Marcia Inhorn and I sat down after a panel in which she and several others presented new research on “emergent masculinities” in the Middle East. We found a small nook in the crowded lobby of the Sheraton and began a fascinating conversation about what led her to the research that informs her new book, The New Arab Man. After many years of researching Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) and their effects on women in the region, Inhorn realized that Arab men were also grappling with these new technologies and high rates of male infertility. After encouragement from an Arab male colleague, Inhorn conducted interviews with Arab men across the Middle East on their experiences with ARTs and especially intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), a variant of IVF to overcome male infertility.
Rehenuma Asmi (RA): What led you to undertake the research for this book?
Marcia Inhorn (MI): In The New Arab Man, I am continuing to follow the development of these new reproductive technologies, as they rapidly spread to the Middle East. In fact, the Middle East has one of the strongest ART industries in the world. In vitro fertilization (IVF) was introduced in 1986, and in 1994, the demand for ICSI literally took off, because male infertility is the most frequent cause of reproductive failure in the Middle East. Both male and female infertility affects marriage and family life, regardless of religion or social class. So, for me, studying infertility has provided a fascinating entrée into many aspects of social life in Middle East. In The New Arab Man, I am arguing that men and ideas of masculinity are changing across the region, as seen through the ethnographic lens of infertility, ARTs, and couples’ commitments to using these technologies. In my own work, I have witnessed how men nurture their wives and family relationships, and how women, including infertile ones, often express how lucky they are to have great husbands, men who really love them.
RA: What were some of surprises and challenges that emerged in your work?
MI: There is an assumption in Middle East studies that it is difficult for women to do research that involves working with men, especially on such private matters. A Moroccan male colleague encouraged me to do this research, arguing that it might actually be easier for a woman to discuss these kinds of “sensitive” issues with men who are suffering from reproductive health problems. Although many men in IVF clinics did not want to speak with me, the majority did. And so I have ended up doing hundreds of interviews with men alone, as well as with infertile couples in what we might call “marital ethnography.” Men generally welcomed the opportunity to talk about these private aspects of their lives. It was almost cathartic for them to share their experiences, often for the first time.
Another finding that challenges common assumptions, both in the scholarly literature and popular media, is about the way Arab men are expected to behave in relationships with women. What has emerged from my own studies—going back to my earliest work with poor Egyptian couples—is the compassion and love that husbands and wives often have for each another. A lot of men are trying to unseat patriarchy in their own lives, and are trying to be different kinds of men. Conjugal love, connection and commitment emerged as major characteristics of contemporary marriage. Building off Suad Joseph’s term “patriarchal connectivity,” I call this “conjugal connectivity,” and it has been an enduring finding. Another stereotype that my research challenges is technological backwardness in the region. Medicine in the region is often very sophisticated, and new biomedical technologies are making their way to the Middle East rapidly, where they are being discussed and debated by Islamic authorities. The discourse of religious scholars on assisted reproductive technologies is an important part of my book, where I discuss men’s engagement with these new technologies and the religious discourses and opinions about them.
RA: Have you considered advocating for change to the IVF industry in the Middle East?
MI: I continue to remain strongly connected to the IVF clinics in which I have worked, and I always provide them with copies of my books, as well as a summary of my research findings. Two other ways that I do advocacy work is through a new millennial project for low-cost IVF (LCIVF). Many people around the world cannot afford reproductive technologies, including in the Middle East. So a number of scholar-activists are working on bringing very low-cost forms of IVF to the global South. Another area in which I now serve as a resource is for those needing information on Islam and assisted reproduction. For example, genetic counselors, medical-legal people, and Muslim couples themselves will sometimes contact me as a reference to know what is allowed or not allowed in Islam in regards to assisted reproduction.
RA: What types of research would you like to see inspired by this work?
MI: More anthropologists should study technology in the region, not only in medicine, but in other important realms, such as water and oil. There are so many fascinating aspects of contemporary Middle Eastern society that involve technological innovation. I would also really like to see more medical anthropologists doing work in the region, on issues such as stem cell research, new genetic technologies, and emerging Middle Eastern conditions such as obesity, diabetes, disabilities, and the need for supportive elder care.
RA: What projects are you currently work on?
MI: I am currently working on two book projects. I am almost finished with a book called Cosmopolitan Conceptions: IVF Sojourns in Global Dubai, about the global influx of medical travelers, primarily from South Asia, East African, and parts of the Middle East and Europe, into Dubai for assisted reproduction. Dubai has fashioned itself as a kind of “techno-hub,” and has the region’s only “medi-city.” So global cosmopolitans, mostly elite professional couples, are traveling in and out of Dubai in their search for infertility treatment. In my own study, I interviewed more than 200 people from exactly 50 different countries, all of them coming to a very global clinic on the border of Dubai. To my knowledge, this will be the first medical anthropology book on the Arab Gulf, highlighting a different aspect of life in Dubai. I am also starting a book on infertility and health disparities among very low-income Arab immigrant and refugee couples in “Arab Detroit,” Michigan. For five years, I conducted research in an Arab-serving infertility clinic, where I met nearly one hundred very sad, struggling infertile men and women. I plan to call that book Barren Dreams.
You can contact Marcia C Inhorn at email@example.com and contributing editor, Rehenuma Asmi, at firstname.lastname@example.org.