Infertility and Patriarchy: The Cultural Politics of Gender and Family Life in Egypt

Infertility and Patriarchy: The Cultural Politics of Gender and Family Life in Egypt

Infertility and Patriarchy: The Cultural Politics of Gender and Family Life in Egypt

Infertility and Patriarchy: The Cultural Politics of Gender and Family Life in Egypt


The social consequences of infertility place poor urban women in Egypt at the center of a web of tumultuous relationships with spouses, in-laws, and neighbors. Although Egyptian patriarchy is based on the central role played by men in reproduction, women are paradoxically blamed for the failure to conceive, and they often face threats of divorce or polygyny, harassment, and community ostracism. Infertility and Patriarchy explores the lives of infertile women whose personal stories depict their daily struggles to resist disempowerment and stigmatization. Marcia C. Inhorn has produced a unique study of gender politics and family life in contemporary Egypt, concluding that the position of infertile women in Egyptian society is being determined by complex and countervailing pressures. As the influence of the patriarchal extended family wanes in urban areas, marital bonds strengthen. Yet the Islamic valorization of motherhood as women's exclusive role presents a potent threat to childless women.


Wealth and offspring are the adornments of earthly life. Qur'an 18:46

Money and children, the divinely extolled allurements of worldly life, are seemingly beyond reach for thousands of Egyptian women -- the former by virtue of urban poverty and the latter by virtue of infertility, the inability to conceive a child. Yet, for these infertile women, it is less poverty than the absence of children -- and, by extension, motherhood -- which is felt, suffered, mourned, and feared each and every day of their lives. In a society where the patriarchal fertility mandate is emphatic, the social and psychological consequences of "missing motherhood" -- of being a woman unable to deliver a child for her husband, family, affines, community, faith, nation, and, not inconsequentially, herself -- are nothing if not profound.

It is these consequences as lived by childless Egyptian women that constitute the subject of this book. As will be seen in the stories of Egyptian women that will follow, infertility may be accompanied by, inter alia, emotional duress, self-doubt and alienation, ostracism and harassment by kin and neighbors, the twin threats of polygynous remarriage or divorce on the part of husbands, and, in some marriages, violence of an emotional and physical nature. Of all of the types of persons that one could be in Egypt, there are very few less desirable social identities than that of the poor infertile woman -- or Umm Il-Ghāyyib, "Mother of the Missing One," as Egyptians are apt to call her -- giving this particular identity all of the classic features of a stigma. In his seminal essay on this subject, Erving Goffman (1963:3) defined a stigma as "an attribute that makes [her] different from others in the category of persons available for [her] to be, and of a less desirable kind -- in the extreme, a person who is quite thoroughly bad, or dangerous, or weak. [She] is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one. Such an attribute is a stigma, especially when its discrediting effect is very extensive."

The stigma of infertility -- and the consequent, pervasive fear of in-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.