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Orphanages in Egypt.


This article addresses the social and cultural circumstances of girls' orphanages in Egypt and is comprised of research gathered in the last three years, during two field trips. Field research was carried out in six institutions in or around Cairo, a city of about 12 million people. The orphanage populations ranged in size from 30 children to 300. Some of the orphanages were run by elected boards, while others were managed by family couples. Their histories and origins span two to 50 years.

The very existence of the orphanage as an institution raises questions of freedom and constraint in society. How does society deal with unwanted children? What does the concept of illegitimacy mean? Perspectives on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of children have, throughout history, been coloured by understandings of social class and/or lineage, (1) and in all societies, religious assumptions, teachings, legalities and practice play some part in family, mother and child definitions. (2) Moreover, when populations experience war, migration, modernization, or expansion, there is a reconfiguration in the number of children born outside the bonds of marriage. (3) In such scenarios, the edges of the social universe are newly contoured, and children may become little more than pawns.

Before examining the circumstances of orphanages in Egypt, it is worth noting that modernization, an increasingly urban economy (Turner, 1994; Armbrust, 1996), increases in educational levels, and an intertwining of Islam with the secular state are relevant variables in this nation's shape in the 21st century (Al-Ali, 2000). (4) Yet, to be an orphan in Egypt is still to live in a region of the world where adoption and foster care are unrealistic options, and where unwanted children may be left on the street. Despite recent modernizations, then, orphanages continue to play a vital role in caring for children who might otherwise die. (5) It is therefore important to study how both orphans and orphanages fit into the country's social fabric. (6)

Current Literature

Institutional care is often examined through the problematic psychosocial functioning of children (Hersov, 1980; Quinton et al., 1984; Hodges and Tizard, 1989; Zoccolillo et al., 1992; Wolff and Fesseha, 1998). Questions about inadequate mothering (Dowdney et al., 1985) and children's emotional concerns about the issues of abandonment have also been investigated (Sigal et al., 1988).

The issues of empathy and conformity have been explored with institutionalized children and matched samples of children from families on the outside (Sloutsky, 1997). It has been found that developmental processes inside the institution, when enhanced with length of time, can make for blocked cognitive activity (Sloutsky, 1997: 149) and limiting patterns of cultural expression. Similarly, Dowdney et al. (1985) show that children raised in institutions can demonstrate that they will be less sensitive to their own children's needs later. They may also be confrontational, rather than responsive, to the needs of their offspring (pp. 599, 623). Finally, the effects of institutionalization have been found in second- and third-generation children (Sigal et al., 1988: 54), as they wrestle with issues of how to control (or not control) situations of aggression between parents and siblings.

The question of the quality of subsequent parenting is often raised in the literature. Quinton et al. (1984) note that women raised in institutions in western society show greater psychosocial difficulties and more parenting difficulties than their non-institutionalized sisters in the general population. However, the marital support of a non-deviant spouse exerts a protective effect and engenders greater harmony in the marriage, which, it is worth noting, is further enhanced by decent housing conditions (p. 123).

With respect to health issues, Sigal et al. (2003), in examining orphan experience among the middle-aged, note that 'given the proper administrative structure, stimulating cognitive and affective environments in the orphanages, and appropriate aftercare, these negative effects [of chronic illness] need not occur' (pp. 10-11).

We learn of the problems of fostering children out from their families in places like Sierra Leone, where children are found to be more at risk than other, non-fostered children in terms of, for example, malnutrition (Bledsoe et al., 1988). In this study, it is noted that the elderly rural caretakers with whom the children stay are less likely to attend to their foster children's medical needs. They also find that girls are more at risk than boys in both malnutrition and lack of medical access.

With respect to Islamic populations, Bargach (2002) explores the concept of illegitimacy in Morocco, and the role of shame and human agency in jostling for cultural prominence. In a related issue, many studies in the West see psychological and sociocultural 'pathologies' as the scourge of child institutionalization.

Yet, in some poverty-stricken countries (for example, in war-torn areas such as Eritrea) orphans may well have a chance to alter their own institutional landscape. Wolff and Fesseha (1998) observe that war orphans have better chances of cognitive development when the children are encouraged to participate along with staff in the decisions that affect them in the institution. They note that the cultures of orphanages have undergone little study, even though in developing nations such institutions are an essential means of survival for many thousands of orphan children (p. 1319). In contrast to popular western belief, they observe that orphanages are not necessarily the institutional scourge of society. It is possible that when managerial skills are fuelled by education and understanding, orphanages can provide a humane social environment--one that offers close and stable relationships between members (pp. 1323-4).

The research cited in this article opens up certain dimensions of practice and cultural assumptions about children's orphanages. In particular, it illuminates the special issue of being a female orphan in Egypt. It also indicates how the orphanage management and the girls learn to cope within the cultural confines of institutionalization, particularly in a society where sex before marriage is prohibited by religious edict.


I entered the world of orphanages in Egypt through conversations with people who managed them, owned them and/or were on their boards. The research was conducted through visits, observations and discussions in six orphanages in and around Cairo. Three were run by a board and administered by highly educated, professional women, many of whom are a part of the rich history of feminism in Egypt. These women encourage women's work and involvement in the community and advocate the rights of women (and girls) in various ways. (7) The other orphanages were run by family couples.

My visits occurred during two trips in 2001 and 2004. I was allowed free access to all institutions and was able to chat with surrogate (i.e. 'house') mothers, managers, owners, administrators, board members and a range of children from infants to adolescents.

I attended orphanage classrooms and spent time in the playground areas at different times of the day. I watched children coming to and from the mosque and joined them at their tables as they ate. I joined them in their rooms, where the older ones did homework in the afternoons. I was once present during the ending of Ramadan, when everyone was preparing presents and anticipating fun and feasting after the holy month. I was in the orphanages when the older children returned from school, and I also attended special celebrations, such as a puppet show and birthday parties.

The institutions varied in their geographic environments, from poor urban areas to affluent upper-middle-class neighbourhoods, and from an industrial section of town to a small village. Although their locales varied, all were built behind concrete walls or within guarded premises.

The ages of the children ranged from newborn babies of six days old to girls in their late twenties. The most recently opened institutions had the youngest children. All were girls' orphanages, though most housed infant and young boys up to six, and in one case, 12 years of age. (8) Importantly, children are generally separated by gender early on.

