Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Ancient Answer to Modern Dilemma
Bi Bi Haji claims to have inherited a centuries-old Afghan tradition for dealing with the problem of having too many children in a row.
She performs a ritual, which even today many Afghans insist is the best, cheapest and most efficient form of contraception. Whether it works or not is another matter, as most families here still have at least seven children.
The ritual is called "lock-blowing", (dam kardan gaulf), and involves a person believed to possess magical powers blowing on a lock, or a key, depending on whether the woman wants her reproductive organs blocked, or unblocked.
Bi Bi Haji Khanum, who lives in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan, is now 60 and says she learned the ritual from her grandfather. She says it has worked for her, as she has only had two children, a daughter of 14 and a son of 15, to whom she is teaching her secrets.
"I have been blowing locks since I was a young girl to prevent women giving birth to too many children and to cure other diseases," she said.
Bi Bi Haji recites certain verses from the Koran as she blows on the lock, which symbolises the door to the female birth canal. She must, however, obtain the permission of the woman's husband before she can perform the ritual.
There is no shortage of believers in her craft. Hanifa, 40, from Kabul, says she and her husband Mohammad Sataar had seven children, and after two miscarriages she asked for a lock-blower. "Since blowing the lock I have taken no further contraceptives, but two years on we now want to open the lock and have children again!" she said.
Sharifa, 28, a mother of two, has also decided to try lock-blowing. "After I had two children consecutively, we discovered we didn't have the patience to control them," she said. "So I blew on a lock to create a two-year space before having any more."
Women resort to lock-blowing and other similar folk remedies to prevent children because often they have no alternative. Years of civil war and rule by Islamic fundamentalists have played havoc with medical structures and facilities.
Dr Freba, of the Kabul office of the World Health Organization, says the WHO does not hand out contraceptive pills, in case they have side effects.
"We use other contraceptive measures and it is up to the mothers to choose which they prefer," she said. These range from vasectomies to hormone treatment, condoms, diaphragms and advice on the oldest child-prevention technique of all, coitus interuptus.
Dr Freba says her organisation and the UN Population Fund distribute birth-control aids for free every three months to women who come to the WHO clinics in Kandahar, Kunduz, Badakhshan, Bamyan, Jalalabad, Ghazni, Heraat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul.
The goal of the organisation is to improve women's health by giving them a two-year breathing space between pregnancies. When the women come to the clinics for their free aids, doctors and family consultants use the opportunity to give advice about raising children in a healthy, hygienic environment.
Artificial birth control is not a new topic in Afghanistan. As health ministry officials point out, family planning centres existed in the country for 36 years before the Taleban take-over, when a strict version of Islam was imposed on the population and such centres had to be abandoned.
Today, the climate is more relaxed and there are no official taboos against women availing themselves of birth-control aids.
But the subject continues to be dogged by disinformation and prejudice. Religious leaders, in particular, remain bitterly hostile to the whole enterprise, insisting that all attempts to create gaps between having children are sinful, as all children are a blessing from God.
Mowlavi Abdul Qadir Waris, an Ulema (religious leader) in Kabul, citing the Koran, said, "The Great Messenger says that when you get married and have children, He will be proud if the number is large on Judgement Day. So it is wrong to say having more children is a problem, because Allah will feed and care for them."
Doctors - and some more modern clerics - are trying to counteract such advice, though without offending popular religous beliefs. Dil Aaqa, a professor of religion at Nangarhar University, in eastern Afghanistan, says the absolute prohibition on birth control has no foundation in the Muslim faith. "If people cannot raise their children or train them properly, it's better to use a birth-spacing method, because Islam does not need people who are a burden and not useful to society," he said.
Many Afghan women agree. So do some men. Khair Mohamad, a store owner in the Parvan-e-Say section of Kabul, is the father of seven children, ranging from eight months to 22. "I am grateful to God for giving me many children, but if He had only given me two or three, I could have raised them even better," he said.
Women, meanwhile, are increasingly tired of acting like baby machines. Najia, 37, has given birth to 12 children in 20 years. "Three of them died when they were babies because I couldn't take care of them," she complained, "but my husband loves to have many children."
With modern birth-control techniques still so little understood and so little practiced, it is no wonder that many women still rely on the ministrations of the local lock-blower to give them a much-needed rest from a cycle of pregnancies.
Bi Bi Haji and her comrades are unlikely to be out of a job in the near future.
Zarlaht Ariwn is an independent journalist in Kabul and Danesh Karokhel is an IWPR editor/reporter in Kabul.
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