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The Henna Page Journal
The Functions of Henna Traditions during the Childbirth and Postpartum Period
Catherine Cartwright Jones
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Biological, Social and Metaphysical Aspects of Childbirth and Postpartum

Non-western societies have postpartum rituals within the popular expression of their religions that directly address the needs of a mother in the 8-week period after birth. These ritual actions serve to support her physically and emotionally after birth, and reintegrate her into the community after recovery. Though some ritual actions would not be appropriate or achievable in western society because of intrinsic hazards or unavailable materials, others are harmless, obtainable and serve to support the woman’s postnatal care. Henna traditions within popular religion practices of Islam, Sephardic Judaism, Hinduism, and Coptic Christianity are part of the management system for postpartum depression in India, North Africa and the Middle East.

Henna is becoming more widely available in western countries at present due to the popularization of henna body art in western pop culture (Maira S, 2000), so childbirth and postpartum henna traditions could be performed. Henna’s association with beautification and protection from evil are comforting. Henna’s requirement that a woman be still for several hours during and after application insures that a mother will rest and allow others to take care of her! During the weeks after ornate henna patterns are applied, a woman is culturally allowed to not do household tasks that would spoil the beauty of the stains. This increases the likelihood that she will rest properly to regain her strength after giving birth.

A woman goes through a social status change when she becomes a mother, and her relationship with her husband, other family members, and social group is changed. Caring for and nursing a neonate requires much from woman’s physical and emotional resources. These stresses added to the precipitous fall in estrogen and progesterone levels following birth, coupled with the elevation of prolactin in the first week postpartum are believed to give rise to irritability, mood changes, tearfulness, guilt, anxiety, fatigue and feelings of inadequacy. In extreme cases, the symptoms of postpartum psychosis include agitation, confusion, hallucinations, fatigue, delirium and diminished thinking (Stern and Kruckman, 1983). Though women universally experience the biological processes of the postpartum adjustment, they conceive of these changes through their social and religious constructs (Kleinman, 1978; and Cosminsky, 1977).

Malevolent spirits or the Evil Eye may be conceptualized as the bringers of depression. When rituals are performed to relieve the woman of the stresses of social reintegration, childcare and fatigue, the conceptualized demons of postpartum depression may be averted as the biological adjustments are buffered. Henna is frequently used within performance of rituals actions in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia to deter the evil eye. Henna applications also necessarily force a woman to stop, be still, and let other people take care of her while the henna stains the skin, thus insuring that the mother will rest and allow other people to do her regular tasks.

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