Children Have Rights: A Decolonial Islamic Perspective

Islam, five letters that put my jittery nerves at ease and light my heart with purpose. These same five letters often elicit a different set of emotions in the Western world. With its most recent iteration being over 1,400 years old, Islam is still seen through the islamophobic and orientalist lens that brands it as backwards, oppressive to women and queers in service of a patriarchal society, ruled by the supreme patriarch himself, “Allah”. This misgendering of God is only one of the many misconceptions that continue to plague us and obstruct the tools lying within that can serve as a means for our collective liberation. Capitalism and colonial rule are so directly opposed to the reproductive justice lens inherent in so many islamic principles, that its vilification is necessary to allow for the continued dehumanization of people and the consecutive destabilization of our political formations, societies and lands. 

Imperialism creates the conditions that destroy homes, separate families, leave women without partners to raise their children, and children orphaned. These man-made conditions allow for the creation of new industries to commodify Black and brown bodies to meet the needs of the Western world. Our land and bodies have historically been the source of imperial fodder and the practice is still alive and well in underdeveloped colonies and imperial hubs alike. 

This commodification of African people’s bodies specifically, paired with the simultaneous massacring of other Indigenous peoples and the pillaging of Turtle Island, made way for the settler colonial project now known as the United States. The forceful removal and genocide of indigenous peoples left a void the colonialist class needed to fill. Black bodies became the labor force needed to work the land, and through stripping Black women of all bodily autonomy, the spoils of the slave trade were multiplied through their wombs. The legal rape of Black women became the means of producing more slaves. Families were often torn apart on the auction block for punishment or capital gain. With emancipation came more subversive means of family policing for Black and indigenous communities. 

For indigenous communities, boarding schools historically served as a means to undermine indigenous parental control, and erase indigenous culture with the forceful removal of children from their families and whitewashing their children to create more obedient and docile colonial subjects. These boarding schools served as sites of assimilation and genocide. Federal studies have just started uncovering the truths about the number, nature, and histories of these institutions, already revealing over 400 schools and at least 50 associated burial grounds with over 500 deaths at just 19 of those assimilation camps. 

On colonized Turtle Island, enslavement lives on through the 13th amendment. With the world’s largest incarcerated population, the war on Black women and families is far from over. The removal of Black men from their families, homes and communities has long since been understood. However, the growing number of Black women in prisons is yet to be thoroughly investigated. The New Jane Crow, a witty moniker, symbolizes the fact that Black women are the fastest growing population in U.S prisons with numbers soaring by 800%. The Black child is similarly targeted; in places like New York City we see that Black children make up 60% of those in foster care while white children only make up around 5%. Similarly, in the few states where indigenous families have been able to protect and maintain their culture, their family structures are under much scrutiny by these state agencies. In 2022, indigenous children made up 12% of South Dakota’s youth population but made up 53% of children in state custody (foster care). 

Sociologist and law professor Dorothy Roberts explains the assault on Black and indigenous families in her book, “Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families- And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World.” She asks the question, “if we are clear that U.S governmental services are geared towards serving the needs of white interests, why then is it that the subject of child welfare services are directed at Black children and not protecting white ones?” Continuing the long history of forced family separation for Black and indigenous children, under Clinton U.S. social services moved from providing family support with the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), to temporary aid with the creation of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). In this same time period the First Lady Hillary Clinton, exemplar of white femininity and motherhood, centered her work around adoption and publically supported adoption legislation.          

Both domestically and abroad, colonized people are subjected to war and exploitation then criminalized for surviving in those contexts. The Department of Family and Child Services forcibly removes children from their loving mothers for living in poverty, using the misnomer of  “neglect” as the basis. Under these systems it is the colonized subject that is penalized for the poor living conditions of children living in overcrowded housing. The centuries of trauma faced by Black and brown families is now magnified by parental undermining, state sanctioned separation and sometimes years of bureaucratic red tape, if reunion is permitted at all. Internationally, we see western powers actively destabilize countries then draw support for the humanitarian disasters therein. In the absence of an anti-imperialist movement, white liberals and feminists alike swoop in to ‘rescue’ women from their backward cultures and children of their war torn countries. This manufactured vulnerability opens up a new market, with Black and brown children as the commodity. 

Countries in the global south are now coming to the conclusion Islam made clear to us almost 1500 years ago: adoption as we have come to know it is criminal. In the Islamic tradition, adoption is only a last resort with all means to preserve family ties exhausted. Parents have rights, but so do children in Islam. Not only should mothers never be separated from their babies due to a lack of means, it is within a child’s rights to be breastfed for the first two years of life, making forced separation an assault on both mothers and children’s rights. Islam places great emphasis on family and maintaining people’s histories:

“Nor has He (Allâh) made your adopted sons your sons. Such is (only) your (manner of) speech by your mouths. But God tells the truth, and He shows the way. Call them by (the names of) their fathers, that is better in the sight of God”. But if you do not know their fathers’ names, call them your brothers in faith or your friends. There is no blame on you in whatever mistakes you made in this matter, but what counts is the intention of your hearts. Allah is oft-Forgiving and most Merciful.”

