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  • Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, Vol. 3: Family, Body, Sexuality, and Health
  • Hormoz Ebrahimnejad
Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, Vol. 3: Family, Body, Sexuality, and Health Suad Joseph, ed. Leiden: Brill, 2006 xxiv, 564 pp., $356.00 (cloth)

In the last half century or so, the gender question has become increasingly the focus of much historical and sociological research, in tandem with the growing social emancipation of women and as a reaction to the dominant historiography that for centuries has been written by men. The third volume of the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, titled Family, Body, Sexuality, and Health, falls within this exercise.

The volume examines the following subjects: aging, the body, breastfeeding, celibacy, child marriage, childhood, courtship, disabilities, food preparation, funerary practices, genital cutting, health practices and education, poverty, HIV and AIDS, reproduction, incest, love, marriage, science, sexuality, sports, suicide, and virginity. These subjects are discussed under fifty-five entries including eighteen overviews. The volume does not focus exclusively on the Islamic religion but addresses also social and cultural contexts; nor does it restrict its geographical span to the Middle East and Islamic countries but covers also Muslim communities all over the world including in the West.

The entries are organized topically in alphabetical order and within each topic alphabetically by region. Although this method in principle is of great interest, as it addresses subjects thematically and across different regions or countries, bridging thus the historio graphical gap between the West and the East, or between the North and the South, in fact the regions as well as the subjects are covered extremely unevenly, to the extent that Arab states are discussed in the majority of entries, while Muslim communities in North America are rarely discussed.

Uneven also are the quality and length of the entries. The immense scope of the book, covering a wide range of subjects and thus requiring contributions of hundreds of scholars who have necessarily different levels of skills and expertise in their domains, is partly responsible for this problem. Not only were the editors obliged to reduce the number of entries initially planned, but also they had to reject a number of the papers deemed to be unpublishable. Despite this effort, the contrast in content between some entries is glaring.

The organization of the entries and the choice of regions or countries and periods of study are also arbitrary. For instance, courtship has an entry on Muslim communities in Canada, but childhood and matters related to health issues about Canadian Muslim immigrants remain undiscussed. Likewise, some entries are devoted to both modern Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, while this is not the case for other countries. For instance, sexuality is discussed in Iran today but not in modern Turkey, while it is examined under the Ottoman Empire but not for nineteenth-century Iran. This is unfortunate because there are also considerable historical and medical sources on sexuality in Iran and India or Egypt in premodern times. Likewise, it is odd that entries such as “health education,” “health and poverty,” or “sexually transmitted diseases” are devoted to Arab states, while there is no entry on “health policies” for Arab states despite its intrinsic connection to these other topics.

In addition to the uneven coverage of topics and regions, conspicuous differences in the quality of the entries should also be noted. For example, on “virginity” a short paragraph is devoted to the Ottoman Empire, and yet this is limited to Egypt and Syria (under Ottoman rule), and even this is based on secondary sources (462–63), whose interpretation does not necessarily reflect the reality in Egypt or Syria and in any case cannot stand for factual evidence for those regions, let alone for the whole of the Ottoman territories. In contrast, the topic of virginity in Eastern Europe is well researched and provides a convincing and fine argument.

Some entries dealing with issues that principally require archival or anthropological research are instead prepared on the basis of secondary publications. On Central Asia, for example, political changes introduced by the Soviet regime allowing women access to free education or enhancing their social and professional status are underscored, whereas social and cultural...


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