How to Be Economically Autonomous

All orphanages studied faced the challenge of managerial autonomy. All spoke of the advantages of minimizing the effects of the Ministry of Social Affairs in their daily lives and, wherever possible, they devised ways (apart from donations from corporations, businesses, or private individuals) of making their organization as economically autonomous as possible. To this end, one orphanage ran a private kindergarten school for its children, funded by incoming children from the community. This same institution, situated in an industrial area of town, had a kitchen that supplied lunches to local workers (a van would leave their premises each day with freshly made meals for sale). Another had a well-recognized bakery, which sold its products 'on the outside'. One other orphanage derived revenue from a nursing residence in the hospital adjacent to its property. An activity that helped generate income for some was literacy classes for adult women; orphanages can obtain some state funding for such a programme. In addition, women from the outside may be brought in for needlework and sewing classes, and their products can then be sold. The larger orphanages are well-known for the bazaar items that they sell at certain special events; items that range from second-hand clothing to embroidered sheets, woven baskets, knitted or crocheted items and woven rugs. The sewing, embroidery, basketry and rugs can also be a part of the occupational training programme for the adolescent girls (as will be shown later).

Many of these revenue-generating practices are altruistic and humane. However, there are exceptions. One orphanage had only infants (it was in its early stages). I was present during their annual 'Orphans' Day'. (9) The infants of this orphanage had been taken to the local college to be celebrated, yet also, as it turned out, to be paraded. I saw these infants when they returned after the celebratory day. They were cranky, crying and generally unhappy. They had been 'used' as a form of public relations to generate money. Sadly, at this same orphanage, they wished to distribute flyers to tourists advertising the excellent view of the pyramids from their rooftop. They were proposing that visitors come and enjoy this vista, while at the same time encountering an 'orphanage' as a cultural experience or event. The building had no entrance that would keep visitors separate from the children and the elevator, which could carry only three people, was not suitable for tourists. Tourists would have to move through the corridors, past the nurseries, and by the children's space. Although the owner claimed she did not want to have the infants 'displayed like monkeys', she also implied that she was willing to subject them to public scrutiny, up to a certain age.

In theory, a person who starts an orphanage should have suitable qualifications. In reality, because of an increasing need in the housing of such children, restrictions in Egypt can be somewhat lax and some managers appeared to be more interested in profitability. The orphanages run by a board seemed to have more regulations; others run by couples (who were married or related) had fewer. One couple ran their place like a big home and lived on the premises, but at another orphanage the couple in charge was clearly entrepreneurial. She had a corporate public relations background, while her brother-in-law had worked in government and was trained in pathology. Although they expressed an altruistic sensibility, it was apparent that they saw the venture as a business enterprise. They spoke of one of their new buildings as a computer centre, and they also spoke of turning over the top floor to the care of the elderly. They were innovative, yet, some might suspect, acquisitive at the expense of their charges (all children were babies or infants). Admittedly, however, this case was in sharp contrast to all of the others.

Donations to orphanages are plentiful--an observation backed by most administrators--but at mismanaged institutions, important supplies may disappear (butter, eggs, toys, flour, even money). For example, one of the orphanages in this study did not provide a varied and proper diet; this was not because of food inadequacy. Rather, food resources, donated by local industries, were being 'diminished' by employees who envisaged pilfering as a type of salary supplement. Thus, according to one informant, the salaries of all employees should be high enough to counteract such a practice. However, this informant added that good salaries did not always excise the theft problem. The staff may perceive itself to be needy; staff members may be envious of the fact that the orphans do not have to work to receive financial and material support. Orphanages, like all institutional structures, go through phases of good or questionable administration, and good or questionable staff. The data collected here indicate such variations in institutional culture.

Social Stigma and Adoption

All orphanage personnel spoke of the stigmatization of orphans in this society, particularly of female orphans. (Despite the stigma, at one institution, female orphans were chosen over boys, because girls are easier to handle and cause fewer discipline problems. This was intriguing, as it implied that boys pose significantly different problems, which some organizations are not prepared to handle.)

Female orphans are stigmatized because they are seen as carrying the potential for demonstrating the 'loose morals' of their mothers. Regardless of gender, 'bastard' is a common blasphemy in Egyptian society; schoolmates may hurl the word 'bastard child' at an orphan, and, on occasion, throw stones. Most highly ranked orphanages have guidance teachers, social workers and psychiatrists on call, to help ameliorate children's social problems.

When orphans go to public school, their questionable parentage can become an issue. As one administrator explains:
   Nothing is indicated in the birth certificate, so when they go to
   school nothing is indicated that she is a foster child, but usually
   they know it in schools, because I always send ten at the same time
   in the same school, or five or six. (10) (Zuhur, No. 3, 2004)

She adds that the children at school soon know who does not have parents. Orphanage administrators commonly describe local school children harassing the orphans by calling them derogatory names like laqeet (child of no parentage) (11) and trying to make their lives difficult by, for example, stealing their lunch or articles of clothing. Because rich orphanages have excellently clad girls, their low social status is intriguingly merged with upscale clothes: a subversive strategy that challenges the outside communities.

Many administrators develop a story to explain to the children their origin, and thereby avoid the question of morality. This story often uses an earthquake, or a 'big catastrophe' in which the orphans' parents died. Other administrators talk about an accident (e.g. a car accident). They also say to the children, if and when they ask, that they may try to find their birth mother and father, but their advice is 'not to bother'. At one very well-run orphanage, the board members told the children, 'Never judge your parents. We don't know what happened'. Thus, there is neither condemnation, nor excuse. And in the same breath, they spoke of their own parental role and of the positive aspect of their job: they are raising the children, educating them, teaching them how to distinguish between right and wrong. In such sentiments, education, social training and moral precepts are intertwined.

Administrators say that babies are often found in the streets and taken to a police station. From there, they come under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Affairs, which then names them (they create both first and last names) and gives them a birth certificate, indicating the probable date of birth. According to one administrator, 'the government gives these [names]. There are a lot of Laila, Samia, and all sorts of different names that the government chooses' (Saad, No. 5, 2004).