(Al-Ahzab 33:4-5)

This verse from the Quran is in stark contrast with the liberal practices of whitewashing Black and Brown children to create the most perfect, assimilated colonial subjects. Far from preserving a child’s surname as commanded in Islam, children are stripped of all identity and forced to assimilate to the (usually white) culture of their adopted families. The adoption industry commodifies children to the point that adopting families can build their ideal child with preselected genders and names.

In “Billion Dollar Baby Industry: The Cost of Open Adoption”, Louis Thereaux follows a white couple on their quest to adopt a yet to be born baby girl, Maya. The wife, in her desperate desire for a child, is seen praying that the pregnant Latin mother doesn’t “change her mind” and choose to stay with her child, leaving her without the child she wants, a desire predicated on women’s inability to financially support their child and resorting to a traumatic separation. This woman’s worst fears were realized, Maya’s empty crib; a poor woman of color chose to raise her newborn despite the lack of social support.  The cultural importance of Islam’s stance on preserving a child’s name and culture is displayed when we fast forward to find that the family later successfully adopted a child, while not the unborn child in question earlier, Maya remained her name. It is in this way we see that Black and brown children are robbed of their own identities to serve the growing needs of the white consumer. When one Maya is lost, she is easily replaced by the misfortunes of another impoverished woman. 

Beyond preserving the names of orphans, Islam emphasizes the importance of culture, with the responsibility of caring for an orphan as one of the State’s. Orphans have the right to a life in the societies from which they are from. Imperial powers strip orphans of this right as their countries are destabilized with little infrastructure to care for its citizens, international adoption serves as the only means of survival for many. The phenomenon of the“Butter box babies” highlights the dangers of uplifting family separation as a cure for symptoms of economic and political turmoil. During WWII, Halifax had a growing number of unwed mothers due to the influx of troops departing for England. The Ideal Maternity Home was run in Nova Scotia, a nearby town and provided maternity care for married couples and adoption services for the unwed mothers. The U.S’s policies against interfaith adoption left the Jewish communities of New York and New Jersey with gaping needs that the Ideal Maternity Home sought to fill. With little in the form of social support, unwed mothers seeking care were either coerced to handover their newborns or told they died soon after birth. This black market provided predominantly Jewish families with a surplus of capital for the children of their dreams. If a single child was desired, siblings were split apart. If siblings were requested, then blood ties were fabricated. This lucrative business led to the neglect and murder of many undesired infants that were buried in “butter boxes”. About 500 infants were found buried on this land and children adopted through this institution are now struggling to reconnect with their blood family members. 

In our neocolonial context, children are transported into colonial lands, stripped of language and culture, making assimilation the only option. This vulnerability makes space for even greater violence on the individual. Transported to places where they are the minority, many Black and Brown children find themselves over-policed, pathologized and institutionalized. 

“Even if we are poor, it’s better to be with our society, Nationality is not replaced by money.” 

Unnamed Ethiopian national

In the mid 2000s, word began to spread about abuses many Ethiopian adoptees were facing in the U.S. Stories like that of Addison, a young Ethiopian girl adopted only because her baby brother (the only sibling placed in an orphanage) was being adopted, the American family seeking a young infant decided they’d like an older child to accompany them to assist with childcare. Her mother, considering the standard of living this American family could offer her daughter when her own prospects seemed slim, decided to allow them to adopt her daughter as well. Very quickly the culture shock and isolation lead the preteen into depression, causing a cascade of misguided interventions and medical violence. The new guardians assumed her disposition to be that of psychosis: Addison was in and out of hospitalization and placed on antipsychotics. With no anticipation of the needs of a displaced child, her guardians opted to place her in foster care, where specialists later cleared her of all diagnoses and discontinued her pharmaceutical regimen. The StoryBoard Project highlights Addison’s story through foster care and transitional homes, where she reflects, “I just wanted someone to talk to, that’s it. I just needed a support system.” She was never adopted again and aged out of the system at 18. 

In Unwanted in America, Dan Rather uncovers the story of another set of Ethiopian siblings in Seattle, a hub of sorts for Ethiopian adoptees, relocated from their home country into a family with over 20 children. After years of abuse the adopted parents began filing criminal charges against these young immigrants, a move that would absolve them of any legal or financial responsibility over the children. “I just want to go back to my country, I don’t want to die in someone else’s country”, says Abay, the oldest of the adopted children now finding himself without family, shelter, or cultural belonging. After growing concerns over child abuse and reports of rural kidnapping to feed the growing adoption industry, Ethiopia closed its doors to international adoption in 2018, assuming state responsibility over the welfare of orphan children. 

“The best Jihad is to say a word of truth before a tyrant ruler.” 

Sunan Abu Dawud, Hadith No. 4344

The argument supporting expanded social services for families and children has been clear. As is our duty to God and each other, we must ensure our people’s needs are being met by governments that serve us. With the clear call for muslims to stand against tyrannical law and to fully support the rights of orphans and children, it is imperative that we consistently struggle to shift the context that makes reproductive justice just a figment of our imaginations. Liberal institutions under capitalism will continue to exploit our most vulnerable, even if disguised as humanitarian aid. Our dignity and destiny cannot be dependent on the morality of our colonizers’ children. Until our nation’s resources are directed at serving the needs of its citizens it is our duty to push beyond liberal reforms and build a decolonial movement that centers the needs of families, protecting children, and decommodifies bodies, as Islam commands us. 

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Leila is a Pan African community organizer and birth worker based out of Atlanta, GA.