Who Is The New Arab Man?


Etching by Ismail Fattah, 2001

by Marcia Inhorn

Male infertility is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. Few people realize that male infertility contributes to more than half of all cases of childlessness worldwide. In the Middle Eastern region where I work, the rates of male infertility are even higher, 60-70% of all cases, with very severe forms that are probably genetic in origin and related to consanguineous, or cousin marriage.

Since 2003, I have been studying male infertility in the Middle East and Arab America, interviewing more than 330 Arab men from a variety of countries, primarily Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. In all of these cases, men were undergoing assisted reproduction, particularly intracytoplasmic sperm injection, or ICSI, a variant of IVF designed in the early 1990s to overcome male infertility. Since 1994, when ICSI first arrived in Egypt, demand for this assisted reproductive technology has skyrocketed. Having spent hundreds of hours talking to both fertile and infertile men Middle Eastern IVF clinics, I argue that it is time to “reconceive Middle Eastern manhood.” This is an argument that runs throughout my latest book, to be published by Princeton University Press in March 2012, entitled The New Arab Man: Emergent Masculinities, Technologies, and Islam in the Middle East. In this book, I argue that reconceiving Middle Eastern manhood requires scholarship that brings men back into the reproductive imaginary as progenitors, partners, decision makers, protectors, friends, companions, nurturers, lovers, fathers and sentient human beings.

My own research shows that Middle Eastern men are often heavily involved and invested in many aspects of the reproductive process, from impregnation to parenting. In many cases, these men bear little resemblance to the stereotypical Middle Eastern man brought to us by the Western media. Indeed, since September 11th, 2001, Middle Eastern Muslim men have been particularly vilified as terrorists, religious zealots and brutal oppressors of women. The feminist assertion that the Middle East is “the seat of patriarchy” now seems to me patently unfair and outdated. Unseating patriarchy in the Middle East means rethinking our own feminist scholarly polemics—mine included—as the reality of men’s lives is revealed.

In my new work, I am arguing for recognition of Middle Eastern men’s emergent masculinities, a term that attempts to capture all that is new and transformative in men’s embodied personhood. Men in the Middle East today are enacting masculinity in ways that defy both patriarchy and neo-Orientalist stereotypes. I would like to describe what I see as some of the basic features of these “emergent masculinities” in the Middle East, as we enter the 21st century.

But first, we must define “emergence.” In his essay “Dominant, Residual, Emergent,” Marxist scholar Raymond Williams defined emergence as “new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationship [that] are continually being created.”  When applied to new forms of manhood, emergent masculinities encapsulate change over the male life course as men age; change over the generations as male youth grow to adulthood; and changes in social history that involve men in transformative social processes. In addition, emergent masculinities highlight new forms of masculine practice that accompany these social trends. These would include, for example, men’s desire to “date” their partners before marriage; men’s acceptance of condoms and vasectomy as forms of male birth control; men’s desires to live in nuclear family residences with their wives and children; and men’s encouragement of daughters’ education.  All of these masculine practices are, in fact, emerging in the Middle East, but are rarely noticed by scholars or media pundits.

The “emergent” is omnipresent in the Middle East. The region now hosts, inter alia, the world’s tallest building and other architectural marvels; a global satellite television culture headlined by the homegrown product, Al Jazeera; internet cafes frequented by youth; a mass cell phone culture even among domestic servants and day laborers; multi-storey shopping malls selling European designer labels, as well as local Islamic fashions; rates of university matriculation among women now outstripping those of men; entrance of large numbers of women into the government bureaucracy and retail service sector; mass migration of men to the Arab Gulf and to virtually every other continent; concomitant delays in marriage, as young men and women “establish” themselves in new careers, new nuclear residences, and new lives different from their parents; and emerging social movements, including recent protest movements against dictatorial regimes, which have been largely initiated by younger-generation men and which have spread like wildfire across the region. In short, a veritable “revolution” in men’s and women’s social worlds—and their interactions with each other—is abundantly observable across the Middle Eastern region and requires scholarly attention.

What have I found in my own research? First of all, Middle Eastern men work hard, often emigrating for periods of their lives, in order to eventually marry and set up a nuclear family household. They desire romantic love, companionship, and sexual passion within a life-long, monogamous marriage surrounded by a sphere of conjugal privacy. Fatherhood of two to four children—a mixture of sons and desired daughters—is wanted as much for joy and happiness as for patrilineal continuity, patriarchal power, or old-age security.

If infertility threatens fatherhood, it is typically viewed as a medical condition to be overcome through invasive forms of high-tech assisted reproduction, rather than as a sign of diminished manhood. Today, male infertility is being equated with other emerging diseases such as diabetes, which are deemed hereditary, and thus beyond men’s individual control. In a region with high rates of male infertility, men often have friends and male relatives who are struggling with infertility. The modern-day treatment quest—which often includes repeated semen analysis, clinic-based masturbation, testicular needlework, genital surgeries, and other forms of embodied agony—is men’s badge of honor, signifying the ways men suffer for reproduction and love. Their feelings of sympathy and sacrificeof doing all of this “for her”—are prominent motivating factors in emergent marital subjectivities in the Middle East today.

ICSI being performed in a Beirut IVF clinic

Gender scripts surrounding conjugality are also being reworked in complex ways as ICSI and other assisted reproductive technologies reach wider and wider audiences in the Middle Eastern region. The very growth of a booming Middle Eastern IVF industry—for example, with nearly 250 IVF clinics between the three Middle Eastern countries of Turkey, Iran, and Egypt—bespeaks not only regional pronatalism, but also the physical, financial, and emotional commitments of thousands upon thousands of married couples. Increasingly, Middle Eastern couples are remaining together in long-term childless marriages, while trying repeated rounds of IVF and ICSI in the hopes of achieving parenthood.

