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Women, Disease, and Colonialism: The Complex Role of Women in Perceptions of Contagious Diseases in Islamic History Público

From the outbreaks of the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages to the COVID-19 pandemic, women in Islamic history have been entangled in contagious disease perceptions. An examination of theories developed by scholars at the onset of the Bubonic Plague and cholera outbreaks reveals connections between infections and women, with the unique ability of women to inspire lust linked to these diseases. Perceived to be contagious centers of corruption, women may have been blamed for their role in contagious diseases as a result of departing from the social norm. Developed in the Middle East in front of a backdrop of changing social structures and used in India to target outcasts, perceptions of contagious diseases were utilized to maintain social norms when societies were faced with a terrifying new threat. However, as these outbreaks became regular occurrences, focus shifted to blaming colonial governments for mismanaging epidemics. No longer deemed centers of contagion, the treatment of women became a flashpoint for growing anti-colonial sentiment, used as a rallying cause to provoke riots. The modern COVID-19 pandemic showcases a continuation of this theme, with media outlets and government officials debating and taking different stances on the use of traditional face coverings by Islamic women as replacements for facemasks despite no published medical research. These connections between women and contagious disease perceptions reveal an interesting but under researched theme that requires much more attention in order to develop a complete picture of this complex aspect of women’s history.

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