Where a Pregnancy Can Last for Years: The Remarkable Colonial Reports of Sleeping Pregnancies in the Maghreb

A couple patiently waits for a healthy child after a pregnancy that has lasted several years. A desperate widow claims her newborn is her husband’s child, years after his death. Fetuses are made to “fall asleep” in the womb and hibernate there for years until woken up again. In the French colonies of Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria (the Maghreb) between the 1830s and the 1950s, colonized Muslims and Jews believed that all of these cases were caused by a sleeping child, called in Arabic “rāqid” (“the sleeping one”), which is usually translated as a sleeping pregnancy in English.

French authors living in or travelling through the Maghreb in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries added local color to their Orientalist texts with mentions of sleeping pregnancies. The colonized in the Maghreb believed in sleeping pregnancies, and the French legal system grudgingly accepted this belief. Willy Jansen’s article “Sleeping in the Womb” provides further information about how widespread the belief truly was among the colonized. French authors regularly reported on the phenomenon, portraying it as an amusing local absurdity to their readers in France. But what exactly was a sleeping pregnancy?

How Does a Fetus Fall Asleep?

For centuries, the Muslim and Jewish populations of the Maghreb had believed that a child could fall asleep in its mother’s womb and that gestation could take considerably longer than nine months. French reports from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries explained that Maghrebis imagined a pregnancy as a fetus swimming in a womb filled with water. Shocks, traumatic events, magic spirits, a curse, or herbal potions made this water leak in the form of an irregular bleeding. Under certain circumstances, Maghrebi women did not interpret such bleeding as a sign of a miscarriage, but instead believed that it signaled the start of a sleeping pregnancy. The fetus, conceptualized as a dried-out clot of blood, fell asleep. It stopped moving and growing, but it remained essentially unharmed during this period of “hibernation.” It occupied the womb of its mother and prevented the development of a normal pregnancy in the meantime.

Dr. Deschamps, a French woman who worked as a general practitioner in Annaba, Algeria, reported in 1906 on cases of irregular bleedings connected to sleeping pregnancies. One such case concerned a Muslim woman who was three months pregnant when she started bleeding on her return from the local bathhouse. As Deschamps wrote, the woman described the bleeding as “without clots or pain … since then, she had her period every month.” Subsequently, she and her husband divorced, and the woman remarried. Eight months after the incident in the bathhouse and just after her second wedding, the newlywed told Deschamps that “she feels ‘something moving in her belly.’” According to Deschamps, the woman “was then examined by a Moorish midwife, who told her that she had a sleeping child who was waking up.” The woman had sought advice from Dr. Deschamps, as a sleeping pregnancy would mean that she was pregnant with her first husband’s child. Dr. Deschamps informed her that she was not pregnant at all.1

Watered by Sperm

Maghrebi women believed that a sleeping pregnancy could, like any other, end in miscarriage, abortion, or birth. Births were brought about by either magic, a second shock, or through sperm, the latter of which woke the sleeping child nine months after “watering” it. Of course, Maghrebi women’s understanding of the relationship between sperm and sleeping children could lead to serious complications in determining paternity.

The importance of sexual intercourse in understandings of sleeping pregnancies was often what caught the eye of the French colonial authors. For example, Captain Charles Villot, who worked for the colonial administration in Algeria, stated in 1875:

Divorced [Algerian] women, often young and beautiful, ardent like the women of Southern France, depraved like all native women, sometimes become pregnant. Muslim law did not want children born to these women to be deprived of a father, and declared that they would belong to the last spouse.2

Villot combined an oversexualized image of Maghrebi women with the widespread settler conviction that Muslims did not value the same ideals as the French. Nineteenth-century France saw itself as founded upon science and reason, and French intellectuals viewed Muslim societies as lacking logical reason, symbolized here by Islamic law’s acceptance of sleeping pregnancies.

