Infertility & Children in North India


A review of Aulad: Infertility and the Meanings of Children in North India, by Holly Donahue Singh.

Aulad: Infertility and the Meanings of Children in North India seeks to understand the diversity of experiences and meanings attached to the process of having children as encapsulated within the North Indian term “aulad.” The author, Holly Donahue Singh, undertakes an analysis of kinship, motherhood, and reproductive life cycles of women in the pursuit of children. In the process she employs the reflexive ethnographic mode to explore the ways in which intra-familial relationships add to the meanings and experiences of having children. She draws from her own position as the daughter-in-law of a Hindu family in the North Indian city of Lucknow to reflect on the place of the Indian woman in a city with a rich history of cultural synthesis. The dissertation studies both Hindu and Muslim women who are navigating their (in)fertility through medical and familial restrictions. It particularly focuses on Muslim women, who, as the author contends, face “unique challenges” due to differing religious prescriptions, legal positions, and medical and bureaucratic discrimination (p. 57). In the Introduction, anthropological research in the areas of infertility and its socio-medical construction, meanings attached to children, and the larger bio-political framework of the ideal family as per state laws and national ambitions surrounding family planning are invoked as the contextual background to the research.  The dissertation includes seven chapters including the introduction and the conclusion.

Chapter 2 looks at the ways in which the sasural or in-laws’ (virilocal) home is the site for multiple negotiations — both for the new bride and husband’s kin — in the pursuit of “reproductive aspirations” (p. 60). If the bride is unable to prove her fecundity with the birth of a child soon after her marriage her status within the re-productive intra-familial household comes under stress. She has to then “manage” familial and social expectations, as represented by the ambiguous term “samaaj” (society), in the ever-present threat of being replaced by another woman. Yet, the author finds, in dialogue with women navigating difficult in-laws (especially the dreaded mother-in-law), that in situations of difficult conception the husband-wife dyad becomes stronger and poses a challenge to the emotional pressures exerted upon the bahu or daughter-in-law by the husband’s extended kin (including neighbors). Through the analysis of one of Singh’s key informants the author finds that aulad comes to represent ideas of family honour — progeny that will carry the lineage forward and will change a woman’s status within the family. Influenced by Khare’s analysis of the North Indian Hindu woman’s life cycle trajectory that traces her development from “kanya to mata” (virgin to mother), Singh finds that without the production of particular progeny, the life cycles of infertile women in Lucknow too remain socially incomplete (R.S. Khare, “From Kanya to Mata: Aspects of the Cultural Language of Kinship in Northern India,” in Concepts of Person: Kinship, Caste and Marriage in India, eds. Akos Ostor, Lina Fruzetti, and Steve Barnett. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982, pp. 143–171).

The analysis of the cultural meanings attached to motherhood as an ideal of Indian womanhood is explored in Chapter 3. Here the overt emphasis upon biological mothering wrestles with ideas of nurturing and social motherhood. The author borrows from popular culture and Indian literature to explore motherhood and mothering as both fulfilling and as negative and possessive. Thus “ma ki mamta” or maternal love is seen in conjunction with “ma banna” or “becoming” a mother. Both the ideas in their representation of biological and nurturing motherhood come to form another part of the varied meanings and associations attached to the idea of aulad. Here, the cross-cultural examination of motherhood, as examined in other anthropological analyses, helps in understanding the particularity of becoming a mother in Lucknow, especially the variety of reasons women desire motherhood. Appropriately given its relative rarity, the chapter also briefly examines the transgressive idea of not wanting to become a mother.

However, not wanting to be a mother is hardly an option that many Indian women have, making infertility a difficult and painful experience. This is also seen in the way the experience of reproduction is felt differently amongst poor Muslim women, battling between religio-cultural stereotypes that classify them as hyper-fertile and the lack of institutionalized support for reproductive health services. In Chapter 4, Singh follows the health camps of Millat, a voluntary organization that provides low-cost health care to poor women in Lucknow. With a largely Muslim clientele, the camps nonetheless project the kind of doctor-patient interactions that construct the poor women in tropes of “good,” “bad,” ignorant, and the “other.” This is seen in the divergence in physician response and examination as well as the expectations of the women who are their patients. This is amply illustrated in the disdain with which the doctors treat requests for cow’s milk for newborns, insisting that the lactating mothers had used their breast milk to make tea for themselves and the family at the cost of the infant (p. 159). Muslim women in particular suffer from greater health disparities than other Indian women, though the author questions the common stereotype of Muslim women as bad patients by pointing out both the social and religious discrimination they face. Such a formulation is linked to the ways in which another understanding of aulad emerges from the tentative nature of biological reproduction — as precious possessions placed by God in the “trust” of their parents (amaanat) who may or may not survive, or be born at all. This fatalistic yet hopeful vision is part of the “risky reproduction” (Chapter 4) that many of the informants of the study undertake with mixed results — that may or may not lead to pregnancy, subsequent childbirth, and eventually the survival of the child.

