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Reproductive Investments: Bodies, Labor, and Power in the Middle East and North Africa

Session IX-03, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

RoundTable Description
This roundtable examines how actors and institutions invest in reproduction - its growth, cessation, selective inducement - across the MENA region. Participants draw on ethnographic research grounded in a range of sites and problematics, from abortion politics in Morocco, to public health interventions in Palestine, to urban infrastructures, migration, and anti-Blackness in Turkey. They highlight how individuals and communities generate and maintain relations under increasingly severe political and economic conditions. With an intentionally tongue-in-cheek deployment of investment, we want to foreground how current neoliberal and austerity measures continue to wreak havoc across the region. At the same time, we gesture to the multiple regimes of value (Friedner 2005, 10) and negotiations of agency that operate through reproduction as discourse and practice, from the most intimate to the most ideological domains of social life. Focused on the contemporary moment, our framework is nevertheless informed by the historical role of reproductive surveillance and control in projects of colonial and settler-colonial governance (Fahmy 1998; Hasso 2021; Kanaaneh 2002). We also stress the unsettling consistency with which these dynamics persist in “post”-colonial projects of independence, nation-building, and modernization (Ali 2002; Kashani-Sabet 2011). Given the uneven impacts of global health and development investments in medicalizing and controlling reproduction throughout the MENA (Inhorn 2003; Maffi 2012; Moghadam 2006), we attend to the politico-moral stakes of reproduction as they unfold across individual, national, and transnational scales. Each roundtable participant will open with an overview of how they take up the theme of reproductive investments in their own work, illustrating the manifold possibilities of bringing reproduction to bear on investment, and vice versa. Building from these initial interventions, the organizers will offer a set of prompts to foster further conversation. Ultimately, we hope to engage and unsettle reproduction’s place at the heart racial capitalism, settler colonialism, structural adjustment policies, and the Covid-19 pandemic still unfolding across the region and globe.
  • Care-ful Investments and Kinship Futures in Urban Jordan During a conversation on disability stigma in contemporary Jordan, one of my interlocutors offered the following analysis: “Economic level doesn’t determine people’s ideas. There are rich people who hide their children and poor people who recognize that [disability] is something from God, and [that] their child is a human being with rights.” In my contribution to this roundtable, I take up the provocation of reproductive investment(s) through ethnographic research with parents raising children with Down syndrome in urban Jordan. Responding to my interlocutor’s point above, I suggest that Jordanians across distinctions of class, religion, ethnicity, and citizenship status converged in thinking disability through kinship. Approaching kinship through the lens of disability, in turn, reveals how time materializes in changing kinship roles, and how shifting kinship roles evolve through embodied capacities for care. Feminist scholars understand care to encompass the myriad forms of labor required for social reproduction. Yet I share anthropologist Elana Buch’s concern that, “the link with biological reproduction has led scholars to emphasize childbearing and childrearing, limiting theorization of the care across the life course” (2018, 13). From their earliest confrontations with medical and familial stigma, to campaigns for decent and meaningful work, families and advocates mobilized “futures” to animate both private and public imaginaries of disability. I’ve come to understand these intense and sustained deployments of futures near and far, whether invoked as horizons of possibility or scenarios of looming catastrophe, as constitutive of kinship futures. Sustaining kinship futures involved fraught calculations and unpredictable consequences, as family members judiciously incorporated the labor and intimacies of non-kin, such as therapists, doctors, tutors, and migrant domestic workers into their “disability worlds” (Ginsburg and Rapp 2013). Yet in the absence of reliable and adequate state-sponsored social services, coupled with neoliberal policies that have exacerbated socioeconomic vulnerability across Jordan, familial investments in kinship futures profoundly shaped realities and possibilities of Down syndrome in the present.
  • Abortion, Exception, and Value in Moroccan Harm Reduction Discourses At its most basic, abortion challenges everyday actors to clarify their competing investments in particular pregnancies and, by extension, reproduction more broadly. While supranational bodies like WHO, UNIFEM, and UNICEF play key roles in setting agendas related to reproduction and sexual health, local political and therapeutic contexts lend critical perspective to seemingly transcendent principles of health and life. In Morocco, where abortion is contingent on spousal permission and only legal to safeguard maternal health, abortion politics have tended to focus on preventing unsafe, clandestine abortion while pushing for additional exceptions to the restrictive laws in place. These efforts are consonant with international best practices and conventions prioritizing the reduction of maternal mortality and combatting consequences of unsafe abortion. Beyond the sizeable financial, professional, logistical, and political investments they require, harm reduction approaches prioritize particular forms of suffering as worthy of relief. And yet, targeting unsafe abortion or itemizing grounds for legal abortion still operate according to fundamentally restrictive premises. In Moroccan abortion politics, harm reduction provides the medico-moral rationale for responding to “dramatic social situations”—rape, incest, and serious fetal anomaly. Royal engagement in reform processes, combined with politicians’ and activists’ strategies, posit these medical and moral exceptions as the most “common sense” reforms that the state can and should take in order to align itself with its regional neighbors. And yet, symbolic political support for survivors of sexual violence or defending abortion in cases of fetal anomaly can further stigmatize lived experiences, troubling the boundaries of harm and care. In this roundtable, I probe the rhetoric of harm reduction to consider how it invests value in different lives and bodies. How does harm reduction, when mobilized in the context of abortion provision, become its own regime of value for assessing reproductive bodies and experiences? How does harm reduction further stratify access to safer abortion procedures? What competing investments in the maternal-fetal dyad animate exceptions to abortion laws?
