“I fell in love with her voice before I saw her,” said Aysha Albusmait of the then three-year-old Reem in 2013. “She opened my heart, like light…”
Named the top Dubai Government Official in 2007, 49-year-old Albusmait is the communication and marketing director for the Dubai Sports Council. She is also one of the many Emirati women adopting a child as a single mother, taking bold strides in forming their families beyond the conventional customs of the region and local culture.
Although her family was perplexed at first as to why she adopted Reem, they remained supportive. Now, she has two friends who are looking to adopt as well.
“I was saying, ‘I’m doing a lot in this life, but still I don’t feel challenged,” Albusmait told Al Jazeera. There’s something missing. It’s not getting married … but I have something missing. I want to adopt.'”
Through the Community Development Authority’s new social service program, Embrace, single Emirati women are increasingly looking to adopt, marking a historic cultural change for the country and the region as well.
Primarily responsible for providing care for abandoned children within Dubai, the CDA provides various resources in conjunction with shelters, housing institutions and alternative families. In accordance with Islamic law and values, the organization encourages Emirati families to participate in the program.
Since the birth of the program in 2013, however, the second highest category of adopters are single Emirati women, after married couples who are unable to their own, who make up 40 percent. The rest are families who already have children but are looking to have more.
“There is about 40 percent of Emirati women who are never married or marry late. Those people instead of waiting for the right guy to come, build their own family,” said Dr Huda Al Suwaidi, director of CDA’s Family Development Department. “A single mum previously would never have thought of adopting a child, culturally it (was) not acceptable. A widow or divorcee might have the courage to do it, but now even these women are courageous enough to do it … It’s a big step, definitely a positive one … it says our community is accepting these children.”
Although conventional adoption is prohibited under Sharia law, fostering children, particularly orphans, has long been encouraged in Islam.
American lawyer and head of the Muslim Adoption Network, Yusraa Gomaa said, “What Islam forbids is stripping away a child’s sense of his own biological lineage and biological rights.”
The program, therefore, continues to operate on the familiarity of Islam fostering and has not discouraged women and families from adopting. Any child proven to have been abandoned in the UAE is also given citizenship when fostered by the family.
One of the biggest challenges of adopting in the UAE stems from the cultural and societal stigma, and fear of family and friends’ judgment on the issue. One possible reason for this stigma includes recognizing how these abandoned children came to be.
In the UAE, these children are often the result of illicit relationships outside of marriage, which is forbidden in Islam and illegal in the UAE. Some children are also the result of sexual assault and impregnated migrant workers, many of whom are unable to travel back to their home countries. Their fear of deportation forces them to conceal their pregnancies and later, abandon them.
In 2014, the CDA recorded six abandoned children and nine in 2013. Through the program, they were able to help eight boys and six girls find families and stability. However, Embrace continues to hold a strict evaluation procedure for candidates looking to adopt.
According to CDA’s website, a family looking to adopt must be Emirati Muslim residing in the UAE. Couples must be at least 25 years of age while single mothers must be at least 30 years of age. There is also a thorough vetting process of the candidate’s financial, social, and psychological status to ensure they are capable of raising these children. The child is then provided Emirati citizenship, proper education and access to healthcare, all resources they never had as abandoned children.
Despite the overall challenges and still prevalent cultural taboo of adopting, Emirati women still continue to seek adoption a new means of starting and raising a family in the UAE. Now running for three years, the Embrace program has placed over 13 children in homes and loving families.
Ironically enough, they are getting more calls to taken in children but there are not any children to place.
“[The] demand for adopted children far outstrips supply,” said Al Suwaidi. “Every time [those on the waiting list] call us and fight with us and we say – fortunately and unfortunately – there are no children.”