In Chapter 5, Singh finds Sarah Franklin’s (Sarah Franklin, Embodied Progress: A Cultural Account of Assisted Reproduction. New York: Routledge, 1997) idea of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) as “hope technology” an apt formulation to look at the ways in which biomedical intervention in infertility is perceived amongst her respondents. She finds women negotiating their treatment for infertility through secrecy and with the help of their husbands’ and extended kin support. In conversation with women while they wait for their appointments in two government infertility clinics, Singh traces the process of administering both treatment and “hope” for women desperately seeking progeny. Navigating their own treatment, often traveling great distances, gives these women a sense of autonomy and agency in a process that may or may not lead in the birth of a child.

The emphasis on the aulad — overwhelmingly also identified as biologically one’s own and a boy — marks the rejection of adoption as a preferred mode of alleviating the stigma and plight of infertility that many of Singh’s respondents face. In Chapter 6, the author looks at the socio-legal hurdles to adoption that place the adopted child within the frame of genetics and unknown blood (khun–blood), and the religious sanctions that Muslim families face in adopting children. In the absence of a uniform civil code, Indians are subject to separate religious laws in the sphere of personal laws regarding marriage, birth, death, divorce, inheritance and adoption. This queers the pitch for those wanting to adopt a child legally: until recently, Muslims and other religious minorities could only take on legal guardianship of children; they could not legally adopt as Hindus can under their personal law. Recent changes to Indian law have perhaps alleviated this legal disability — the legal position is not yet entirely clear. Either way, bureaucratic discrimination against and social disapprobation of non-private, state sanctioned legal adoptions remain intact. Bharadwaj’s (Aditya Bharadwaj, “Why Adoption is not an Option in India: The Visibility of Infertility and the Secrecy of Donor Insemination, and Other Cultural Complexities.” Social Science and Medicine 56, 2003, pp. 1867–1880) study of the unpopularity of adoption amongst Indians forms the theoretical framework to the chapter. Interestingly, for the author the secretive dimension to the seeking of both infertility treatment and adoption overturns the chance for many infertile couples in being “moral pioneers” (Rayna Rapp, “Moral Pioneers: Women, Men and Fetuses on a Frontier of Reproductive Technology,” in Elaine Hoffman Baruch, Amadeo F. D’Adamo Jr. and Joni Seagar, eds., Embryos, Ethics, and Women’s Rights: Exploring the New Reproductive Technologies, Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press, 1988, pp. 101-116) even though they attempt to subvert society and dogma surreptitiously.

In conclusion, the author briefly summarizes her primary findings and objectives — and goes on to establish the importance of her study in relation to absent and future research. And following the author, the reviewer finds this dissertation amongst the very few, and urgently required, in-depth studies of infertility in India. Also, the study comes at a time when the burgeoning infertility industry in India has been in the news for its billion dollar forays into global reproductive tourism. Its analysis of poor Muslim women negotiating their fertility. Its analysis of poor Muslim women negotiating their fertility status within difficult familial and social terrains is also key to the understanding of the rising numbers of poor Indian women — both Muslim and Hindu willing to be gestational commercial surrogates to rich Indian and foreign infertile couples. Singh’s analysis of Muslim women negotiating their fertility status within difficult familial and social terrains is a timely contribution to our understanding of the constellation of desires, demands, and social practices invoked by the term “aulad.”

Anindita Majumdar
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi

Primary Sources

Fieldwork data
Aulad [film], directed by Vijay Sadanah, 1987.
“Dada” [“Godfather”], by Khadija Mastoor. Translated by Shahrukh Husain and published in Hoops of Fire: Fifty Years of Fiction by Pakistani Women, ed. Aamer Hussein. London: Saki Books, 1999 [1962], pp. 24-38.
Awara [film], directed by Raj Kapoor, 1951.

Dissertation Information

University of Virginia. 2011. 317 pp. Primary Advisor: R.S. Khare.


Image: A scene from Aulad (1987). bollywood deewana.

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