By Hwaa Irfan
Giving birth as if one is in a factory is the experience of quite a few women today. As far back as 1982, 6,000 women met on London ‘s Hampstead Heath to protest against being made to lie down to give birth as has become the custom in modern child-birthing techniques. All were pro-natural-birth, supporting the women’s instinct to give birth in the position they choose. Such was the case in Europe until the 17th century when King Louis XIV of France forced his mistresses to lie on their backs (which in fact causes more pain and the increased likelihood that something will go wrong) so that he could witness the birth of his children. So the trend was set to follow.
Between 1998 and 2000, 53 percent of women in the United Kingdom gave birth without medical intervention. Within 2001–2002, it was only 45 percent, according to the Department of Health. Those who were not so lucky were subject to anesthetics and instruments and Caesarian section. With the number of C-section procedures doubling within the last two years, naturally a growing number of women and organizations have become concerned. For some women today, there is no familiarity with the idea of giving birth any other way. Poonam Nagpal, a healer from India , observed:
“Today women are worried about the risks of childbirth. They have preset notions that it would be a painful process” .
The natural way is sitting, squatting, or standing, working with the force of gravity, and offers a pain-free delivery. Also it widens and opens up the pelvis, improving the labor process. Dr. Michael Odent, France , was of the opinion that giving birth lying down is a grave mistake especially if the legs are strapped down. A woman has to push her baby upward in this position, against the force of gravity, causing stronger contractions, more pain, and a longer period of labor. “Birth is a renewal of life, which is why a woman should be given full freedom to do what she chooses. We are taught to respect the mother and her natural body rhythms,” said Saraswati Nagpal, a trainee midwife.
Lynn Callister looked at women from different cultures and their childbirth experience over a 15-year period. Her research, published in Home Health Care Management and Practice, found that the response to childbirth pains differed from culture to culture. For a Tongan: “When I was in labor, the pain was something I had never experienced in the whole world, but then I saw the baby, and there was happiness more than I could think of.” For a Chinese:
“Although it is painful, it is also easy because women have been having babies for thousands of years.”
Chinese women used soft voices and demonstrated a quiet demeanor while laboring and giving birth, Callister found, while Jordanian Muslim women were very verbal and asked God for support while giving birth. Women strong in their religion accepted the inevitable pain and relied on a higher power for strength.
Techno-Birthing and Its Pseudo-Religious Roots
Abul Fadl Mohsin Ebrahim stated:
When Muslims object to specific bio-technical methods, this does not mean that Islam is against technological advancement or progress. Nor does it imply, as Sania Hamady contends, that Muslims are fatalists. The Qur’an does speak of predestination in regard to the creation of the various things in the world, but that means that the natural properties ingrained in these things have already been predetermined. Also in the case of man’s creation, the way he is physically constituted has already been predetermined.… There is no doubt about the emphasis the Qur’an lays on the necessity of observing natural phenomena. It invites man to study creation as the handiwork of Allah (SWT), and to marvel at its beauty.
An increasing number of women choose to give birth at home as laid down by tradition.
There is a growing view that it is the result of the contemporary health care system that the process of giving birth has an obsession with required intervention. A Swiss study testifies to the misconceptions that have arisen. The study looked at prenatal clinics and reference hospitals in Zurich during the period 1989–1992, and at 489 women who chose home delivery and 385 women who chose hospital delivery. The focus was the need for medication, intervention (caesarian, forceps, etc.), the duration of labor, perineal lesions, maternal blood loss, and perinatal death. It turned out that the home-birthing group needed significantly less medication and intervention. There were more premature births with those that attended hospital.
Like many contemporary Western systems, it is not the woman who is free to choose, but the system is. In this case, the whole process of birthing has been co-opted by a male-dominated approach. How, where, and when a woman wants to give birth is within the framework of the health system, unless you are like me and have a contract written beforehand and someone presents it to make sure that they adhere to the agreed contract.
In the U.K., those that are marginalized from the dominant health care system are given fewer choices. The system, in fact, becomes a double-edged weapon, whereby those that service the system become victims, too. On a BBC radio program “File on 4,” a discussion focused on the growing medical blunders that have occurred in the United Kingdom because of the shortage of consultants. In one case referred to, an expectant mother was admitted by her general practitioner with chest pains and was registered with an inexperienced junior doctor. Even he knew that he was out of his depth and had tried several times throughout the night to reach the consultant, who repeatedly expressed that he was not needed. The result was a still-born child and a mother who died a few hours later with septicemia as a result of pneumonia. The program referred to recent research that revealed that England is at the bottom of the European league table for preventing deaths in childbirth; mistakes account for 53 percent of infant deaths during labor and the first six weeks of life. The reasons have been put down to lack of participation by senior staff; delays in responding to abnormalities; delays in recognizing risk factors; and problems recognizing when intervention is necessary.
Derek Tufnell, consultant obstetrician at the Bradley Royal Infirmary, United Kingdom , commented,
“If women who have no particular risk factors, when they are admitted in labor, are put on the monitoring at the outset, then they are more likely to stay on a monitor and they are more likely to end up with either forceps delivery or a Caesarian section. All procedures have complication rates and therefore if you increase the number of procedures that you are undertaking, more women, more babies will be exposed to those complications. So in terms if Caesarian section, there is a greater risk of hemorrhage, of bleeding for the mother after Caesarian section. There’s a greater risk of her having a thrombosis, which potentially can cause a maternal death”.
