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The Henna Page Journal
The Functions of Henna Traditions during the Childbirth and Postpartum Period
Catherine Cartwright Jones
Page 3 of 9

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On the tenth day after giving birth, the mother comes out of her rooms for the first time for the Suraj ceremony. This is the Namakarana Sanskar Divas, or the name-giving day, and the child is shown to the Sun to obtain the deity’s blessings. Solar symbols are applied in henna to the mother and to the child. Solar symbols are drawn in rangoli in the household courtyard. The child is presented to the deities, the community and the mother assumes her new social status. The sun, in Hindu religious iconography, is understood to be a caring and protective deity, providing relief from infertility, hunger, and the sorrows of old age and death (Malville and Singh, 1995). Ritually integrating the mother and child with the benevolent forces of the sun serve to smooth the transition from ritual postpartum seclusion back into active village life, and have a buffering effect against the stresses of new motherhood. If an immigrant woman does not have access to her accustomed rituals: henna, rice flour to create rangoli, and friends and practitioners to assist her, apply the henna and paint the patterns, her anxiety and fatigue following birth may be unrelieved and develop beyond “baby blues” into a prolonged disorder (Stern and Kruckman 1983).

Childbirth and Postpartum Rituals in Early 20th Century Amazigh Morocco

Women arriving in the west as refugees from North African famines and wars often have insufficient English to express their concerns to medical personnel, leading to misunderstandings about their need for performance of ritual actions surrounding childbirth. Westermarck (1926) and Legey (1926) recorded meticulous descriptions of the henna traditions and other ritual performances surrounding childbirth in Morocco in the early part of the 20th century. These are comparable to traditions practiced throughout North Africa prior to modernization in those countries. Contemporary urbanized North African women now often regard these traditions as “country”, but they are still practiced in rural areas, and may be reconstructed by women who have nostalgic feelings for their traditions, or who feel comforted by the old rituals.

Women routinely arrive in North African maternity clinics with hennaed hands and feet. If they have immigrated to western countries, physicians unfamiliar with the tradition may mistake their henna patterns for skin disease, creating a stressful misunderstanding between doctor and patient. Physicians are often unaware that hennaeing fingernails and toenails does not alter pulse oxymetry readings (Al-Majed, Harakati, 1994) as does fingernail polish, and may insist that the woman try to remove the henna. In most of the tribal groups, women were hennaed, and ornamented with kohl (a traditional black makeup made of antimony) and swak, (a traditional dark lip stain made of walnut root) as if they were brides before they go into labor. These not only deterred malicious spirits, but also prepared the woman for the possibility of dying in childbirth. If a woman died in childbirth, she was believed to enter paradise as a bride, and should be appropriately adorned (Westermarck II, 1926, 383). A woman who died in childbirth was believed to have no punishment after death (Legey, 1926: 119). Women in western maternity clinics are well supported medically to prevent death in childbirth, but no attention is given to her potential entrance into afterlife.

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