Global Resources

The New Arab Man: Emergent Masculinities, Technologies, and Islam in the Middle East

Author: Marcia Inhorn
Publisher: Department of Anthropology, Boston University
Publication Date: Apr 2015

Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) have quickly spread throughout the Arab world, and are a fruitful and important lens through which to view the changing nature of masculinity in the region. This is the view of Professor Marcia Inhorn, whose work studying infertility as a Middle East scholar led her to present this lecture on how ARTs, in particular Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI), have led to new social and cultural transformations. Furthermore, she seeks to debunk the western myth of the Islamic world as being somehow backwardly religious and anti-scientific. Instead, Islam is shown to be scientifically agentive, and encouraging of the pursuit of high-tech medicine.

Inhorn begins by defining the themes of the lecture, from the emergence and rapid spread and development of ARTs and ICSI, to Islamic bioethical discourse and the concept of ‘emergent masculinity’. The lecture draws on interviews with over 330 men from 14 Arab countries, over the course of 15 years, to chart the transformation of attitudes and social norms on the topic. Inhorn discusses both broad historical trends and individual stories to support her argument that ARTs are transforming the concept of Arab masculinity, in particular through relating the story of Ibrahim, who spent thousands of dollars and travelled far and wide in a sadly unsuccessful and lengthy quest to overcome his infertility.

Generally, Sunni Islamic religious authorities have been very permissive in ARTs to be practiced, allowing IVF, cryopreservasion, and embryo research. However, third-party transmission of eggs or sperm is prohibited, for a number of reasons described herein. Still, this allows room for the substantial adoption of reproductive services that present a challenge to traditional perceptions of masculinity. This adoption has helped male infertility to become equated with diseases such as diabetes, and thus be typically viewed as a medical condition to be overcome as opposed to a sign of diminished manhood. In a region with high rates of male infertility, men often have friends and male relatives who are struggling with infertility which also helps to change attitudes. The modern-day treatment quest can even be a male “badge of honor”, signifying the ways in which men suffer for reproduction and love, with these characteristics becoming more prominent and accepted in perceptions of masculinity.

The author concludes her lecture by noting that the Middle East is in the midst of double forms of emergence; technological and masculine. On the one hand, new forms of reproductive technology are continuously emerging, and when they do they are being rapidly discussed, debated, and, in most cases, deployed in Middle Eastern settings. Meanwhile, the willingness of Middle Eastern men to engage with technologies such as ICSI is a powerful marker of new emergent masculinities, which entail love, tenderness, and affection, as well as untold sacrifice and suffering; all elements of contemporary Arab manhood that go unnoticed and unappreciated.

It is hoped that the stories of Arab manhood shared in this lecture can provide a fundamentally humanising perspective, and help people to better understand how Middle Eastern men encounter their reproductive trials and tribulations. Many Arab men are attempting to unseat patriarchy in their own marriages and family lives, just as they have attempted to unseat inhuman, dictatorial rulers. Through these encounters, Middle Eastern men provide living proof that manhood is being transformed in the Middle East today. We simply need to find these new Arab men, and listen to their stories.