Perceptions of the womb as a baby producing factory that have sometimes been viewed with disdain throughout history, has left its hallmark especially amongst Judeo-Christians. The womb has been seen as repetition of that fall; subsequently all women are cursed as Eve was cursed. Rabbi Andrew Bachman refers to the birth of a male child, after which the woman is in a state of ritual impurity for seven days:
“When, however, a woman gives birth to a girl, the state of ritual impurity doubles to two weeks and the mother is enjoined to stay away from the sanctuary for 66 days. One is hard-pressed to find an acceptable answer to this standard of double impurity for giving birth to a female. In most of the commentaries to this Torah reading, we read about our ancestor’s ancient fear of blood and bodily fluids and the mysterious qualities attributed to these substances, and their struggle to understand the miracle of childbirth in both medical and religious terms.”
In the Book of Leviticus 15:19–30 of the Bible, we read:
“And if a woman has an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even. And everything that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: everything also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean. And whosoever toucheth her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even. … And on the eighth day she shall take unto her two turtledoves, or two pigeons, and bring them unto the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And the priest shall offer the one for a sin offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for her before the Lord for the issue of her uncleanness“.
Contrarily, in Islam, Eve is not the cause of the Fall from Paradise , and bearing female children is considered a blessing. As for the bodily fluids of women, Abu Hurayrah reported:
“While the Messenger of Allah (SAW) was in the mosque, he said, “O `A’isha, get me that garment.” She said, “I am menstruating.” Upon this he remarked, “Your menstruation is not in your hand,” and she, therefore, got him that” (Muslim 3, #0589).
Thus as the womb been viewed, influencing the arena of medicine and obstetrics. In turn women too have begun to view their bodies in this alien way. Women across generations have slowly stopped communicating with themselves, with their, bodies and with each other about many women’s issues. Once bonding was greater between generations, but now they have weakened as a product of a contemporary society where everyone is always in competition with one another. Once all the mysteries of adulthood would be passed on from mother/grandmother to daughter/granddaughter. Suspicion, modern forms of entertainment, busy lives, the generation gap, and instant solutions have replaced much. “She [woman] gained mastery of her own body. Now protected in large part from the slavery of reproduction, she is in a position of assume the economic role that is offered her and will assure of complete independence,” wrote feminist Simone de Beauvoir. With this has gone the knowledge of pregnancy, birthing, and parenting. So it was for Debbie deMars, who despite her successful career in software sales, felt quite alone and knew little about pregnancy when she did become pregnant. She felt alone because not many of her friends had had children.
“I want to talk to other pregnant women about what I was going through.” So now we have prenatal support groups, baby classes, childbirth classes, postpartum support groups, counseling, massage, birth assistants, and parenting classes, a nanny, and the list goes on if one thinks harder”.
- The Birth Narrative
Sahar in Aswan, Egypt, did not return to her home, but to her mother’s home, where she would get lots of rest and share with her mother in the care of the child for 40 days. Sahar as a new mother did very little else. In Turkey , it is the same along with exchange of visits with the mother-in-law, of course. If the birthing takes place at home, on the 40th day, relatives, friends, and neighbors visit with milk, yoghurt, rice pudding, and sweets, which the mother must taste.
For Khadija, it was customary to do what she did. She returned home from the city of Khartoum, Sudan, where she lived with her husband, to her mother’s home when Khadija was several months pregnant, to give birth. The birth was honored by the planting of a sapling tree watered by the Nile . Present was the midwife who carried out inspections to make sure everything was safe and sound in a room full of incense and women chanting Islamic expressions to calm and sooth her as well as to give strength. The father and the male relatives all waited outside in the courtyard. Khadija squatted in a room that was silent so as not to contribute any disturbances that could unsettle her or the child. The baby came into the world in a room resounding with ululations of joy. The women left the room and the men entered to share in the joy. The child’s next 40 days were spent with the mother in the grandmother’s home, where much was shared to prepare Khadija for motherhood and return to her husband’s home in Khartoum.
This was originally written in 2003
Bachman, Andrew, N. “Torah Teachings” April 28, 2001
BBC Radio 4. Transcript of “File on 4,” program number 03VY3008LHO, February 25, 2003.
Bloom, Zomi et al. “Dimensions of Natural Childbirth,” #21
Boddy, Janice. Wombs and Alien Spirits. University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
Ebrahim, Abul Fadl Mohsin. “Biotechnical Parenting.” The Canadian Society of Muslims. http://muslim-canada.org.
Gulati, Ambica. “Birth: In Whose Hands?” on http://www.lifepositive.com.
Lorenz, Elizabeth Darling. “Connecting Women Through Childbirth”
Ministry of Culture and Tourism , Turkey. “Tradition for Woman After Childbirth.”
Savage, Brittany. “Nursing Research Says Pain in Childbirth Varies By Culture” BYU News Net.
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