(This blog is an excerpt from Vivienne Stacey’s book ‘Women in Islam’, published in 1995. It is used with permission from Interserve GBI.)
Quoting from the unpublished manuscript of a midwife in Afghanistan:
The tiny baby represents security for the parents in old age, gives security of position to the young mother, and may ensure landholdings within the family circle… as the bride settles into life with her husband’s family, she will be guarded from evil influences from the day of her marriage – by charms on her person or pinned up in the house. The Qur’an, wrapped carefully and put on a special shelf just above the door, is a guard again any evil power entering their new home. Her mother-in-law will watch the bride carefully, even deciding what food she is to eat.
The bride does very little in the household until her first child is born. If. As the months pass, no sign of pregnancy appears, she will be taken to the local ‘midwife’ who may give advise on special herbal potions to drink. If this is now effective, she will visit the local ‘holy man’. Some verse of the Qur’an will be chanted and blown on her, or a charm given her to be worn in her person – a small metal box sewn into cloth, holder pieces of paper on which verses from the Qur’an have been written. As a last resort, she will visit a local shrine, walking round it a vertain number of times, picking up stones and putting them to her forehead, or even kissing the shrine. Afterwards, a piece of cloth is died nearby or a nail hammered into a nearby tree… The childless wife is a sad person who constantly fears the threat of another wife coming into the home. The stigma of having no children is strong. Other women may feel that she is judged of God, or has the ‘evil eye’.
As women in Afghan society are very open with one another about the facts of life, it is usually known by all the women in the house when the bride has missed a period. Most Afghan women calculate by the moon, reckoning a pregnancy to be ten lunar months. Fear surrounds her. She is thought to be more vulnerable to evil influences and therefore is protected from certain situations – meeting strangers, walking near graveyards, and having contact with anyone who might have the ‘evil eye’. Because they believe that evil jinn or ‘evil spirits’ can listen to conversations, very little is said about the pregnancy, and very little preparation is made for the baby. A small bundle of clothes may be laid ready for the delivery, but that is all. If any problems come during pregnancy, she goes through the same process as before – visiting the local old women for herbal remedies, the holy man, and finally the shrine. Strong beliefs are held about certain foods, and some kinds may be avoided during pregnancy.
Most women have no idea what will happen when they deliver their first child. Some may have witnessed a delivery, most will have heard the screams of a woman in labour, so the mother-to-be is very fearful. In larger towns, there are ante-natal clinics and hospitals where the young mothers can get information and a hygienic delivery, but often fear of the unknown will hold her back from taking advantage of this. In the villages, it is usually an old woman who acts as midwife or birth attendant. She will have delivered many babies and will be a respected and influential member of the community; she may be related to the family. She may know very little about hygiene.
Very soon after the birth, the mullah – a local religious leader from a mosque – will come to the house to shout the creed of Islam into the baby’s ear. The baby’s name is chosen either by the male members of the household or by the mullah. Nobody compliments the baby in case of evil spirits are listening, and if someone does say anything positive, it is prefixed by bismillah, ‘in the name of God’, as a protection. The baby is never left alone. Mother and baby do not go out for forty days. At the end of forty days, the new mother will celebrate with her woman friends.
Several of the Christian midwives that I have known in North Africa and Asia find that their patients, in addition to being naturally nervous of the dangers of childbirth, are also fearful because of the superstitions and practices which are part of their culture. The patients sometimes ask the midwives to pray for them. The Christian may use this opportunity to teach along the following lines during several visits to the home:
You are now the mother of a new baby. God has brought him or her safely into this world and has kept you safe too. Let us thank God for his love and goodness to you, and for bringing this new life into your family. Jesus the Messiah, the eternal Lord and Saviour of this world, was born as a baby just like your baby. His mother Mary experienced the paid of labour as you have, and rejoiced in the birth of her baby as you have. Jesus, son of Mary, came into this world to save us from sin and to make us righteous before God. God has given physical life to you and your baby by the process of natural birth. He also wants to give spiritual life. This is his gift which comes through faith in Jesus the Messiah.
Another suggested prayer for use at the birth of a child is:
O Creator God, we thank you that through your goodness this child has been safely born and that the mother has been freed from suffering. Now we beseech you that these to whom you have given physical life may also obtain eternal life through the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah.
Reflecting on this story from Vivienne, here are some questions that may help:
1. What have the women in your community done to manage pregnancy and childbirth?
2. What stories from our holy book speak to women’s situations around pregnancy and childbirth?
3. Prepare a couple of prayers that you could use with women in matters or pregnancy and childbirth.
Vivienne Stacey. Women in Islam. 1995.
Vivienne Stacey dedicated her life to strengthening Christian witness among Muslims. From the beginning, training and equipping women was core to her ministry. She was committed to building up and training others, to see them grow by passing responsibility on to them. This article comes from her archive.
(c) When Women Speak… February 2022