The Advantage to Sterile Women

The bemusement of French colonial authors often masked the important role a sleeping pregnancy could afford women in Maghrebi society. Sterile women who, if married, often faced repudiation (ṭalāq, one of the forms of divorce under Islamic law) from their husbands, could hide their sterility through the construct of the sleeping child. A man could not repudiate a pregnant woman. Colonial observers often interpreted sleeping pregnancies among sterile women as a female protection mechanism against men’s easy access to divorce in Islam, which they clearly saw as a legal injustice. Not all French doctors, however, were sensitive to this perceived injustice. Dr. Renée Lacascade, for example, described in her 1922 medical dissertation her encounter with a rich Moroccan man who had contacted her on behalf of his young wife. This young wife believed herself to be pregnant with a sleeping child and was hoping for it to wake up and be born. Lacascade examined her and then proceeded to inform the husband that his young wife was sterile and that sleeping pregnancies did not exist. He soon repudiated his wife.3

Escaping the Penalties for Adultery

Colonial publications also emphasized that Maghrebi women used the belief to hide adultery. In the Maghreb, illegitimate children could never be legitimized or adopted; they did not have their father’s name, and they could not inherit. In addition, zinā, a legal term that described any extra-marital sexuality, was both a sin and a crime in Islam. For women, an illegitimate child, the living proof of zinā, created not only moral problems but also harsh penalties, which included corporal punishment, imprisonment, fines, repudiation, and even execution. Women who had once been married attributed an illegitimate pregnancy, if at all possible, as a rāqid to their deceased, divorced, or simply long-absent husband.

Concealing Abortions

Some Maghrebi women also used sleeping pregnancies to hide abortions, which were illegal under all circumstances in Maliki Islam, the school of law prevalent in the Maghreb. Nevertheless, abortions were still part of life in the Maghreb. Sometimes, married women used sleeping pregnancies to hide abortions from neighbors and family members who had witnessed the beginning of a pregnancy. Sometimes, the women who willingly made their children “fall asleep” in the womb because they were financially or socially unable to have a child at that specific moment were not aware of the fact that they had had an abortion. Herbal remedies put an unwelcome pregnancy into “hibernation,” with women believing that they could, at a more convenient moment in their lives, wake their sleeping child up.

Although researchers like Anke Bossaller conducted interviews with Maghrebi women who declared they had been pregnant with a sleeping child in the postcolonial period, there are, unfortunately, no primary sources by Maghrebi women from the colonial period on this issue. Sleeping pregnancies were proof of female agency, yet colonial observers only wrote about these women, never giving them a voice in this most intimate matter. According to French authors, during the decolonization processes of the 1950s and 1960s, the belief disappeared. Legally, the post-colonial Civil Laws of the Maghreb states rejected sleeping pregnancies, limiting the maximum duration of a pregnancy to twelve months (Morocco and Tunisia) or ten (Algeria). Nevertheless, North Africans still often accept sleeping pregnancies. Far from slumbering, the rāqid still provides a valuable, social function for some Maghrebi women today.

Notes

  1. Abel Lévi-Bram, L’assistance médicale des indigènes d’Algérie, particulièrement assistance médicale des femmes et des enfants. Essai sur cette assistance pour les femmes et les enfants (Med. Thesis, University of Paris, 1907), 80-1. Return to text.
  2. Charles Villot, Mœurs, coutumes et institutions des indigènes de l’Algérie (Constantine: L. Arnolet, 1871), 146-7. Return to text.
  3. Renée Lacascade, Puériculture et colonisation. Étude sur la puériculture au Maroc. Aperçu du rôle colonisateur que peut jouer la femme médecin dans les pays d’occupation (Med. Thesis, University of Paris, 1922), 18-9. Return to text.

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2 Comments

larafreidenfelds

Beautiful and thought-provoking essay! Like the French colonial doctors, I think that today we often believe that modern science and medicine will clarify everything, and tell us the “real” truth about a pregnancy. And yet, the mystery, hope, fear, and uncertainty of gestation is still with us, as I found in my research for The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy: A History of Miscarriage in America.

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