Sherry Sayed Gadelrab | Elite Medical Discourse on Sex Difference and

its Influence on Understanding of Gender and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Egypt.


This paper examines the ideas of an elite group of nineteenth-century Egyptian doctors, who received Westernized medical education, on the differences between male and female bodies and sexualities and interprets them within their cultural and social contexts of nineteenth century. Although medieval Muslim scholarship produced a multivalent and complex cluster of notions about sex differences, which could not be simply reduced to a single model, as suggested by Laqueur, this does not mean that there were no changes in  theories of sex differences in nineteenth-century medical discourse.   In contrast to the plurality of ideas about sex differences in medieval Islamic scholarship which, to varying degrees allowed gender fluidity, the analysis of nineteenth-century medical texts demonstrated the consensus amongst Egyptian doctors on the incommensurable opposition between male and female bodies, as well as the rigidity of biological barriers between the sexes. Whereas male aggressive sexuality and uncontrollable sexual desires were emphasized by nineteenth-century medical elites, women turned from voracious sexual beings into passionless and sexually passive, yet doctors still suggested female genitalia ruled women's health and mental well-being.
Although Egyptian doctors borrowed ideas about sex differences from the West, this study is based on the premise that the transfer of modern Western medical knowledge about sex differences was not a passive process. Rather, by adopting Western medical knowledge about sex differences, nineteenth-century doctors aimed at bolstering the foundations of a patriarchal system based on Islamic orthodox teachings by providing it with a scientific rationale, as well as, strengthening their own position as a professional group.