There is a saying in the Afghan / Islamic culture that "Heaven is under the Mother's feet, so treat her kindly". This stresses the importance of women, especially mothers in our culture and the kindess, respect and love they should be given if we truly want to be righteous. In honor of Mother's Day, I felt this would be a perfect time to write about the special moment, when a woman can call herself a mother. The wonders of pregnancy are simply amazing and countless. My focus on this article will be on the pregnancy process and how it’s viewed in the Afghan culture and the expectations and celebrations that come with it. Remember Afghans just want a reason to celebrate! I should note that this article will highlight aspects of the afghan culture that some Afghans no longer practice given their exposure to different cultures and living in the states.
Remember the three month rule? Don’t tell anyone -especially outside the family, if a young woman is pregnant during the first trimester as there is a higher chance of miscarriage or inviting 'nazar' the evil eye from outsiders. This rule not only extends to three months, for some traditional Afghan women, it extends until the actual birth of the baby. It is almost seen as an act of honor and modesty to ‘hide’ the pregnancy until the baby is born. I remember an older Afghan woman telling me her story of how proud she was that no one knew she was even pregnant until she came home from the hospital with a baby! This method as seen by some older Afghans can be seen as protecting both the unborn child and the mother from nazar or simply being conservative and modest.
This concept is rarely practiced in the US with Afghans, because every Afghan woman I have known to have fallen pregnant has announced the news in the first three months or shortly after ( it's too exciting to keep just to yourself!) The announcement of pregnancy is never done formally, rather through family and friends. Usually the husband’s family is one to officially confirm the pregnancy to curious souls within the family and to friends. One thing I found out the hard way, was that a pregnant Afghan girl should not go her conservative Afghan father to announce the pregnancy and all the details of the first sonogram in the first couple months!
Is it a Boy or Girl…does it matter anymore?
When a young Afghan woman gets married, the most common ‘prayer’ she will hear from older Afghan women and her in-laws on her wedding day and until the day she gets pregnant is “ I wish you many sons” or “ May God grant you 5, 6, 7, 10 sons”. Having a son in our culture is extremely important especially to Afghans living in Afghanistan. It is with a son, that parents will ultimately live with if they already don’t live together in an extended household. It is with a son, that they can count on someone generating an income for their current and future financial needs and it is with a son, that will guarantee an increase in family members (his wife and kids will most likely move in or live close byand carry the father's last name).
Also, given that Afghanistan is highly an agricultural society, Afghans desire physically strong sons to take over the family’s farming needs and provide for the family when the parents no longer can and the daughters are married off. Since Afghanistan’s economy and rule of law is officiated by men, a woman in public is seen as more honorable if accompanied by a man, whether her husband or son. A son provides protection for the family.
Now, in the states, some Afghans have that same mentality especially when it comes to upholding and carrying on the family name and also providing for the parents. However, times have changed and nowadays, both females and males leave the parents home when they get married. Both males and females are educated and can provide financially for themselves and their parents and both genders have a choice in their living situation including location.
The wish for a healthy child outweighs the preferenc for a boy or girl. The desire for a certain gender is now more socially personalized rather than of mere need. Some mother’s desire a baby girl, someone to always count on and be best friends with. A girl to share their life stories with ( as well as all the clothes and jewelry collected over the years!) It is with a girl that the Muslim Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said that if a man raises four righteous and successful daughters, he will have a place in heaven. Now that’s some reward! Some fathers desire a boy so they can teach them how to play the sports they played as a child, someone to look up to them and admire them and overall, a desire for a baby boy or girl who is healthy, kind, successful, respectful and appreciative of their parents when they grow up.
What happens after the baby comes?
In Afghanistan, a baby has a higher chance of being born at home, a birth attended by local midwives then at the local hospital. One of the biggest reasons for this occurrence is the absence of trained and professional female doctors and lack of facilities as well as transportation in rural areas of Afghanistan. Also, many young women in Afghanistan are embarrassed to be seen by a male doctor during delivery along with the aforementioned, the infant mortality rate has been the highest in the world. I hope that this will change with the infrastructure of newly built facilities and the creation of educational programs for both midwives and local female doctors.
When a baby is newly born, the new mother stays in the house with the baby for 40 days. This period is reserved for the health of the mother and baby as both are quite fragile at this time. The 40th day is marked by some kind of celebration usually consisting of a small gathering of women in the family and eating delicious foods. The Afghan sweet bread “rote’ is baked and distributed amongst the gathering and other sweet desserts. At this time, the new mother can resume her daily prayers and fasting (if Ramadan falls around that time) if she wishes and is able to, although some may not fast during the month of Ramadan if they are nursing. They say that after a baby girl is born that angels circle the home of the parents (or wherever the baby is residing) for forty days! This brings about divine protection and countless blessings to the home and to the family.
Now in the US, young Afghan women do things a little differently when it comes to birth and the aftermath. The birth almost 99% of the time takes place in the hospital and with hectic school and work schedules, the new mom may have to return to the field before the forty days and if her family or in-laws don’t live close by, the celebrations may have to wait until everyone can get together. The abovementioned still happens, it’s just that with an increase of working women, the timeframes have changed, although the celebrations still occur.
Also, most Afghans have the baby shower or “shaw-e-Sash” when the baby is six months old. This event is attended by all family and friends to celebrate the birth of the baby. The attendance can be in the hundreds and celebrated in a banquet hall with gifts, music, food and dancing. Another monumental event at the six months stage is shaving of the baby’s hair! This marks new life and beginnings (usually done in the spring season of their six month) and it has proven as a way to grow healthy, thicker, shiny and more beautiful hair for the baby! It’s fair to note, that some Afghans literally celebrate every moment of the child’s early and most precious moments. I have attended celebrations ( I am talking banquet halls and all that jazz) for a an Afghan woman finally being blessed with a baby boy after five daughters, a celebration for the appearance of the first tooth, for the first walk and of course the yearly birthday celebrations! Children are truly cherished in our Afghan culture as they are our future and we don’t hold back when showing our love and appreciation for them! How will you celebrate a child today?