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Off to Work At Home: Egyptian Midwives Blur Public-Private Boundaries

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This article uncovers the invaluable work of midwives as medical professionals in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Egyptian society. It challenges the public-private distinction as a way of demonstrating its obscuring effect on measuring Arab women's participation in society. In fact, relying on this conceptualization of space, and by implication, gendered power, can lead to a misleading conclusion. Because Egyptian midwives participated publicly in society, they consequently were unshackled from those social and cultural forces that otherwise segregated them to the private confines of the home. By challenging this construct, this study interrogates what societal participation means to the study of Middle Eastern gender. More specifically, the process of medical modernization in colonial Egypt provides an ideal case study to argue that by becoming modern working women whose profession brought them out into the public in order to work at home, midwives' participation in Egyptian society blurred any neat demarcation of public and private space. Indeed, the public-private paradigm has little analytical value in studying turn-of-the-century Egyptian midwives other than to expose the glaring ways that "public," as buoyed by Western liberal thinking, does not translate into a universal historical experience; if anything, it obscures the powerful agency of these Arab women.

Affiliations: 1: Villanova University


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