Tuesday, 1 November 2011

#7 Shameful pregnancy

FACT OF THE DAY: In many cultures women don’t, won’t or can’t tell anyone they are pregnant

Researching my previous post about the Gusii women (#6) who have anxiety filled pregnancies, I found out that shame is one of the emotions these women associate with pregnancy.

I wanted to know more. Shame? At first this seems such a strange emotion to be associated with pregnancy, especially as these are married women who really want to prove their fertility and have lots of children. Why should they feel shame?

In our culture, shame would rarely be associated with pregnancy, especially among married or long-term-partnered women. OK, so some of my friends did mention feeling a slight twinge of awkwardness when they told their Dads that they were pregnant, as it was often the first conversation that acknowledged they had actually had sex. And possibly some people might feel a bit sheepish admitting an unplanned pregnancy, whether it’s their first pregnancy or their fifth. But I doubt there are many scenarios where anyone would feel shame.

So I decided to try to find out more about why the women feel shame, and what in particular is shameful.

I have dug out quite a lot of information, and it seems that Gusii women are far from being the only ones who associate pregnancy with shame. 

As we all know, pregnancy comes from having sex....

For this very reason pregnancy is considered indecent among cultures that are particularly modest, conservative or disapproving of sexual activity. Although married women in these cultures are undoubtedly glad to be proving their worth and demonstrating their fertility, pregnancy is associated with great embarrassment and shame.

A Hindu woman living in rural India shouldn’t be openly proud of her pregnancy and she is required to be even more modest than usual. She is meant to stop all contact with her own family, especially her father and any brothers, as it’s shameful for them to see her in this condition that not only demonstrates her sexuality, but also brings to mind the ‘polluting’ act of childbirth to come. She doesn’t normally tell anyone when she realises she is pregnant, and people will just eventually come to know. Her nosey mother-in-law (the newly married couple nearly always live with the husband’s family) will be watching closely for the signs – in particular looking to see whether she has her monthly purifying bath, which all women do when their period ends. If her daughter-in-law doesn’t perform this ritual bath the assumption will be that she is pregnant. 

Among the Muslim villagers in rural Turkey it is not culturally appropriate for a woman to tell anyone apart from her husband and mother-in-law about her pregnancy because of its unmistakeable evidence that she has had sex, and alluding to sex is not the done thing. It is difficult for people outside the family to tell whether a woman is pregnant – plumpness is a sign of beauty and prosperity and if their husbands can provide enough food most women are comfortably overweight, and their customary dress of baggy trousers and loose tunics cover up any changes in shape – and it may not be obvious until the pregnancy is well established by which time the focus will be on the baby about to arrive, rather than how it got there.

The shame of pregnancy among the Hausa of Nigeria is extreme, it’s actually pretty hard to believe that women are having such awful experiences around the world today. In this fundamentalist Islamic male-dominated society, women have no independence and there is a huge social pressure for girls who have reached puberty to be modest and maintain purdah at all times. Sex, pregnancy and childbirth are never discussed, even between women, and a young girl entering into an arranged marriage has little idea of what lies ahead. A newly pregnant bride should not draw attention to her status, the pregnancy mustn’t be discussed with anyone and she should carry on with life as normal, acting as if nothing has changed.  

This is the heartbreaking part - so great is the sense of shame that once the baby is born, the mother is discouraged from having any relationship with her firstborn. Either the child is given away to a relative, or, if it is raised within the same walled compound by its grandmother or aunts where the mother lives, the mother and her firstborn are bound by strict cultural rules of avoidance. These mean that for the rest of their lives the mother cannot use the child’s name, show any affection or interest towards it or even look at the child if she can help it.  

These are just a few examples I have found, no doubt there are more. Possibly in our own culture not so long ago pregnancy was also considered indecent? 

Amazing, we all have the same biological processes going on while we are pregnant, but our experiences are so different depending on the culture that we live in.

*  *  * 

If you would like to read more for yourself, have a look at;

Wall, L (1998) Dead mothers and injured wives: The Social Context of Maternal Morbidity and Mortality Among the Hausa of Northern Nigeria Studies in Family Planning 29, 4 : 341-359

 LeVine, R., Dixon, S (1996) Childcare and Culture; Lessons from Africa  New York: Cambridge University Press

DeLoache, J. & Gottlieb, A (2000) A world of babies; Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies   New York:  Cambridge University Press

Patricia Jeffery, Roger Jeffery, Andrew Lyon (1989) Labour pains and labour power Zed Books : New Jersey USA


  1. I don't see how it is accurate or appropriate to mention the Hausa as being a 'fundamentalist Islamic society' and linking their cultural beliefs to this; there is nothing in Islam that encourages hiding pregnancy and from the Islamic texts it is clear this is not a tradition that originated amongst the early Muslims; nor did the Prophet Muhammed or the Qur'an advise this. While the Hausa are mainly Muslim, not all of them are and they converted to Islam in relatively modern times compared to many other societies so they still have many pre-Islamic cultural beliefs-that are most likely shared by other religions living in the area as well. Similarly with the Turkish custom mentioned; there has been heavy influence of ancient greek, Turkic (i.e. Mongolian) and even Zoroastrian culture on many Turkish peoples.

  2. Thanks for your input Soph.

    I mention religion to give context to the different cultural groups. Like me, I expect most people won't have heard of the Hausa before, and their religion is one bit of interesting background information. I do not mean to imply that their pregnancy practices are necessarily due to their religous beliefs. You are right that they have many other influences.

    You seem to know quite a lot about Hausa, what is your interest?

  3. As you mention the seclusion of Hausa girls from any sexual references in their growing up (with the strong focus on modesty) and their arranged marriage: I wonder to what extent the isolation of these women from their first-born children may not be an actual relief. Caring for a new-born when the entire sexuality-cum-conception-cum-pregnancy issue is a experience you have never been prepared for, and coping with the resulting trauma, can simply be too much and would burden the mother-child relationship, too. Aunts or other female relatives can be just as loving as mothers and, with considerably less aversion (in this case by a traumatized mother) involved, can care for a firstborn quite adequately. The mother may not want to ever refer to this first child again and may be quite relieved to be rid of a responsibility of care towards it. In turn, at some point, she may assume maternal responsibility as aunt herself - then dissociated from the trauma of childbirth - and thus have her own share of child-raising. Strange maybe, to Westerners, but I see quite an inherent logic at work here that you seem to disregard. In short, I see little reason for the heart-break.