Babies may also be found on the mosque doorstep, on the side of the road, or, on one occasion, at the doors of the Hilton Hotel. Additionally, administrators note that children get 'accidentally' lost in the street, at bazaars or festivals, and end up at the orphanage. These are understandable acts where excessive poverty is combined with inadequate birth control, especially when the latter is prohibited. (12) A respondent from a respected institution said that if such parents come to the orphanage and 'find' their child, with the proper documentation they can take the child home. However, if this happens a second time the orphanage will insist on keeping the child because, at that point, they view the loss of the child as a deliberate deed.

Partly because of the social stigma attached to orphans, it is rare for a child to be adopted. Even so, when a family is prepared to foster a child they are vetted by the institutions. Then, if for any reason the child is returned by that family to the orphanage (the implication being that the family cannot cope or, most likely, cannot afford to take care of the child), the high-status orphanages will refuse to allow that child to return to the adoptive home. They see this as being emotionally protective, carried out for the sake of the child. Institutions also describe the occasional situation where parents visit the orphanage and recognize their child, but upon seeing that the child is in a clean, safe and economically stable environment (better than they can afford), they may leave quietly.

The infants of imprisoned mothers are deposited at certain orphanages. Women in prison are allowed to keep their children up to two years of age, after which the children must go to relatives or to the orphanage. The prison bus arrives once a month, transporting new children to one of the facilities I visited. Of course, this is yet another not-so-subtle stigma that the children at orphanages carry with them.

When asked about the key reasons for the existence of orphans in Egypt, educated administrative respondents typically cite the continuing levels of poverty, lack of education, ignorance, and, as one administrator put it, 'incest and poverty, though not in the other classes', thereby implying that upper and middle classes were, in her eyes, immune to incest. She added that this was different from other societies where reasons for illegitimacy are 'just sex' and, thus, sex for 'the wrong reasons'. This association of sexuality for the sake of sex is commonly seen as a moral weakness of the West, and is therefore, an added stigma to the product of such a liaison.

Interestingly, all respondents spoke of the expense of marriage and the shortage of affordable housing as a reason for illegitimacy. Certain respondents opined that when a girl needed money, she might turn to prostitution. I was told that girls tend not to have pre-marital sex, unless forced. At the same time, it is clear that in the middle class, college and university liaisons in which the couple has an informal, yet religiously sanctioned contract, are quite common. However, when the relationship is one of convenience, if housing costs are high, or if the relationship breaks up, many administrators lament that this results in unwanted offspring.

Egypt has seen an increase in the number of orphans in the last 10 years. More orphanages are being built, and the state is more readily giving official papers to people starting such institutions, even to the extent that the government may not check these new institutions sufficiently. It seems that it is easier to build more institutions to house those who have deviated from the legal or cultural norms, than to address the causes of the so-called deviance.


Egyptians who wish to sponsor a child from outside the orphanage give money to particular orphanages on behalf of a specific child. Sometimes a sponsoring visitor will take the child out for an afternoon for ice cream or treats. Typically, the orphanage requests that the children do not visit the homes of sponsors. A reason given is that the children might see what they do not have and, therefore, will feel inadequate (in reality, most of the orphanages have televisions, so pictures of the outside world are readily available to the children via news pieces, soap operas and domestic dramas). Another reason offered is that the child might be abducted and misused.

Most orphanages allow occasional sponsored day trips. Administrators often say that the sponsor's child should be accompanied by another orphan or two, perhaps her own immediate 'sisters' (from her dormitory), because it is argued that the children like to be with one another. In my own experience, two women sponsors took out four children and one of the children's (surrogate) mothers. This little group set out for an afternoon to have shawarma (and ice-cream, pop) at a fast food restaurant. This was clearly a big event for the children, who ranged from ages four to 12. On the return home, one child requested soap, so the group stopped at the local supermarket, where their 'foster' sponsors bought them a few items. It was of particular research interest that these children had never been to a supermarket and were enraptured by the variety of material goods. Even so, they knew which brands they most coveted and quickly recognized their sponsor foster mothers as economic assets who provided an excellent opportunity to purchase items (soap, shampoo, deodorant and chewing gum). Of course, the brand names they desired were the expensive ones. The sponsors thus filled the role of 'sugar-mamas'. Even so, the orphaned children were not accustomed to having a special person from whom they could request special treats.

Generally, an orphanage will allow outside gifts for children, but money designated for children should be deposited in the girls' accounts. This does not stop the occasional girl from discreetly requesting money from visitors, something seen as problematic by the administration.

Orphan Societal Status and Adoption

Some administrators believe that orphans are likely to have developmental handicaps. Such assumptions are, in fact, widespread in the culture, and are exacerbated by the presumption that physical, emotional, or intellectual handicaps represent serious social stigma, thereby precluding adoption.

Along with this, to have a recognized family, and thus a known lineage, is highly desirable in Middle Eastern society. Therefore, this is a major reason why orphans are not adopted: families say that they do not know the father or mother of the child, and that these are distinguishing features of both respectability and marital qualifications.

On the subject of adoption, an orphanage owner shed an interesting light on the society and its beliefs about orphaned children when she stated:
   I don't give my children away. In other associations, they can give
   a child to a family. The government accepts that, though our
   religion forbids it; as a Moslem it is forbidden to adopt a child
   and give him your name. (Ibrahim, No. 6, 2004)

Another reason Egyptians do not adopt is that the orphan will not be with real brothers and sisters when she joins a family. Thus, for one thing, the 'feelings are not the same, and they might marry' (Zuhur, No. 3, 2004). Also, for another, 'the Egyptian family has warm, close bonds, and the orphan is an outsider. She cannot really belong in a [family] milieu. We don't take a child out [of the orphanage] and make them family' (El-Kholy, 2004). This latter comment was made be a woman student at the university. She expressed at the same time great sensitivity about the plight of orphans. Even as she spoke about the importance of taking the orphans out on feasts such as Ramadan, she pointed out that you should not take the children to your home, or even display your mobile phone, because 'we don't want them to have complexes'.

On occasion, a further reason given for not adopting, is that the modern economy means an additional child might be a burden. Thus, people argue that it is best to put some money aside for an orphan and take her out on feast days.

Marriage and Sex

As has been noted, girls in Egypt live in a culture where sex before marriage is seen as a grave act: it is harom or 'forbidden' under law. The girls in the orphanages are taught that the marital union is a sacred rite. Administrators and mothers stress that girls must save sex until marriage. As one typical administrator put it, 'otherwise, they will be doing what their mothers did' (Zubaida, No. 1, 2004). This administrator is giving credence to the cultural dictum cited above, that the mothers of orphans must have loose morals. Since statistical reasons for sex before marriage normally include circumstances of poverty, rape and coercion, it is interesting that the administrator simplifies her commentary in this way.

