(Cute Muslim baby! Don’t research images with the word Palestine in them btw, it’s most upsetting)
A friend of mine who doesn’t plan on having children has often described me as ‘taking one for the team’. She doesn’t want kids and nor do most of our shared friends so she’s glad I have done my bit. In Palestine this is taken to another level entirely. Having children isn’t just a matter of personal choice but a duty to the whole community. This is both part of a longer tradition of emphasising community over individualism but also it has a great deal to do with politics in the region. Palestinians feel it is their duty to have as many (ideally male) children as possible as a way of asserting themselves in the region and protecting their future.
Getting asked ‘Is there anything on the way?’ therefore, is part of the newly weds daily conversation almost straight after marriage and most women get pregnant within the first year of marriage. In the research I read the women described it as a way of stopping the constant questioning almost more than anything else!
Having lots of male children is not only considered a great contribution to Palestinian society in order to safeguard its future and defend it from attack, women also feel it protects their own position in society and defends them within their marriage. If a woman has numerous sons not only will she gain respect from the community but her husband and his family will also be likely to respect her more. In the case of struggling marriages where violence might be threatened her sons will be there to protect her. It’s easy to see this as something that doesn’t apply to us living in a far less patriarchal society but the huge domestic violence figures in the UK shouldn’t make us complacent about how many women might well wish they had a couple of teenage or adult sons to protect them from their partners. There aren’t particularly high rates of domestic violence in Palestine but it’s interesting how having sons is considered an act of self protection on lots of levels.
So what does it feel like to be pregnant in Palestine? Well, despite how hard it is to travel around, get to doctor’s appointments and visit family it definitely has it’s upsides. Pregnant women are indulged and fussed over and cared for by the whole family. The family is not just the nuclear family but the extended family of aunts, cousins etc which can number in the thousands and provide a great deal of unity and support to young families, even pooling together to cover medical expenses for example.
As with many cultures, when a woman becomes pregnant in Palestine, her mother will move in with her and her husband to provide support. Providing delicious and tempting food for the pregnant woman is seen as everyone’s responsibility and is a key feature of the help that she is provided with, especially if she has cravings or food aversions. Pretty much anything goes except for fish with yoghurt which is not recommended (and sounds a bit dubious to me anyway).
(Palestinian breakfast. Yes please!!!)
Having fallen out of favour in the 90’s many women are now returning to using a dayat, a kind of Palestinian doula. She comes in even before pregnancy and will massage the woman’s tummy, place a lit candle on her tummy during menstruation along with recommending that both she and her husband eat honey and raw nuts to aid conception. She will recommend that eating dates is avoided until the last month of pregnancy when they become advised as a great foodstuff that aids childbirth. It turns out that there’s quite a lot of supporting science that dates really do contribute to a better labour and they are recommended across the Muslim world. I wish I’d known when I was pregnant as I love dates and both my labours were pretty tough going!
I found myself having to ask people to get up for me on public transport when I was heavily pregnant, in Palestine I doubt this would ever happen. Pregnancy is a time not for retreating into your home with your closest friends and family as it is for many of us, but for reaching out and becoming a contributor to the local and wider community as they embrace and take care of you in return.
One of the book’s co-editors writes a great blog, too: almagottlieb.com
Eating dates is good for labour: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21280989
More stuff on childbirth in Palestine