  • “Reproductive Borderwork: The Politics of Borders, Reproduction, and Distribution in Jordan.” —— My work on social reproduction and dependent nationality in Jordan examines a specific iteration in the MENA region of what is ultimately a global movement—seen from India to the Dominican Republic and the US—to restrict citizenship by intervening into family life. Territorial borders have become impossible to police effectively, even as policies have grown more spectacular. Waves of Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi refugees have turned Jordan into the sixth largest refugee hosting country in the world. As a result, states like Jordan have turned to the family to regulate their borders in the interior of the nation. With noncitizens comprising more than a third of the population, Jordan polices its borders by regulating mixed-nationality marriages. The government calls upon women to perform the work of the state at home: to engage in what I theorize as “reproductive borderwork.” This analytical framework (“reproductive borderwork”) represents the political economic investment of a collectivity, like the state or a transnational diasporic network, in what is understood as merely biological processes of childbirth and reproduction. Dependent nationality has imbued Jordanian citizenship with a collective interest in the reproductive choices of citizen women. Denationalization has become routine because Jordanian women, but not men, cannot transfer citizenship to their children. In this roundtable I turn to the reproductive labor that families and women perform in producing and policing the borders between citizens and noncitizens for the population within a territory. In Jordan, it is not just people that cross borders, the borders also seem to move through people. The bodies of Jordanian women become borders, helping police membership and mobility far more effectively that Jordan’s territorial borders. The would-be citizen children of Jordanian women and noncitizen Palestinian men can’t access their mothers’ citizenships, and their fathers don’t have citizenships at all. Children of Jordanian women and non-Palestinian men (Syrians, Iraqis, etc.) become immigrants. Women’s reproductive borderwork enables the Jordanian state to deny welfare to swaths of its citizenry by converting certain racialized groups of would-be citizen children into noncitizens. Instead of looking at refugees and migrants at airports and other territorial borders, mixed-nationality couples highlight what happens when those borders shift, when borders come home with us. The state intervenes in women’s bodies to delineate an ever-narrowing definition of “citizen,” denationalizing swaths of its citizenry and repopulating the ranks of practically undeportable noncitizens.
  • “Soon, they won’t be here anyway” was a common refrain we heard from local government officials in Istanbul, as residents and I made demands for subsidized housing for West African community members. In this roundtable, I will address how assumptions of transience, reflected in everyday encounters with the state, produce and reproduce anti-Blackness in Turkey. Over the past decade, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government (known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) has actively pursued economic and cultural projects across Africa. Besides making profits and asserting Turkey as a global leader, these investments were meant to present Turkey as a country where anti-Black racism does not exist, in contrast to Europe or North America. Nevertheless, Istanbul’s West African migrants are denied meaningful local or national political change that could improve their material conditions, on the grounds that they are ultimately on their way to Europe and therefore are “transient,” with no future in Turkey. During the roundtable, I will show that the political implications of transience reproduce anti-Blackness, making it politically feasible to exclude Istanbul’s Black residents from the future. Furthermore, I will show how West African migrants speak back by investing in social infrastructures in Istanbul, making it possible to reproduce their belonging in the city’s future. To do so, I will draw on sixteen months of engaged fieldwork, when I collaborated with community groups in Istanbul and their Ghanaian, Sierra Leonean, and Nigerian members. The presentation will take listeners from government offices, where Black futures are negotiated, to storefront churches and mosques, street celebrations, and homes, where a Black Istanbul is cultivated.
  • Palestinian reproduction is often referred to as a notable example of reproduction driven by nationalist and political goals, while this picture has been complicated by scholars like Kanaaneh, less attention has been paid to key shifts in Palestinian reproduction, including a persistent decline in fertility within the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) in the post-Oslo era. Here, I move beyond the emphasis on political rhetoric in examining Palestinian reproduction, which often paints Palestinians as essentially political actors reacting to Israeli occupation. Drawing on a political-economy and multi-method approach, including extensive ethnographic work, I examine how internal dynamics and contradictions shaping politics are institutionalized through policy and service provision; as well as how politics, the economy, cultural and social norms, and affect interact to shape decisions and aspirations related to reproduction in the West Bank. I find evidence of a shift from the rhetorical emphasis on reproduction as an investment in the continuity of the nation and a potential political weapon to a more (neoliberal) developmentalist framing of high rates of population growth as a likely obstacle to economic development and a potentially destabilizing force rather than with the optimism of past nationalist rhetoric. This has coincided with a defacto policy focusing on the expansion of reproductive health service delivery and access, and the framing and discourse around family planning as an important pathway to better maternal and child health outcomes. The institutional context of health service provision reframes investments in reproduction to include tools to delay and subsequently limit reproduction. For families, new economic aspirations and increased strains on the local economy have further constrained their abilities to cope with basic needs as well as new demands and shifting ideas of what is a materially acceptable standard of living in light of increased globalization. The interactions between these factors have produced an emphasis on having fewer children and/or lengthening intervals between children, either out of economic necessity or through prioritizing higher-quality investments in children. At the same time, investments in reproduction, in having children, cannot be detached from affect and the joys of having children, as well as the reification of the centrality of the family, particularly given the pullback of public goods. Drawing on these multiple levels, the existence of simultaneous and at times contradictory notions of reproductive investments is evident, and I argue, is best understood within the broader political-economic context.