Typically, the girls' orphanages in this study allow their charges to remain in the 'house' until they are married. (13) Boys, by contrast, are sent out at about 12 years of age to government training institutions, other housing facilities, or onto the street. One orphanage was building a facility for boys older than 12, because they were concerned about the boys' need for guidance and security. They spoke of them sometimes wandering back, looking for a meal, nurturing, and emotional security. By and large, however, orphanage administrators are much more protective of girls.

The role of television in the sexual awakening of children is much debated in Egypt. In the main, television is seen as both a window onto the world and a 'wild card' in the education of youth. Because of this, an orphanage administrator expresses her belief in offering sex education for adolescents:
   [S]ometimes I have people who come and give them lectures, and
   I'm very happy when somebody volunteers to come and give a lecture
   in my Association. Especially at age of 12,13,14, they have to--it's
   very important, and even before that, because now people are not as
   protective as they used to be in the past, and now with TV, they know
   everything when they are really small children.

This respondent represents a liberal approach to sex education, not always seen among orphanage personnel. It is generally seen as more important to protect girls from their sexuality.

Surrogate Mothering

Generally, surrogate mothers are from local villages. The management describes them as having a reasonable education, sometimes a diploma, but in fact they frequently have only basic reading and writing skills.

Among the very young orphans, a mother will be responsible for five children. One administrator says that she has a lower ratio of child-mother supervision for the young children than the older ones. She argues that when children go to school, because bottle-feeding and diapers have been dispensed with, more intense supervision is not required. In fact, she says the ratio becomes 20:1 for the middle years, and 50:1 when the girls go to work. She rationalizes the highest ratio by stating: 'I mean, at that age they could have been married ... and be obliged to take care of their household' (Ibrahim, No. 6, 2004).

Surrogate mothers vary greatly in their conceptualization of their role. Some are deeply caring and vigilant; they take their work very seriously, making sure the babies are changed regularly and given individual attention, including holding and touching. Mothers at the other end of the continuum may be found staring into space with bored expressions, barely noticing their charges.

Surrogate mothers are usually employed by the orphanage for a period of time ranging from a few months to about two years. All the young mothers live in residence and sleep in the dormitory with the younger children. They do one month of duty and then take from two to five days off to go back to their village, or wherever their home is.

The fairly high turnover of primary care-givers is seen as problematic by administrators. The mothers themselves speak of their work as an opportunity to practise working with small children before they do this themselves; the work being preparation for marital responsibility. They may speak of a fiancee in the military, or one working in some other occupation. These young women often say that they see themselves as filling a gap between school and marriage. The job of orphanage mothering offers them an opportunity to save money for marriage and a dowry. Marriage is consistently spoken of as increasingly expensive, and thus a source of great economic frustration to young people.

All administrative respondents see the turnover of mothers as a critical problem in the emotional development of the children. The more effective facilities organize their roster so that children have some familiarity with their surrogate mothers when the regular one is off for a few days. At one of the less well-run facilities, the infants whose mothers were away were clearly upset during the period of their absence. Either the administration had not thought this through, or they were short of spare mothers. Certainly, the facilities where infants demonstrated extraordinary neediness correlated with inadequate professional care.

Mothering is an honoured role in Egypt. Here, in the Middle East, the mother is the acknowledged centre of family life and represents the source of strength in that life. To be a surrogate mother at an orphanage is seen as honourable, worthy work for a girl before she marries. Furthermore, her housing in the orphanage gives her fiancee the sense that she is safely protected from unwanted sexual advances--something seen by many young women as a work-related hazard.

Some surrogate mothers live up to the professional expectations of their administrators and search for ways to be innovative. These institutional working mothers say that they love working with the children and that they are doing something good. (14) There are others, however, who lack training or social skills, and who seem to be waiting, just putting in time until they earn enough for a trousseau. On many occasions, the television in the play area is turned to soap operas and movies, so the young mothers can have entertainment as they work. Their work, then, which all consider worthwhile, is still seen as needing external stimulus, extra entertainment.

The culture of love in each orphanage between infants and their mothers is clear as soon as one enters the room. In the most caring scenarios, there is a quiet continuance of activity, with normal children's chatter or other pre-verbal communication among the very young. These children have toys among them, have the opportunity for creative play, the opportunity to play with each other and are in the close supervision of their mother. At other, less effective institutions, when a visitor enters the room the children run up and ask to be hugged or lifted up. In such circumstances, it is clear the children are competing for attention and many cry, hold on to the legs of the visitor, or hold out their hands to be held. If this does not work, it may result in a child hitting another, to achieve the goal of attention. In orphanages where these circumstances exist, there are fewer mothers available for young children, hence the desire for attention. Even in the outside recreational area of one orphanage, as soon as the children see new grown-ups, they rush over to be touched, cuddled, or attended to, though there are always certain children who seem alone or on 'low sensory alert'.

There are important and interesting disparities in the administrators' descriptions of the ratios of mothers to children, and the reality in the play area or nursery. Where managerial practices are lax and staffing is lower, children are left to fend for themselves. This is evinced through observation of their clothes and general cleanliness. In orphanages with less care, less giving, and little or no staff training, the children have dirty faces and, generally, an unkempt appearance. Indeed, at one orphanage, the children shared their play space with chickens, goats and ducks. This was in an urban orphanage that sees itself as well-endowed and well-established in modern ways. Certainly, animals add liveliness and entertainment, as well as education for the children. They can also serve other purposes, like ending up as food on the table. However, in this case the animals made the play area unsanitary.

In a related note, orphanages demonstrate other managerial variations. For example, some play areas are better endowed than others. Toys may be locked up in cupboards, to preserve them from possible loss or theft, or they may be openly displayed on readily reachable surfaces. One orphanage hangs toys from strings on the ceiling. They dangle in mid-air, and the infants can only touch them if they are held up by an adult. These toys are decorations, rather than toys intended for play or sensual experience.

An activity that punctuates the day is the call to prayer; this is integral to all orphanages in the study. All had a mosque attached to the orphanage. For certain orphanages, the recorded call of the muezzin was so loud that all conversation was, of necessity, called to a halt. Surrogate mothers are often seen praying during the day. This points to the fact that, above all, many see themselves as guardians of the developing religious habits of their proteges.

