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Bearing Knowledge: Law, Reproduction and the Female Body in Modern Morocco, 1912-Present


Combining historical, juridical and ethnographic analysis, my dissertation traces a history of evidence of reproductive bodies and the not-yet born in the Maghrib over the course of the last century through a case study of a regional phenomenon known as the "sleeping baby in the mother's womb" (al-raqid; l-raged; bu mergud). Women with sleeping babies experience pregnancies that can last for years beyond the standard nine months accepted in Western law and medicine. According to the belief in the sleeping baby, a sudden traumatic experience or the return of menstrual blood can arrest the development of a fetus in the womb. The fetus will then "sleep" in the womb--"neither living nor dead"--for an indefinite period of time until it is awoken by another traumatic shock, sexual intercourse, or spiritual and herbal treatments.

As a legal doctrine in Islamic law, the sleeping baby admitted protracted pregnancies lasting up to five, and in some cases seven, years after conception. Prior to the codification of Islamic family law between 1957-9, which banished the sleeping baby from official law, the sleeping baby phenomenon and discourse addressed the intersection of the psycho-biological and socio-legal aspects of human reproduction. The biological aspects include false or "hysterical" pregnancies (i.e., pseudocyesis), abortion induced by the mother, ectopic pregnancies, and various kinds of miscarriages--both those that are expelled from the mother's uterus and those that are retained--as well as viable, full-term pregnancies in which women give birth to a living baby. The socio-legal aspects include claims to paternity, contestations of paternity, inheritance disputes, spousal and child maintenance claims, adultery, and the status of the children of slave mothers (um walad), and free mothers based on their marital situation. The discourse of the sleeping baby enabled women to express any of the various contingent combinations that could arise from these biological and social contingencies.

The dissertation knits together detailed archival analysis of selected published and unpublished family and criminal law cases in French and Arabic from the colonial and postcolonial periods, with ethnographic data gathered from participant observation and extensive interviewing in courts and a public maternity hospital in urban Morocco. In my analysis, I track and examine the diverse forms of evidence in colonial Islamic law (1912-1959) and post-colonial state family law (1959-present) that have taken reproductive bodies and the not-yet born as objects of legal knowledge--a process I term "legal embodiment." By legal embodiment, I mean how human reproductive bodies and their bodily materials emerge in and from historical forms of law, as viable evidentiary objects carrying signifying force. Legal embodiments indicate how reproductive bodies interact with, emerge from and are given value by particular geo-historically circumscribed knowledge, authority and technologies. From women's testimony about their own bodies and midwives' sensory expertise in colonial Islamic courts, to visualizing biomedical technology and DNA testing in postcolonial state family law courts--the diverse set of bodily evidence reveals how diverse legalities that regulate women's reproduction intersect with knowledge, technologies and authority under colonial and post-colonial political-economic power. By tracing legal embodiments, I show how evidence and expertise in Moroccan law have transformed women with sleeping babies from legally-viable reproductive bodies to extra-legal unproductive bodies. Extra-legal embodiment indexes historically minor discourses and practices that law does not value as evidence, and which are deemed irrelevant in law's bodily valuations.

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