Lila Abu-Lughod and the Bedouin

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Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod lived with the Awlad 'Ali Bedouin women in Egypt while conducting field research. The idea behind the study was to examine the pregnancy practices used by the Bedouin women. The study was happening while Abu-Lughod was exper

Palestinian-American Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod focuses on three broad issues: the relationship between cultural forms and power; the politics of knowledge and representation; and the dynamics of gender and the question of women’s rights in the Middle East. She’s essentially a specialist on the Arab world, basing long term ethnographic research on topics from sentiment and poetry to nationalism and media, from gender politics to the politics of memory.


Besides Abu-Lughod's lengthy resume of accolades, one of her most recognizable works was with the Awlad 'Ali Bedouin women she lived with in Egypt. The idea behind the study was to examine the pregnancy practices used by the Bedouin women. The study was happening while Abu-Lughod was experiencing fertility issues. She expressed the western views of pregnancy, and the fact that as a feminist, it was dangerous to reject "science and technology and says, "So what if for two days a petri dish served as my fallopian tubes?"

Two Pregnancies

Abu-Lughod worked with the Bedouin prior to her IVF procedure, studying the women’s approach to pregnancy. She found that the women carried out everyday life in much the same way while pregnant: working and cleaning, making food, and carrying large bundles across long distances.

Her infertility issues transferred over to her fieldwork in which the women assisted her in ritual Bedouin practices for fertility. These are several of the practices used by the Bedouin to aid Lila Abu-Lughod with her pregnancy:

  • She was brought to a well at a Pharaonic temple and told to bath in the water.
  • She was told to leave using a different path so to essentially open the birth canal to receive the eggs for fertilization.
  • She was asked to step back and forth in a casket at a Coptic monastery using her right foot first.
  • She was told to tie a green fabric under her breast and bath with it three times.
  • She was told to stuff a cloth, which was torn from the corner of a coffin, inside her while her and her husband had sex.
  • She went to see a Muslim curer, who was famous throughout the area.

The Bedouin treated pregnancy as a natural thing, which was interesting in that fact that Lila was experiencing a sterile and scientific experience back in the states. The Bedouin women, including one woman named Kareema, knew they were pregnant by simply missing their periods, getting sick, feeling fatigued, they didn’t want to smoke, and they had aversions to their husbands. Many of the same symptoms expressed by western women.

Abu-Lughod realized that when you get pregnant for the first time you start to understand and see other women in a different light. The Bedouin women felt for Lila in the same way as sisters would for a childless state. They wanted to help in everyway they knew they could. When a Bedouin woman had her baby, there was an enormous support system and a sectioning off from men. There were women to cook and do laundry and they told jokes and silly stories all through the night. They also believed that a new mother should never be left alone because she’s vulnerable. She can succumb to postpartum depression. In order to protect Lila, the Bedouin women gave her a silver bracelet to protect her in her path towards becoming pregnant.

Final Thought

Essentially, the message behind Lila Abu-Lughod's research is the fact that science should not be ignored by feminists, while undergoing fertility measures. It's important to recognize the parallels in other cultures when it comes to fertility, especially the fact that western women also experience postpartum depression. For women looking at the practice of IVF, it's imperative to read the research presented to gain a better understanding of procedures that women across the world use for fertility and infertility.


Abu-Lughod, Lila. A Tale of Two Pregnancies (1952)


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