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Department of Anthropology

Academic Staff

Publication details for Dr Claudia Merli

Image: Bodily Practices and Medical Identities in Southern Thailand. Merli, C. (2008). Bodily Practices and Medical Identities in Southern Thailand. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis.

Author(s) from Durham


This study explores contemporary practices concerning women’s and children’s bodies, with a special focus on postpartum practices, the treatment of the afterbirth and its cosmological dimensions, and male and female circumcision. At the intersection between traditional midwifery and modern medicine, Muslim women cross the boundaries between different cosmologies and medical systems. At the borders to Malaysia, the Muslim minority in Thailand upholds postpartum practices which have been abandoned by the Thai Buddhists in the region, making of the body a contested site of powers and identities. Traditional midwives are pressured to limit their practices to rituals and massage. The increasing use of medical technologies in the form of Caesarean section and modern contraceptives are perceived as leading to changes in the local ethnophysiology of female bodies. The fluidity once characterising pre-and postpartum bodily states, has turned into an infertile rigidity exemplified by metaphors of a hardened body. In official discourse a sharp line is drawn between outdated tradition and medical modernity, at the same time as ethnic-religious borders between Malay Muslims and Thai Buddhists are erased with the disappearance of old practices and the emergence of new Muslim identities and rituals. Prodigious events and pregnancy losses led in the past to the formation of spirit cults managed by female mediums and represented a means of communication between Muslim and Buddhist lifeworlds. As these events vanish under medical scrutiny and intervention on the one hand, and a modernist reading of Islam on the other hand, local ethnophysiological conceptions are lost. Individual and social bodies are put under the medical dressage of biopolitics and a discourse on the Muslim minority is created to serve aims of internal colonialism.