amr Ezzat, researcher in religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) thinks that had Sisi approached the clerics to reach a prior agreement, the presidency and the religious establishment would be in line. “Sisi, however, approaches them with a kind of arrogance that might have angered them, especially as he usually starts such discussions in public without bringing them up with the clerics beforehand, putting them on the spot.”

However, Ezzat does not believe the problem lies with the position of Al-Azhar, Dar al-Ifta or any other religious institution. Rather, he says, “the problem is the state’s attempts to transform their opinions into legal legislative references.”

Religious establishments’ intervention in law-making is backed by the Constitution, according to Ezzat, specifically Article 2 which designates principles of Islamic Sharia as the main source of legislation.

“This is despite the existence of elected authorities whose role is to devise laws and decide on legislation — after all, the state belongs to all citizens,” he says. “It is unacceptable for the state to claim Al-Azhar as its point of reference, and enforce the law on all its citizens, including Christians and atheists. Even among Muslims, there are those who are Shia and those seeking a civil state where religion has no role.”

“If the state had the will to make serious decisions, it would have done so. The issue is that Sisi lacks any democratic inclinations. By invoking religion in his rulings, he has more leeway in controlling the affairs of the largest segment in society. As a result, legislation that increases religious authority is ideal for him.”

The state’s relationship with the church is quite distinct from that with Islamic institutions. Ishaq Ibrahim, freedom of belief and religion officer at EIPR, says that the issues over which the presidency wishes to exert pressure differ. “For example, with Al-Azhar the president wants to address personal status laws on divorce and birth control. When it comes to these issues in the Christian community, because the birth rate among Christians is already low for a variety of reasons, the president doesn’t feel the need to exert any pressure.”

“But it is important for the presidency to exert pressure on the church,” Ibrahim adds, “especially when it comes to political issues such as the rights of Copts or their mobilization overseas to demonstrate support during presidential visits abroad.”

How effective is legislation, with or without Al-Azhar support?

Ibrahim thinks that personally, Sisi believes only in birth planning not birth control, “or else he would have demanded a law similar to that regarding verbal divorce instead of just mentioning the issue in passing.”

“If we assume that the president had the power to exert pressure on Al-Azhar to enact a law that limits the number of children people have,” Ibrahim says. He adds: “the people themselves would reject that law and will not commit to it. People will always seek the religious approval first. Also, entrenched in Egyptian culture is the importance of building familial support through having a large number of children, at least in rural and marginalized areas.”

Most secular institutions have with time come to see that without the participation of religious clerics, their efforts are wasted

A pharmacist in a Mahalla village says that no one asks for contraception. “Rather men ask for Viagra and women ask for advice to increase fertility. We don’t stock condoms and they’re not very known.”

Amr Hassan, a professor and adviser on obstetrics and gynecology at Qasr al-Aini Hospital, believes that even if Al-Azhar were to back a law regulating how many children a family is permitted to have it would prove ineffective. He points to the issue of female circumcision. “Even if outwardly, Al-Azhar prohibits female circumcision, the problem lies in mosques that are not subject to supervision and on whose platforms men preach according to their whims.”

“Because of this,” he poses, “the stances of religious institutions, even if they are good stances, are usually only directed toward the media.”

Kawthar al-Kholy, director of the Noon Center for Women and Family Issues, which works primarily with poor women in rural areas, also points to the “primacy of religion among the marginalized, poor and uneducated.”

“If people are addressed by a government official or a science or health expert, they will listen only in the presence of a cleric,” Kholy says. “We conducted trainings for sheikhs and priests on issues such as female circumcision, women’s education and even women’s work. Most secular institutions have with time come to see that without the participation of religious clerics, their efforts are wasted.”

But many women who do want fewer children are prevented from doing so, in both rural and urban settings.

Religious guardianship may even extend to physicians’ clinics, where doctors speak to their patients in the name of God and religion.

One such woman, Mona, says “Although me and my husband faced difficult financial circumstances after the revolution, he insisted on not using any means of contraception, which the mosque’s sheikh said were haram because God will provide sustenance.” He threatened to divorce her unless she complied, so she did.

“After having many children, our home got so crowded that life became very tough, and he divorced me and married a younger woman. He doesn’t ask about me or the children, nor does he financially provide for them,” she adds.

Religious guardianship may even extend to physicians’ clinics, where doctors speak to their patients in the name of God and religion.

“I went for the first time in my life to see a gynecologist with my mother who wanted to know when I would start to bear children,” Christine recalls. “I told the doctor that I would like to use contraceptives for a year as I had just gotten married. He told me that it is against God’s will. Of course my mother was very pleased when he advised me to start having children. He refused to prescribe me medication and I was afraid to try anything on my own.”

Other women recount being compelled to switch doctor several times after receiving similar advice about the inadmissibility of contraceptives in religion, especially in the first years of a marriage. They say that doctors’ insistence on giving them “morality lectures” was a psychological burden, compounded by family pressures, leading them not to seek any form of contraception.

Hassan believes that any long-term solution for population control must include sex education. “Without improved curricula tackling everything related to the human body, there’s no use for any laws even if they were to be forcefully imposed on citizens, because a person has to be convinced that a smaller number of children guarantees them a better life psychologically, socially and in terms of health.”

Tranlsated by Assmaa Naguib

Karoline Kamel 

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