- Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, Volume 3: Family, Body, Sexuality, and Health
This volume of the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures (EWIC) is devoted to the most gendered and critical of intersections between religion and daily life—that of the personal, the sexual, and the physical. It poignantly expresses how faith and its contexts articulate and shape personal, bodily choices and actions, and counters essentialist interpretations and assumptions that remain wedded to understandings of Islamic ideals and provisions associated with sexual and family matters. It does so through both its choice of topics and its inclination to consider diverse geographies and contexts.
The topics vary from the familiar (marriage, childhood, population and fertility control, reproduction and reproductive choice, virginity) to the critical (abortion, body, celibacy, incest, genital cutting, poverty, sexual practices), to the often ignored or the unusual, such as sports, aging, science, nation and medicalization, disabilities, suicide and food. [End Page 108] In addition, the list of topics includes the personal, such as courtship, love, and mental health. It is rare to find a source that informs on both reproduction and love or that gives some thought to courtship as well as marriage. It is also reassuring to find a comprehensive approach to health that goes beyond the limits of the reproductive years to consider aging and childhood as well, and which contemplates physical, mental, and reproductive health and rights.
The volume addresses these and more topics in a diversity of locations. The geographies covered vary from one topic to another. This decision was probably driven by the availability of scholars able to cover a topic in a particular location. However, the team behind the EWIC endeavor is to be commended for insuring that each topic is addressed in more than one regional or cultural context. This editorial choice conveys a valuable message concerning the impact of time and place in crafting the practices and beliefs of a multidimensional religion that in turn shapes these very cultures and contexts.
For example, abortion is considered in Arab states, Iran, Afghanistan, Tanzania, and Turkey, and in Central and South Asia. While all the entries on abortion remind readers that it is restricted in most Muslim countries, the authors counter the impression of uniformity or universality of practices and policies relating to it. The laxity of applying restrictions in Arab countries is noted, as are variations among Sunni schools of jurisprudence in terms of the stage of a pregnancy at which abortion can be justified (for the Hanafi school, up to 120 days of pregnancy; for the Hanbali school, not at all). For Afghanistan, the point is made that lack of health services altogether forms the greatest restriction on abortion. Iran, on the other hand, has an excellent reproductive healthcare delivery system and maintains what is described as a semi-restrictive abortion policy, contrasted with Central Asian states which retain liberal policies but suffer from failing healthcare systems. Iran’s successful population control effort made contraception freely available but confirmed the prohibition on abortion. However, the discretion of physicians continues to be the gateway to legal abortions. Islamic Iran’s penal code (law no. 194) permits abortion if the pregnancy places the mother’s life in jeopardy and on the grounds of some fetal abnormalities, but the definition of what is life-threatening and which fetal abnormalities remains the prerogative of physicians. [End Page 109]
The entry on South Asia highlights the costs in human terms of unsafe abortions. South Asia’s melange of ethnicities and religions has meant that different countries have different laws that regulate abortion with varying degrees of liberalism. While abortion is illegal across the whole region, some countries permit termination of pregnancy up to twenty weeks of gestation and are liberal in defining the grounds for such terminations. Sex-selective abortions are a major threat to health and a moral concern, and are mainly justified as a means of avoiding dowry in Hindu marriages. While couples may believe that abortion is sinful, the lack of temporary methods for fertility control...