When these assisted reproductive technologies fail, as they often do, some men are turning to third-party reproductive assistance, especially egg donation, to overcome their wives’ infertility. Accessing donor eggs may require reproductive “tourism” (aka cross-border reproductive care), as well as the services of traveling foreign egg donors who may, in fact, be American. Shia Muslim men in particular have been permitted to employ gamete donation by male Shia clerics, who themselves may be agents of moral change.  Even sperm donation—a globally stigmatized technology still shrouded in secrecy—has been authorized by at least one prominent Shia fatwa. As a result, it is now being employed by some men in two Middle Eastern countries, Iran and Lebanon.

Middle Eastern men who are resorting to gamete donation are not only Shia Muslims.  Indeed, Sunni Muslim, Druze, and Christian men are challenging religious orthodoxies—sometimes “going against the religion”—to pursue assisted reproductive technologies that have been religiously forbidden to them. Resisting religious authority takes great moral courage, especially when certain aspects of these technologies have been deemed sinful (even sending one to hell). Whereas some Sunni Muslim men are defying the Sunni ban on gamete donation, Middle Eastern Catholic men are rejecting the Vatican’s ban on all forms of assisted reproduction.  This includes male Catholic IVF physicians in Lebanon, who are followed the Shia lead in now offering both IVF/ICSI and gamete donation to their patients. Middle Eastern Christian men, whose voices are rarely heard in popular and scholarly discourses, have been among the most prominent advocates of both gamete donation and adoption, as ways to build a family.  Sunni Muslim men, too, are considering adoption and egg donation as alternative forms of family formation. Shia Muslim men, for their part, are major participants in the support and fostering of orphans.

In short, Middle Eastern men, both Muslim and Christian, are living moral lives with and without religious guidance. They are enacting joyful marital relations with and without children. And they are embracing new reproductive technologies with and without third-party reproductive assistance.  These changes in men’s attitudes, expectations, and practices of manhood and family life are indicative of what is being called “ideational change” across the Middle East. To wit, total fertility rates have fallen across the region,nuclear families are becoming the socially accepted norm, levels of education for both men and women, but especially women, are rising, and assumptions about son preference and men’s patriarchal rights are being questioned.  This “new Arab family”—to use the term coined by anthropologist Nicholas Hopkins—no longer resembles the Middle Eastern family of a generation ago.  These emergent changes in family life are being followed by several Middle Eastern anthropologists, who have formed the “Arab Families Working Group” (AFWG) led by pioneering Lebanese-American scholar Suad Joseph.

Just as these anthropologists are speaking of “the new Arab family,” I would like to coin the term the new Arab man.  New Arab men are rejecting the assumptions of their Arab forefathers, including what I call the four notorious P’s—patriarchy, patrilineality, patrilocality, and polygyny. According to the men in my studies, these four P’s are becoming a thing of the past. Instead, emergent masculinities in the Middle East are characterized by resistance to patriarchy, patrilineality, and patrilocality, which are being undermined. Polygyny is truly rare, less than 1% in most Middle Eastern societies, just as it has been throughout history. Certainly, polygyny is not a common strategy today to overcome childlessness, nor a social norm that contemporary Middle Eastern men strive for. Although most Middle Eastern men want to father their own children, taking a second wife is not viewed as “the solution” to infertility. Instead, men seek to help their infertile wives find appropriate treatment. Middle Eastern men today also realize that they themselves may be infertile.

These new Arab men are essentially changing their personal lives, interjecting new notions of manhood, gender relations, and intimate subjectivities into their ways of being. These emergent masculinities defy conventional gender stereotypes, can be found across faith traditions, challenge prevailing moral authorities, and employ emerging technoscientific innovations. I would like to argue that assisted reproduction, too, is changing the Middle East in unprecedented ways, creating many new possibilities for marital, gender, and family relations. Assisted reproduction has brought with it hopes and dreams for the high numbers of infertile men in the Middle East, in a region that can now boast one of the strongest and largest assisted reproduction industries in the world.

Indeed, emergent masculinities in the Middle East today go hand in hand with emergent technologies—from Testicular Sperm Aspiration and ICSI to Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans—mostly young men using social media technology—have ousted their dictatorial rulers, with the potential for further youth-driven regime change in Syria, Yemen, and beyond.  In my view, the most important moral story of the 2011 Arab spring is that ordinary men—and women—in the Middle East can and have changed their social worlds. As Asef Bayat, professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern Studies at Leiden University writes in his prescient book, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East:

Ordinary people…strive to affect the contours of change in their societies, by refusing to exit from the social and political stage controlled by authoritarian states, moral authority, and neoliberal economies, discovering and generating new spaces within which they can voice their dissent and assert their presence in pursuit of bettering their lives.

While social media-driven revolutions in the Middle East have gained global media attention, reproductive technology revolutions have not. But, I would argue, the Middle East is also in the midst of an “art revolution,” marked by both technological and masculine emergence. Reconceiving Middle Eastern manhood requires examining these dual forces, and especially the ways in which Middle Eastern men are changing gender relations for the better.

Piece adapted from the conclusion of The New Arab Man

About the Author:

Marcia C. Inhorn is William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs and editor of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies at Yale University. Marcia is the author of The New Arab Man: Emergent Masculinities, Technologies, and Islam in the Middle East.