How Local Afghan Folklore Attempts To Explain High Maternal Mortality

by Ruchi Kumar

It was a dark, stormy night, or maybe a sunny afternoon in Kabul, when our casual conversation over chai and samosas drifted to a darker place. As we sat together with some of our dear Afghan friends, a few days before Halloween, the subject of the supernatural was a given topic of conversations.

Everyone loves a good supernatural tale, and our Afghan hosts entertained us with some very intriguing tales of Djinns and mystics and the unexplained from the other side, intertwined with the vast history and mythology of Afghanistan. As a culture known for its storytelling skills, the narrators had all of us in rapt attention to their every word, interrupted with right pauses enough to allow us a moment to picture their narratives.

Every story followed a short discussion on the origins of the folklore and the rational behind it. However, the one story that caught everyone’s attention and warranted a lengthy discussion on myths that affect women, was the lore of Al Khatun (which literally translates to “the woman”).

It is believed that an evil spirit of woman hunts for victims among pregnant women. There is very vivid description put together from several stories of her that often transcend the regional cultures of Afghanistan. “She is said to be pale, with unnaturally long fingers, long dark hair and wears a long gown,” shares Aliya Rajai. “And she doesn’t wear a headscarf,” adds Enayat Azad, indicating a sign of lack of respect for the Islamic traditions. “She is violent and when she possesses a woman, the possessed is sure to die during childbirth.”

Locals who fear that Al Khatun would take over the body of the pregnant women often approach local mystics for blessings and tahweez (amulets with verses of the Koran written on them) to shield the potential victims from the wrath of the evil spirit. “There is also belief that if you can catch Al Khatun and take a strand of her long black hair, you and all the women in your family will be safe from her,” shares Aliya.

In some parts of Afghanistan, pregnant women are given onion and garlic to ward off Al Khatun, much like the belief that garlic keeps away vampires.

However, both quickly laugh it off and add that they do not believe that Al Khatun is real. While many Afghans, especially the educated urban society, remain fascinated with the supernatural, they do draw strong lines of distinction when it comes to superstition.

“Afghanistan is one of the most difficult places to be pregnant, and such stories are used by the uniformed population to rationalise the high number of maternal mortality rates,” reasons Alia.

Indeed, the figures are not in favor of Afghan women, with thousands of women still facing imminent fatality during childbirth. While significantly lower than 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) recorded nearly 4,300 deaths during childbirth in 2015 — an average of 396 deaths per 100,000 live births. Lack of facilities, resources, and overall vacuum of information relating to reproductive health has been a contributing factor to these grim numbers.

The issue is further aggravated when during difficult pregnancies people put their faith in superstition rather than seek medical help. The superstition perpetuates a form of apathy towards women’s health and reproductive rights, that leaves little space for them to receive medical attention.

Of course, a large number of Afghan in urban cities do not subscribe to such ideas, however, it isn’t uncommon for those in the districts and villages believe and react to such superstition with uninformed practices.

Here are few other superstitions and beliefs that affect maternal and child development:

– If you deny a pregnant woman’s craving, her child will be born with blue eyes. As a result of this belief, a lot of women often deny themselves the required nutrition that is imperative for the health of their unborn child

– Drying a newborn’s laundry after dark could attract Djinns (evil spirits) to the child.

– Never leave home with a child after dark, and if you have to carry a piece of old bread to protect yourself and the child from the evil spirits.

– Guests are not allowed to meet a woman who has just given birth for up to 40 days due to the belief that she may be unclean. However, scientifically speaking, this one makes sense because the immune system of both the mother and child are weak in the first few weeks and prone to infections.

– The allure of a boy child in a patriarchal society such as Afghanistan has led to a belief that suggests that the gender of the unborn women can be determined by a woman. Several shrines around Kabul offer blessings for fertility and a male heir, for a small fee.

– Another related superstition suggests that consuming food with “hot” elements can assure a male child.

Top photo: tawiz, via Wikipedia

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