Though hospital studies have often focused on the vertical relationships between patients and medical staff, the interactions between patients have received much less attention. Whereas interaction with staff members is episodic, patients often spend long hours sharing intimate space and daily routines. Such encounters are particularly important when hospitals cater to social groups embedded in socio-political tensions. This paper examines the encounters between women on two sides of a socio-political divide: for several days during and after birth, Israeli Jewish and Arab-Bedouin women, share intimate proximity. Many Negev Bedouin women seldom interact with women outside their own immediate social circles, let alone Jewish-Israelis. Most do not move freely in public space, particularly in spaces that are mixed by gender and ethnicity. I suggest that hospital maternity wards present an unusual encounter zone embodying various contradictions. While birthing is central to the political, it also inspires the core metaphors of motherhood and shared humanity. Employing such metaphors can be simultaneously empowering and disempowering. Akin to the de-politicizing potential of medicalization processes, it often conceals the body politics. I analyze the significance of Bedouin women's encounters with unfamiliar women both Jewish and Bedouin and argue that these encounters are particularly revealing for what they betray of Bedouin women's negotiation of self and other. Bedouin women establish unmediated knowledge about the Other and refer to these observations to reflect critically on their own society. Additionally, Bedouin women engage in complex deliberations among themselves, sharing experiential knowledge and concerns related to childcare and motherhood, and in the process generate a critical debate that reaches far beyond these specific issues. The hospital is thus not merely a site where health-related values and practices are enacted, but one where they are formulated, negotiated, and challenged vis-à-vis others. I thus argue for the significance of studying what I here call "lay encounters." They betray the larger social context in which they are embedded.


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pp. 719-754
Launched on MUSE
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