Thanks to Kerim and Savage Minds for inviting me to contribute. I thought I’d write something about a new research project I’ve recently started on new and emerging reproductive health technologies in Egypt. This project looks at Egyptian interpretations of four technologies: emergency contraception, medication abortion, hymenoplasty, and erectile dysfunction drugs.
Some interesting paradoxes to contemplate:
- Why are there at least a dozen local brands of sildenafil available from Egyptian pharmacies, and “Viagra sandwiches” or “Viagra soup” is on the menu at almost every restaurant that specializes in seafood, but there is only one brand of emergency contraceptive pill in Egypt, which is sold by an NGO because it’s not considered commercially viable enough for the mainstream pharmaceutical companies to bother with it?
The tap in the bathroom of the apartment where I stay when I’m doing research in Egypt. My roommate and I have often wondered where these came from. Was it a marketing campaign by Pfizer during the era when they weren’t allowed to engage in direct-to-consumer advertising for their product? Or did some sink manufacturer just think it would be cool to put Viagra on the handles?
- A number of studies show that induced abortion (as opposed to “spontaneous abortion” aka miscarriages) is quite common in Egypt; one carefully designed study showed that there are probably as many per capita abortions in Egypt (where abortion is prohibited unless two doctors certify that it’s necessary to protect the health of the mother) as there are abortions in the United States (where it is constitutionally protected but often restricted). Misoprostol, a medication used to treat ulcers, can be used very effectively to induce early abortion, and it’s readily available without prescription from pharmacies in Egypt. Yet preliminary research suggests that its abortifacient properties are virtually unknown to Egyptians. It’s super cheap, and a lot safer than illegal surgical abortions. Women could induce abortions themselves for a few dollars, but instead they risk their future fertility, their health and their lives having unsafe abortions, or they pay huge sums of money to have illegal surgical abortions performed by qualified doctors outside of regular office hours. Why?
- A recent fatwa (a ruling of Islamic jurisprudence) by a leading Egyptian jurist holds that, under certain circumstances, it’s OK for a woman to have surgery to repair her hymen before getting married, to hide the evidence of premarital sex. This fatwa is somewhat controversial, but the person who pronounced the fatwa is no rogue; he’s a highly respected cleric. So if one Islamic authority says it’s OK, why is hymenoplasty not taught in Egyptian medical schools, and why do physicians get nervous or angry when you ask them about it?
I think these are really interesting questions. I’m especially interested in the links between religion and medicine: Like how does the interpretation of a technology by Islamic jurists influence whether something appears on the medical curricula? And when experts in Islamic jurisprudence are asked to provide a ruling on a new technology that they know nothing about, how do they educate themselves about that technology in order to be able to make a ruling about its permissibility in Islam? Who do they go to for answers? Do they go online (like I do)? Do they consult local doctors? International experts?
Beyond the scope of expertise, it’s important to consider what people actually do, sexually and contraceptively, and what extent they are influenced by expert opinion. What about people whose sexual and reproductive lives defy religious codes and cultural norms? What about Christian Egyptians? How do they use these technologies, and do they care about formal religious opinions about these technologies? What about unmarried women who are sexually active? What do they think about expert opinion, how do they navigate fatawa (plural of fatwa) and medical bureaucracies to prevent a pregnancy, or terminate one, or hide evidence that they aren’t virgins when they marry? Things like emergency contraception, medical abortion, and hymenoplasty are technologies that can be used to disguise evidence of non-normative sexuality, and the stakes are particularly high for women, as it is primarily women who bear the consequences of extramarital sex in Egypt – as elsewhere in the world.
But I’m still struggling with the why of this research. Why is this important to study? I was at a dinner party a few months ago with some physicists and I was talking to Professor Ewa Goldys who asked me about my research. Ewa is a big grant-getter in the Physics Department at Macquarie. She listened politely while I talked all about these titillating topics – sex and drugs and abortion and fatwas – and then she said, “But why does this matter? Why is the research important?” I was like, “Because it’s interesting. Duh!”
Unfortunately I have to provide a better answer than “it’s interesting” to get a grant for this research (right now I have a small grant from my university but I’m angling for a big national research grant). So I’ve been thinking about how to frame this as Really Important Research. Maybe someone can help me? Obviously there’s a public health case to be made about women’s health, fertility, and morbidity. And yes, the subject matter is inherently interesting, because it’s fundamentally a story about sex, science, and religion.
But what’s theoretically interesting about this? Yes, religion and medicine mutually influence each other, but that’s hardly a cutting edge insight for medical anthropology. I can say that the project hasn’t been much done before. There’s no work on EC in Egypt, very little written about erectile dysfunction drugs, and not much on hymenoplasty. There have been some fantastic anthropological studies of reproductive health technologies (RHTs) surrounding normative sexualities in Egypt, like Marcia Inhorn’s work on IVF for married couples, but very little work on RHTs that are popularly associated with non-normative sexualities, i.e. for people having extramarital sex. But just saying that “I’m writing about something new” doesn’t get you grant funding.
This is an ongoing project, so any suggestions or criticism are most welcome. You don’t have to know much at all about Islamic jurisprudence or reproductive health medicine to have anything interesting to say about the topic, because the technologies I’m researching are all over the news in the U.S. and elsewhere, and I’m particularly interested in comparative perspectives. Is anyone out there looking at these technologies in other parts of the world?
Next post my Egyptian colleague Dr Hosam Moustafa will join me and we’ll write more about emergency contraception, aka the “morning after pill,” in Egypt. Then we’ll cover erectile dysfunction drugs, medication abortion, and hymen reconstruction surgery. Stay tuned…