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The Muslim Midwife: A Politics of Birth, Obstetrics, and Women’s Agency in Colonial and Postcolonial Morocco
This exploration of midwifery, obstetrics, and birth in colonial and postcolonial Morocco centers the “traditional” Moroccan midwife (qabla) in her many dimensions—legal-medical expert, mediator between medical systems, female elder, pharmacologist, and healer in a community of practice. French obstetrics for Moroccan women came first through the efforts of French women doctors in the 1920s, who sometimes incorporated qablat. The French colonial state, on the other hand, objected the qabla as an Islamic sorceress and sought to replace her with a French-trained native biomedical birth attendant, the muwallida (“she who births”), in Protection Maternel et Infantile of the late 1940s. How Moroccan mothers negotiated among frameworks, how they utilized new biomedical therapeutics and health professionals, how French and Moroccan women interacted in healthcare, and how Moroccan midwives survived from colonial to postcolonial health is a social history from below. This history is a corrective to narratives that present the WHO, the IMF, and the Rockefeller Foundation as “the history of global health.” This history also provides insights for maternal and infant health in Morocco today, as Moroccan biomedical midwives demand equitable working conditions and mothers and families struggle for woman-centered maternal and infant health care. As a community-based, non-biomedical practitioner at the margins of official Moroccan healthcare, the qabla has yet much to teach about women’s health. This paper draws upon research in French colonial archives in Rabat (BNF) and Nantes (Affaires Etrangères), medical monographs, journal articles, and reports by French physicians and anthropologists, Arabic medical manuscripts in Morocco, a current review of the published medical literature, and interviews with midwives, women, and men in two clinics of Fez, Morocco.
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