Can fatwas help Egypt with birth control?

The pro-government policy religious discourse represents the shortest way to change the attitudes of poor social groups, in which family planning is often absent.
Sunday 16/12/2018
Egyptian parents teach newborns how to swim in Cairo.        (Reuters)
Fast-moving tide. Egyptian parents teach newborns how to swim in Cairo. (Reuters)

Religious discourse is being used to persuade Egyptians to limit families to two children in line with government efforts to ease population density. The government has threatened to cut social aid to families who don’t comply.

Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawki Allam recently issued fatwas that reflect the remarkable shift in the institutions’ dealing with family matters. “Family planning and birth reduction are inevitable religious matters. They’ve become a religious duty that is part of what is needed and necessary,” he said.

This pro-government policy religious discourse represents the shortest way to change the attitudes of poor social groups, in which family planning is often absent.

The World Health Organisation has said much of the Egyptian population’s reluctance to use contraceptives and follow family planning programmes show that conservative religious attitudes are conflicting with the government’s economic development agenda.

Mahmoud Gamal, an illiterate building attendant in El Matareya district north of Cairo and father of six, said he had been raised to believe a large family is preferable because “interfering in having two or three children is forbidden religiously.”

Gamal’s opinion is common among a social class that the government believes is fuelling unsustainable population growth. That class inherited conservative religious and cultural attitudes that are resistant to certain family planning methods.

Samia Mansour, a sociology professor at Ain Shams University in Cairo, said that “any step aimed at persuading families to reduce birth rates will not work without the relevant accompanying religious, media and cultural discourse because there is a firm belief planted by grandparents in offspring that interfering with the number of births is haram.”

Mansour said controlling the religious discourse about family planning and limiting parents to two children requires the government to exercise control over the imams, sheikhs and jurists who offer a differing voice to the official religious institutions. Unchecked religious authorities tell people that parents must not interfere in procreation matters. Such fatwas are impossible to override.

Some extremist religious militants have orchestrated a social media campaign deriding the views of Egypt’s educational institute, Dar al-Ifta, on family planning. Salafists say official religious institutions are being used as a cover to legitimise the government’s decision to limit financial aid to needy families who have only two children. They say this is also likely to lead to further legislation heaping heavy penalties on families that refuse to abide by birth-reduction initiatives.

The Egyptian Ministry of Health established additional family planning clinics to provide free contraceptives and initiated a radio programme produced for the “Two are Enough” campaign in cooperation with al-Azhar University and Dar al-Ifta. The programme focuses on correcting what it views as religious misconceptions on family planning.

The ministry is training nurses and rural social workers in family planning centres on how to encourage rural women to limit family size to two children. The ministry plans to carry out about 4 million door-to-door visits and 5,000 awareness-raising seminars focused on the benefits of small families.

The major stumbling block lies with those wishing for large families who do not understand or ignore the government’s message. For them, a child, from an economic standpoint, is much more important than the government’s aid, as the latter could be interrupted at any moment.

Three heads of families interviewed said they do not believe in family planning. They said that, for modest-income families, particularly in rural areas, losing government aid is inconsequential because their “economy” is based on their children. Their lives would not be affected by the suspension of the government’s monthly aid that one of their children can earn in three or four days.

There are other factors that make it difficult to convince low income parents to adopt the government’s approach on family planning in exchange for aid, such as early marriages, lack of education and a cultural emphasis on women having a male child, which can cause them to give birth over and over.

Mansour said changing cultural norms and ideas related to childbearing would require raising awareness through civil society, religious institutions and the media, in addition to incentivising families who respond. Sanctions alone, she said, would not shift a deeply ingrained culture and one religious institution by itself would not be able to correct ideas long espoused by religious hardliners.