Gynecology and Female Doctors in the Medieval Islamic era

Gynecology is a branch of medical science that focuses on studying the diseases of the female reproductive system. In early modern Europe or in medieval times it was very rare to find a female doctor.

In Islamic society at that time, those who complained of pain would only get treatment from family members. While male doctors will consider this female doctor as a midwife or nurse, nothing more.

So in that medieval world, there were very few references to female physicians in Arabic biographical and medical literature. In addition, if any, no medical records by female doctors survive.

Historian Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa (d. 1270) identifies a woman named Zaynab, who is associated with the Kuū Awd tribe of southern Arabia, as one of the famous physicians who worked around the time of the arrival of Islam (see ed. Müller 1882, vol. 1, p. 123, lines 13-17; Pormann 2014, 657).

Nonetheless, reports of Zaynab and his skills as an oculist seem suspicious because tenth-century biographers such as Ibn al-Nadīm (fl. 987) and Ibn Ǧulǧul (d.c. 994) do not mention him in their list of famous pre-Islamic physicians.

According to surgeon Abū al-Qāsim al-Zahrāwī (fl.c. 1000), Muslim female doctors are rare in Spain, when their help is needed in aiding the treatment of reproductive diseases.

In a chapter ‘on the extraction of stones from a woman’ in his medical encyclopedia, al-Zahrawi writes to bring in a competent female doctor when his patient refuses to be examined by a male doctor. However, he failed to find such a qualified female doctor. He then recommends eunuchs or midwives instead.

Although theologians invoke hadith and sunnah traditions to provide medical care of female patients by male doctors and vice versa, many female patients remain hesitant and refuse to expose their genitals to men outside their families.

Male doctors also seemed concerned about maintaining a level of modesty when examining female patients. Therefore al-Razi also suggested one of his students avoid looking at the bodies of beautiful women by limiting their gaze only to the point in the sick part.

The First Hospital In Islamic Civilization

Gynaecology did not appear to develop as an independent textual field in the medieval Islamic world. That is, only a small number of medical treatises consider women’s health to be one of their main concerns.

For example, Ibn al-Gazzar (895-979) in his Book Of Children’s Care and Their Management (Siyāsat al-ṣibyān wa-tadbīruhum), Arib ibn Sa’ds in The Book on the Generation of Fetuses and the Treatment of Pregnant Women and Newborns (Kitāb ḫalq al-ǧanīn wa-tadbīr al-ḥabala wa-al-mawlūdīn), Al-Baladi’s in The Book on the Regimen of Pregnant Women and Children (K. Tadbīr al-ḥabāla wa-al-atfāl), and Abu al-Ḥasan Sa’id Ḥibat Allah in Treatise on the Creation of Man (Maqāla fī ḫalq al-insān).

The question of women, as opposed to men’s contributions to generation, was a major point of contention between the followers of Aristotle and Galen. In On Semen, Galen challenges Aristotle’s view that women only supply their menstrual blood problems for fetal formation, while men supplement their semen.

Instead, he proposed the theory of two seeds, which he said men and women donated semen to. What is now called the ovary, believed by Galen to be a female testicle that produces fluid similar to a man’s semen.

Less controversial topics covered in these books include discussions about the diets of pregnant and lactating women, criteria for choosing a nurse, and the appropriate age for weaning. Many medical encyclopedias, which examine diseases from head to toe, contain gynecological chapters as well.

Al-Zahrāwī compiled several chapters in his book The Arrangement of Medical Knowledge for One Who Is Not Able to Compile a Book for Himself (Kitāb al-Taṣrīf li-man ʿa ‘iza ʿan al-taʾlīf) which offered instructions for dealing with complicated labor and extraction of dead fetuses. Although these chapters are addressed to midwives, al-Zahrāwī adds some case histories that show his own familiarity with obstetric matters.

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