Janet Danziger explores some of the more extreme myths about childbirth found in the non-Western world.
Midwives magazine: Issue 4 :: 2012
Without access to pregnancy tests, microscopes, ultrasound scans or a detailed knowledge of human anatomy, it’s not surprising that conception, pregnancy and childbirth are surrounded by myth and superstition in many non-Westernised cultures (as was the case in the West until quite recently).
Considering the mysterious qualities of conception, it’s easy to see why it’s the subject of so many myths. Pregnancy is also a ripe area for myths as for nine months the baby is unseen, so cause and effect can be confused. There are many superstitions about what a woman should or shouldn’t do to keep her baby safe, from avoiding an eclipsed moon for fear of giving the baby a cleft lip (Tarahumara, Mexico) to eating slimy okra to help the baby slide out easily during labour (Jamaica).
As for childbirth itself, the many myths peddled around the world can have a huge influence on the woman’s experience. The belief that childbirth and the associated bodily fluids are dangerous or polluting is common. This has nothing to do with the physical mess, but comes from the idea that childbirth and everything to do with it is impure and contaminating.
Among the Gadsup of Papua New Guinea, when a woman begins labour, she walks with her mother and aunts for an hour up through the forest to a birthing hut. They believe that the blood from childbirth is so powerful, it could cause illness and even death for the village men. Birth blood mustn’t come anywhere near the men or ‘get into plants or garden roots’ at any time. The placenta is buried by the birthing hut, far from the village, before the women make the long trek back.
Similar beliefs are held by the Ifaluk, who inhabit a remote island in the North Pacific. They also have an exclusively female hut outside the village, which men cannot go near for fear that it would cause a famine and all their food would rot. In the past, among the Marquesas islanders, childbirth was thought to be so contaminating that if a woman didn’t make it to the birthing hut, they burned down the house where she gave birth.
In rural parts of India and Bangladesh, the myth of ‘childbirth pollution’ has different consequences for a woman’s experience, both during pregnancy and in childbirth. Pregnant women are surrounded by shame, due to the obvious evidence that they have had sex and the polluting acts of childbirth to come. Women here enlist the services of a ‘dai’, whose main role is to take on this pollution. She is ‘typically so poor that she is prepared to take on this most disgusting of tasks’, which include cutting the cord, cleaning the baby and tidying up the placenta. No other woman will touch the newborn until it has been cleansed.
Another common belief is that women should bear the pain of childbirth in silence to demonstrate their courage and character. The Japanese believe that the greatest experience of a woman’s life is to hear her baby’s cry, and this should be the only sound heard during labour. Fulani girls from West Africa are taught from an early age how shameful it is to show fear of childbirth. In Nigeria, among the Hausa, there is great social pressure not to show any sign of pain, and labouring quietly and patiently is thought to demonstrate ‘proper’ modesty.
In humid equatorial Benin, Africa, the Bariba women are also expected to give birth in silence and girls are taught that a woman who fusses or cries during childbirth is ‘lower than an ant’. They are also expected to give birth alone. Due to a strong mythology about witches, most women will try to comply. It’s believed that witches can be detected at the moment of birth if it is breech, slides onto its stomach when born, or is born with teeth. Birthing alone gives the mother a chance to quickly change the baby’s birthing position or ignore certain signs if she chooses and save her baby from an uncertain fate.
Another myth found across different cultures is that a woman having a difficult labour is being punished for something she has done wrong and needs forgiveness for labour to proceed. In Sierra Leone, Africa, if a Mende or Sherbro woman has a long and difficult labour lasting more than two days, she is suspected of having had an affair during her pregnancy. The sperm left inside her by her lover is believed to obstruct the baby’s exit, and to clear it, she must confess.
In Ghana, a labouring Akan woman in difficulty is also suspected of infidelity during her pregnancy. The older women attending her demand the name of her lover and if she refuses to admit one, the women address the baby inside her, listing the men in the village. If the baby is then born, the woman will not only be accused of adultery she didn’t commit, but also of being a liar.
Worst of all is perhaps the practice in parts of Malaysia, where it is believed that a woman experiencing a difficult labour must have offended her husband, and he needs to reassert his dominance over her so she can fulfil her womanly function of giving birth. First he will step over her three times. If this doesn’t work she is made to drink water that he has dipped his penis in!
Some cultures believe delivery is slow because the world outside is not sufficiently welcoming to the baby. The Inuit never refer to an unborn child as a baby, but by a word that translates as ‘our baby-to-be’. If the baby seems reluctant to come out, they think it might be because the house is dirty and unwelcoming, or because the midwife herself is ‘dirty’. Most Inuit women clean their houses thoroughly before labour begins but if the baby still isn’t born, the midwife is suspected of having her period and may be asked to leave.
Among some pastoralist cultures in East Africa, which value cattle above all else, it is also believed that a welcoming reception will help to speed up delivery, although their idea of welcoming is quite different from the Inuit’s. A woman having a long and difficult labour may have her vagina packed with cow dung, which is meant to entice the baby out of the womb as it will smell how wealthy its father is.
Many of these beliefs are called ‘myths’ because we know them to be untrue; however, there are many beliefs and practices that have been used in non-Western cultures for years that are effective and we are only slowly learning from. Birthing position is an obvious example, but others include perineal massage during pregnancy to reduce tearing, nipple stimulation to start labour, massage during labour and calming visualisations to assist a panicky mother.
With a degree in anthropology, Janet is a mother of three and is interested in pregnancy and childbirth around the world. Read more of her findings at: pregnancyandchildbirtharoundtheworld.blogspot.com
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