Despite the love and caring demonstrated by surrogate mothers, when I asked them if they would mind being orphans, they stated emphatically that orphans do not have the same chances in life and that it would, therefore, be worse to be an orphan. As one respondent put it, 'they don't have anyone in life ... They don't belong' (Ibrahim, No. 2, 2004). The issue of belonging in society is profound; it never goes away, even when the child gets married. In answers such as these, the young mothers accept contemporary cultural realities and do not dream of other possibilities for their charges Even for those who work most closely with orphans, the idea of the orphan participating as an equal in the future does not seem a possibility.

Regarding gender and role modelling, one institution's representative said that the girls have 'older father figures, such as an accountant, and then there [a]re three men on the board with whom they interact' (El-Messiri, No.1, 2004). With respect to the boys in this particular institution, the administrator said they need the strength of men around them, because they have been raised by women. Consequently, during adolescence older male workers live with them. In this instance, an obvious sensitivity to a particular role issue is played out in a somewhat haphazard way.

Orphan Culture

There is a profound expression of sisterhood in these orphanages. For these girls, their 'sisters' are, without doubt, family, even though there is normal competitiveness and sibling rivalry. When a girl faces adversity (e.g. if she is threatened at school) the others rally to her defence. This is not just with peers, but with other ages as well. A 12-year old, whom we took out for lunch, chose to bring a sister from another dormitory, as well as a four-year-old sister, with whom she assumed the role of a caring older sister. This culture of sharing and caring varies from one orphanage to another and, understandably, institutions that provide care and security also allow room for children to expand emotionally.

The high-status orphanages provide trips and outings, especially during the summer. Children may be taken to the pyramids, to the beach at Alexandria, to the zoo, or to the Cairo museum. One such orphanage stipulated that each 'fun' outing be matched by a 'serious' one. Thus, there were educational, entertainment and moral components to travel arrangements. Further, when the adolescent girls at this orphanage were taken for several days on an outing, they would stay at special youth facilities (such as hostels run by local Moslem youth organizations). In this manner, the institution accessed both public and private funding.

The adolescent girls wear veils when they leave their dormitories. Yet, 'behind the scenes' at one large facility, the girls wear tight, long skirts, skinny jeans, and enjoy loose hair inside their own rooms. This is only in private, with their 'sisters' and friends. As soon as they come downstairs and move into the courtyard or outside the orphanage, they are carefully covered, even though they may continue to wear a tight skirt. In this society, where modesty of dress is a value and a virtue, it is evident that the desire among the youth to enjoy a newfound sensuality is often manifested only behind closed doors.

In the interviews, a number of late adolescents at one of the high-status orphanages stated that they enjoyed being there. It is their home, and they love their sisters. In fact, a girl will often share a small dormitory with the same sisters for several years. Consequently, in a very profound sense, she is emotionally tied to these girls. At this same institution, there is a special day once a month when married girls can return, often with their babies, and spend the day, lunching and enjoying time with sisters and administrators. This institution sees itself as providing an emotional home for their girls. I was present when a 29-year-old woman came to see a favourite board member to discuss the problems she was encountering with her fiancee. She turned to this administrator as a surrogate mother and she had the freedom to remain in the institution if she chose not to marry her fiancee. I observed a number of young women in their early twenties who saw the orphanage as a sanctuary and home, and for whom marriage was not a desperate way to escape the institution.

At one institution there was a celebration once a month for children who were born that particular month. There was a party out in the garden, or in a designated recreation room. Here, birthdays are seen as a good reason to have a party for staff and girls. At one such party, popular songs were played, and there was much enjoyment and laughter. The children, boys and girls of four to six years old, were encouraged to dance. The young boys danced together in groups, and the girls did a little belly dancing, encouraged by everyone in attendance. (It should be remembered, however, that the belly dance becomes defined as inappropriate for girls in public when they are a few years older. A married woman, in the privacy of her own home and with her own husband, or with women friends, may dance, but such dance is normally considered 'vulgar' by the middle classes beyond these confines.)

Normally, girls get married after high school. Because one of the big orphanages has a boys' wing, the boys are seen by the orphan girls and by the administration as a 'built-in' and readily available marriage market. The girls get to know the boys at orphanage parties; they have the chance to mix with them and develop some sense of who they are and what they represent in terms of values, aspirations and occupational opportunities. When the girls describe the qualities they desire in a marriage partner, they state that he should be able to make good money. In a society where it is a sign of religious value and middleclass affluence that a wife does not have to work, these are quickly embraced lifestyle aspirations. In turn, when the adolescent boys (around 12 years of age) at one of the orphanages stated their anticipated requirements of a wife, they said she should 'listen to them and be educated', and that she should 'pray and cook' (Group of ten boys, No. 1, 2004). They themselves aspired to carpet weaving, engineering, carpentry and football playing.

When discussing marriage with administrators, the question of marriage normally starts with statements that the girls can marry whomever they wish. But this conversation continues with some qualifiers. As a well-respected university professor argues,
   people don't want their kids to marry kids like this. They know
   that 90 per cent or something like that, are found on the street,
   which means they are probably bastards or something ... 'Who's the
   father?'. And they are frowned upon. And what's worse, they don't
   know how they have been brought up ... Society doesn't respect an
   orphan. (Hatem, 2001)

Another highly ranked and respected orphanage administrator says:
   As soon as they work in public life, and they find somebody that
   they like and would like to get married to ... I have social workers
   who I send to the house to see what the house is like, and I will
   ask by phone where he's working, and if he is a good man or not, and
   how long has he been in this work, and if he can spend money on her
   expenses, food, and so on. Later on, I accept the marriage.
   (Saad, No. 5, 2004)

The late adolescent girls, when questioned about their ambitions on having children, all stated that they would not like to have more than two or three children, and that these could be either boys or girls. Whether these girls from orphanages are especially conscious of planning parenthood is hard to assess, but it is interesting that in terms of assumptions about gender equality, they are not specifying that their babies should be boys. It will be intriguing to see if their husbands think the same way.

