Infertility and Patriarchy: The Cultural Politics of Gender and Family Life in Egypt
by Marcia C. Inhorn
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. 296 pp. $36.95 ($16.95, paper).
Reviewed by Daniel Pipes
Middle East Quarterly
When anthropologists ran out of exotic tribesmen and peasants to study, they focused their attention on seemingly more familiar urban societies. The results are sometimes startling, for commonplace apartment buildings and ordinary marketplaces shelter an enormous range of custom and outlook. Basing herself at an infertility clinic in Alexandria, Inhorn deeply explores the world of Egypt's barren women, along the way turning up much fascinating information; for example, the urban poor believe that the man places a fetus inside the woman; learning that women have eggs produces a shocked response (like chickens!). Her study tells about the place of children in Egypt, the changing nature of the family, the role of superstition, men's reluctance to let wives work, and the chances for birth control to succeed.
Several points stand out: Egyptian women who cannot conceive are haunted by their condition ("Why am I living if I don't have any children?"), not just in family and social settings, but also out of fear that husbands will ditch them (or add another wife): "People think that if a woman has no children, a man is feeding her for nothing," observes one informant. "I worry all the time" says another. Yet, contrary to universal belief, her survey research finds that childless marriages do hold together.
One warning: As the title suggests, Inhorn packages her excellent analysis within an envelope of predictable and tedious feminism, full of "gendered" this and "patriarchal" that. Fortunately, the envelope is easily removed, leaving a gem of study within.
1 Indeed, this is her second volume on the same general topic. In Quest for Conception: Gender, Infertility, and Egyptian Medical Traditions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), Inhorn studies the "search for children"; the present study considers the failure of that search.
Related Topics: Egypt, Sex and gender relations | Daniel Pipes | June 1997 MEQ
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