Conceiving Citizens: Women and the Politics of Motherhood in Iran

By Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Population Politics

Infant Mortality and the “Crisis” of Midwifery

Travelers to Iran in the nineteenth century often decried the startlingly high rate of infant mortality. In 1843, Reverend Justin Perkins, who opened the American Presbyterian mission in northwestern Iran, observed that a “much larger proportion of children, die in infancy, in a given population among all classes in Persia, than in America.”1 Perkins noted that while births “are far more numerous,” few children survived to adulthood. While he acknowledged the difficulty in explaining “the cause of such mortality,” Perkins speculated that poor hygiene and the early age of marriage were possible contributing factors.2 Writing in 1856, Lady Mary Sheil, wife of British envoy to Persia Sir Justin Sheil, remarked that “the mortality among children is immense, owing to neglect, ignorance, and laziness.” Citing the shah’s French physician, Sheil continued: “Dr. Cloquet… expressed to me his conviction that not above three children in ten outlived their third year.”3 Sheil faulted the local culture of child rearing, including women as the traditional caretakers of children, for this deplorable condition. She described a society in which fairly affluent mothers apparently disliked nursing infants and one that purportedly allowed “nurses” to calm children with bits of opium.4

Nearly four decades later, British official George Nathaniel Curzon documented other scenarios to explain the high mortality of women

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