Education and Occupational Training

There is a common belief that the orphan is of inferior intellect. As a psychiatrist and administrator from a highly touted institution noted of her charges: 'When they were born the oxygen may not have gone to the brain for a few seconds, because the mother was getting rid of these children' (El-Solh, No. 1, 2004). There is no doubt that this is a possibility. Even so, I.Q. scores are also entrenched in cultural assumptions and codes, and an orphanage that offers little infant or child stimulation is putting already disadvantaged children at an even greater disadvantage.

In addition, the view in modern Egypt that orphans are genetically inferior continues to pervade cultural perception. Therefore, there is a 'catchall' desire among the general population, for example when it comes to hiring, that it be thoroughly established that an orphan is not the product of a criminal background. Not surprisingly, then, administrators commonly believe that orphans are handicapped when it comes to occupational and marital choices.

Although not necessarily seeing her charges as genetically inferior, one administrator of a large urban orphanage links education with marital opportunity. She discourages girls from going to university because, as she says, they will only meet middle-class boys who will look down on them:
   [I have] a very small percentage [of girls who go to university],
   because I don't, er, I try not to let them enter university--even
   after they finish their school certificate ... I don't like them to
   finish high school. But if they insist, I accept; and if they are
   clever enough [I accept ... After high school], there are a lot of
   good jobs that they can take--a secretary, for example.

She continues:
   I prefer that the child takes either gardening [they can take a
   certificate for this]--they can take other jobs. They can be
   waitresses in big hotels, and they can do accounting or computer
   working--they go to schools- to special schools. [There is] training
   for these jobs--[the training is] very good. (Ibrahim, No. 6, 2004)

This respondent also points out that if a girl is too well-educated (e.g. to university level), and is in her late twenties, she will become choosy in her search for a marriage partner, and may not find one. Further, she relates marital opportunity to social stigma. In her view, the big reason for not finding a middleclass boy for marriage is that
   they would probably not look at a girl who is a foster child.
   [They don't] know who the father is. Who is the mother? Since she
   has no father and no mother, she hasn't got the same chances.
   (Ibrahim, No. 6, 2004)

This is the commentary of a respected and established head of an orphanage in Cairo, who worries about her girls and their prospects. To think of the university as facilitating these girls' chances for marriage is impossible from her perspective. She justifies her point of view:
   People from a good family will not accept it [the stigma of being
   an orphan] either. I would not be happy, though I love these
   children ... I love them very much, but if I had a son, I wouldn't
   like him to choose one of these children, though I know some of
   them are excellent ... Still, I would not like my son to get
   married to [a child from] the orphanage ... It's not the fault of
   the child, but still it's disgracing to have parents that way. I
   wouldn't be happy. (Ibrahim, No. 6, 2004; emphasis added)

These are the comments of a middle-class woman, who makes such comments even though she knows there is injustice in these family and class assumptions. Nevertheless, the goal of this particular administrator is to make sure her charges are occupationally independent, and that they optimize their marital prospects.

The more caring orphanages wrestle with what they see as a poor level of education in the public schools. They wish to augment this education with extra lessons for their own girls at home in the afternoon, or at least with mothers who are able to supervise children's homework. This, of course, means that the mother must be sufficiently educated to be able to understand the homework assignments. Such extra care is apparent in the well-run establishments. Indeed, one orphanage is currently reorganizing, so that it can run a private school to augment the educational levels of its charges. Clearly, board members are deeply caring and aware of the importance of education for their charges.

It is interesting to note that the social and communication skills of the girls vary at different establishments, and that this variation is linked to the culture of the orphanage. Thus, the girls in lower-status orphanages are more shy and reticent. Where there is more social, emotional and intellectual stimulation, the girls reflect this enrichment of their environment in their social interactions and their level of social confidence. This is an important observation, because it demonstrates the connection between a paucity of stimulation in the orphans' environment, and limited social and intellectual skills. The current data support the view that a richer culture enhances the children's abilities.

One high-ranked orphanage offers practical training to academically challenged children. Carpet weaving is popular among girls, while the boys do basket weaving. Older girls are asked to help out with aspects of the orphanage maintenance. Thus, a girl may take on the responsibility in the residence for noticing whether a light bulb is no longer functioning, if a door needs maintenance, or if a tap is not working properly in the bathroom. In the well-run orphanages, one gets the sense that the girls share in family and household responsibilities, learning in the process.

In the lower-status institutions, girls are at times 'roped' into doing tasks, as if they must 'pay back' the institution with labour as soon as they can be utilized. For example, in one orphanage, some are used as surrogate mothers for the younger children. This reduces the cost of hiring, as the girls are already 'in-house'. This same orphanage has a managerial policy that children should go as far as possible in school and have as much educational opportunity as possible. There is a certain irony in this.

If children show that they are not academically inclined, the high-status orphanages have excellent training programmes so that the adolescents may develop skills. At the good facilities, in addition to carpet weaving, girls learn machine knitting, sewing and embroidery. They may also have music classes. At the facilities that include boys, the boys have football and other sports activities, while the girls have a teacher of folkloric dance who comes in to instruct them. When a girl wants to go to university, she is free to do so, though she must be able to support herself while she completes the degree. Many universities are free, but most orphans do not go this far in their education.

I attended the in-house schools and kindergartens for children up to age six at several orphanages. The ratio of children to teacher was generally 20:1 and, in the good facilities, was augmented by a teaching assistant and sometimes by a surrogate mother as well. The level of educational training differed hugely from one institution to another, and I observed everything from excellent teacher--child levels of learning and education, to complete ineptitude. As I was an outside observer, it was logical that when I was present the teachers would wish to impress. Where there were problems, they were due to both a lack of educational understanding and a lack of adequate teacher training.

Problems of Pregnancy in the Society

There are many social pressures upon women who have children out of wedlock. Consequently, commentators note that in the villages, a young mother needing to 'unload' an unwanted newborn has the child taken to another village, so that identity can be disguised. They say that some birth mothers give birth secretly, perhaps using a friend as midwife. Most of these women do not go to a hospital because there are too many questions about parentage.

Often in this culture, a couple's parents do not approve of an unsponsored union. Several informants added that it does still happen that a family will kill their daughter when she gets pregnant, and they will kill her lover if he is known to the parents or if the girl identifies him. Parental approval thus continues to be crucial to the legitimacy or illegitimacy of relationships and of offspring. Several administrators commented that there is greater sexual freedom around Cairo and the Delta, while there is more strict censorship and family anger at unwanted pregnancy in other parts to the south.

For some, abortion may be an option. I learned that when a girl accidentally becomes pregnant, she may, if she can remain somewhat autonomous, call upon her friends to help out with the cost of an abortion. The brothers or male cousins of friends can be important contacts in taking care of an unwanted pregnancy (this is a more middle-class phenomenon). A mother may also give up her child is if she works in a home as a domestic servant and is not permitted to continue her job because she is pregnant.


Most agree that even with educational and occupational training opportunities, it is not easy for children from orphanages to get decent jobs. When employers know they are from an orphanage, their morality and standards are often questioned. Because people put such emphasis on family values, employers tend to think of alternative backgrounds as highly questionable. If employers can find someone else, they will. The problem of finding good employment is exacerbated by an economy where there is high unemployment, even among the college-educated. It is helpful to have connections in the job world to alleviate some of the competition. Where an orphan does not have job market connections, or where the orphanage cannot, or does not, help with finding employment, the battle to join that market is not easy. On occasion, and in the well-connected orphanages, administrators will help to locate jobs for the girls through their own personal connections.

Management, Money and Ministry Issues

The gap between orphanage administrative policy and actual day-to-day management was graphic in one particular institution, where latrines, bathrooms, hallways and dormitories for the infants smelled of urine, and where there were small piles of garbage in corridors and children's play areas. Another sign of neglect was that cupboards housing anything of value (clothes and toys) were padlocked shut, indicating that these objects would disappear if the cupboards were not locked. This was counter to official policy and stood in stark contrast to the high-ranking institutions where tidy cupboards for each child had doors left ajar to display interior tidiness and cleanliness.

Well-managed institutions sported many toys and books, excellent furniture (often handmade and donated by local factories) and educational pictures (i.e. depictions of what a girl could do after learning an occupation or profession, or pictures of washing hands after meals and hygienic habits about going to the toilet for the young ones). Washing and distributing clothes for numerous children requires enormous and detailed organization and thoughtfulness, something clearly present at the good institutions and equally clearly lacking at the poorly managed ones. Another smaller sign of organization and staff training and caring was when shoes were piled up in a bin at the entry to a dormitory, or where they were organized on little shelves, so that children could find their shoes readily.

There was some discussion about the adequacy of breast-feeding in the emotional development of young infants. A new government regulation stipulates that children not be housed in certain orphanages until the age of two, so that they may be breast-fed elsewhere. In theory, then, the breast-fed child has mothers' milk and emotional bonding for the first two years. In actuality, however, the high-status orphanages were against this, because they saw their own feeding and bonding practices as superior. They described current cultural problems where hired breast-feeding mothers may take the government money and substitute cheap forms of nutrition or, if economically tempted, they may rent out the baby for a day or two to street beggars. One of the orphanages, which seemed under less government scrutiny, has defied these orders. It recently received a 'batch' of six newborn babies, and hired nursing mothers from the local (farming) community. Thus, babies had the chance to breast-feed under the management's watchful eye.

On the subject of individual savings for the children, all orphanages stress emphatically that they have individual bank accounts for each child; there are regular depositing procedures and bank accounts cannot be accessed for withdrawals while the children are there. They further emphasize that these bankbooks are in safekeeping and that a child can have a fair amount saved by the time she is grown up and is given her bank balance. One administrative spokeswoman said that the money going into the individual accounts from outside sponsors, as well as the money for each child from the institution, all contributed to the amount that a young girl would have by the time she got married (she quoted a sum of 5-6000 Egyptian pounds). She is making the point that the girls have a reasonable amount of capital for their own lives by the time they leave the institution.

There is government help and encouragement for orphanages to purchase apartments for orphans who marry. This helps alleviate the serious lack of affordable housing. The idea of helping out in this way with institutional accommodation is helpful for these young adults entering the real world, but this public project is still in its infancy. Some orphanages give apartments outright to the young person, others like to maintain ownership, and most apartments are allocated to boys.

The Ministry of Social Affairs, in its visits to orphanages, blacklists some where the conditions are bad. According to one professionally educated observer of Cairo orphanages:
   When I went [there], I did not like how the mothers take care of
   them. Most of the children are sick much of the time, and many are
   sleepy. A big room that is so full of kids [and yet so quiet] makes
   you suspicious. So we wondered, 'what's wrong?' We concluded
   (without any evidence) that they [the institution] are probably
   giving the children cough medicine so it calms them down, and they
   don't cry. (El-Gawhary, Cairo, 2001)

This observer says that the orphanage in question is run by a well-respected woman, known to have impeccable qualifications. However, there had been a diversion of administrative energy into other philanthropic projects and the standards at the original institution degenerated to the degree that the Ministry stopped sending new children to the institution for a while. The circumstances were ameliorated, because on my second visit some two years later there was some improvement, at least in general cleanliness.


While orphanages as institutions have diminished or even vanished in western societies, they continue to play an important, indeed, many would argue, necessary role in places where cultural and religious norms, not to mention legal practice, define unwanted children as problematic. Egyptian society offers a window onto such a world. This is a place where modernity and tradition intertwine, and where secular and religious forces jostle for position. The society honours the orphan 'like a child of God', and under religious and official sanction, favours giving such children a helping hand. At the same time, orphans struggle against age-old prejudices, in a place where such terminology as laqeet (bastard) remains active in street, school and family lexicon. Orphans, who aspire to enhance their educational trajectory and to marry 'normally', face prejudice and outright discrimination. These are the challenges of contemporary Egyptian society.


This research was dependent on the generous time shared by children, caretakers, teachers, social workers and administrators of all orphanages visited. Thanks are due to Dr Dina Rateb (The American University, Cairo) for her research insights; also to Dr Nabila Makami for shared wisdom and long friendship.


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Jacqueline A. Gibbons

York University, Canada


(1.) Of 18th-century England, Nichols and Wray (1935) note that the Foundling Hospital in London offered domestic training for girls and opportunities for certain trades for boys, yet they also had organ and choir concerts and musical training for some of the children (Handel's Messiah was first performed here). There was also constant supervision at the Foundling Hospital, so that children would be isolated from 'improper persons' who might corrupt their morals (p. 75). Thus, their own lineage could not be further sullied.

(2.) The data on children's orphanages in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries (Trexler, 1973) attest to care taken by orphanages for unwanted children, and how these statistics relate to the high cost of dowries, increased numbers of unwanted girls, immigration and emigration patterns, military requirements of men and varied wealth distributions in the society (p. 262). These data evince that many foundlings were picked up in front of shops, on church altars, or at the doors of hospitals. Children were quickly baptized when they entered the institutions, and they were even seen as bringing a certain virtue to the city. Thus, in Florence in 1456, it was said:
   One may firmly believe that through these [foundlings] and because
   of the prayers of these infants, who shine in purity, our most high
   and omnipotent God in his piety and mercy will not only deign to
   conserve this city and state, but allow it to grow daily. (p. 260)

(3.) McClure (1981) notes of London in the 18th century that there was a growing need for orphan institutions with the burgeoning of the middle classes. Filius Nullius referred to the lack of legal rights under English law for illegitimate children. It is noted that among Puritan adherents, sexual jealousy helped shape prejudice. For example, an illegitimate child was proof that an erring couple had indulged in the flesh (p. 12). In continental Europe, Catholicism saw the value of preserving children's souls through baptism. Also, the existence of standing armies meant that foundlings were seen as potential soldiers, as well as colonists (p. 12).

(4.) State formation, in many societies, involves the complexities of power struggles, sites of contestation, domains of influence, and the formulation and manifestation of gender issues. The Ministry of Social Affairs in Egypt attests to these manifestations in its complex role of balancing between Islamic and secular domains.

(5.) The question of unwanted children is not simple in any society. A poor or illiterate woman in Egypt is normally on the ID card of her husband or her father. (The ID card is an official government document issued by the state.) If she should be separated from her husband, she does not have a 'marker' for citizenship (this marker represents her legal existence, verifying name, age, gender, address and religion). The procedures of ID issuing are bureaucratic, intimidating and lengthy. Without ID a woman cannot access social security, a pension, complain to police, or get her children into school (Bibars, 2001: 18). Illiteracy rates in Egypt are said to be 42 per cent. The inability to access government benefits clearly contributes to the continuance of poverty rates and problems for sustaining the household. It has been argued that 'as religions and ethnic identities become increasingly politicized, the state has tended to sacrifice women's hard-won civil rights on the altar of a politics of identity that prioritizes control of women' (Bibars, 2001: 15).

(6.) Fahmi (2000) examines the role of the various ministries in Egypt during the Mubarak period on the topic of orphans, while Salih (1986) draws on Qur'anic writings, as these address issues about orphans in society.

(7.) The women's movement in Egypt has a long and rich history, especially in the 20th century. Many women campaigned for increased literacy, greater community organization, and (as in the West) for increased rights, in the final decades of the 20th century (Wassef and Wassef, 2001). Huda Sha'rawi was instrumental in the Egyptian feminist movement of the 1920s to the 1940s, encouraging women to become active in the community. She and hundreds of others donated time and money to the pursuit of greater freedom, a tradition which flourishes today among many of the educated.

(8.) Though children may theoretically be adopted into an Egyptian family, the bureaucracy involved is, for many, far too complicated. Additionally, the adoptive parents will continue to face stigmatization from other families. Egyptian law explicitly states that no child can have his/her name changed upon becoming a member of another family. Islam does not allow adoption, but Muslims are allowed to raise a child that is not theirs. However, the child must be named after the birth father. Even when the father is not known, the child is not to be named after the person who raises him/her, as rules about marriage, inheritance, custody, provision and punishment are intrinsically linked to blood lineage. And laws of inheritance stipulate an economic favouring of natural offspring. It should also be remembered that only married couples can consider the possibility of adoption. The net result of these factors is that most children remain in orphanages until their teens, and even later for the girls.

(9.) In Egypt, there is a national day once a year called Orphans' Day, when the general public is encouraged to donate money and visit a local orphanage. Local universities or colleges participate to generate good will.

(10.) All interviews quoted in this research were conducted by the author, tape-recorded and transcribed. All quotations are verbatim. Pseudonyms are used to protect the anonymity of respondents, and particular orphanages are referred to by number. All interviews, with one exception, took place in April 2004. The data are archived for confidentiality.

(11.) Laqeet also means 'foundling' or 'worthless'. At present, there is a move to remove the word from common usage. Indeed, a number of orphanages call themselves 'care societies'. Another orphanage in my sample referred to itself as 'Orphan Home'.

(12.) Egypt has one million orphans, and there are 200 orphanages in Cairo. It should be noted that orphan statistics in Egypt include single mother families, thereby indicating that a fatherless family is also one of sufficiently low status. Female-headed households comprise a significant proportion of Egypt's population, both urban and rural (Bibars, 2001: 1). In fact, female-headed households have been called 'male-absent households' in recent public and political discourse. Bibars argues that the male's absence creates dysfunction in the family (p. 21). Bibars further says that women are especially disadvantaged because the feminization of poverty in Egypt means an economic deterioration of family life, exacerbated by the gendered ideology of the welfare state and its bureaucracy (p. 5).

(13.) Nearly all the girls' orphanages were surrounded by concrete walls and a gate, with a guard on duty 24 hours. There were two exceptions. In the first, the orphanage was located adjacent to a hospital. Thus, the gate was a thoroughfare for other types of personnel. General access was easier here, and indeed, a legitimate-looking stranger could walk through into the entrance driveway and gain entry into the main building, where the offices, main floor of the orphanage and access to infants were located. The young children's dormitories and their outside recreation area could also be accessed. The other orphanage with fairly open access was undergoing construction. Workers milled about where infants were housed. While these workmen hammered at walls, mixed cement and polished marble floors with their heavy and clattering machines, life in the nursery continued.

(14.) Islam honours those who do good to orphans. Such citizens are seen as blessed and generous. According to the hadith reported by Al Bukhari, the prophet Mohammed said, 'I and the guardian of an orphan will be in Paradise like these two fingers, and he joined his two fingers'.

Jacqueline A. Gibbons works on women's issues as these relate to questions of oppression, confinement, physical containment and creativity. She has published on issues of female incarceration in the Australian, Canadian and South African contexts. Her work on women's hostels in India addresses ways that women resource themselves inside the particular communities of hostels. These research areas all address questions of struggle, resistance and personal creativity in such settings.

Address: York University (McLaughlin College), 4700, Keele St., Toronto M3J 1P3, Ontario, Canada. (
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Date:Aug 1, 2005
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