By: Massoume Price, December 2001
For Iranians having children is a blessing and a very important life task to be accomplished by all married couples. Zoroastrian literature advises the young that being married is preferable and having children is far more praiseworthy than not having any.
All major religions in the area have also recommended having children. Childless marriages were a source of concern for both parent specially women. They were the ones that were blamed and the occasion was used to initiate divorce or polygamy. The notion of marriage in Islam is partly defined in terms of procreation. Marriage is a contract to legitimately produce children through a legitimate sexual act between a male and a female (or a number of females). Pregnancies that are out of prescribed legitimate contracts such as permanent or temporary marriages (concubines) are not recognized. Any child born outside such contracts is regarded as illegitimate and does not have legal status or protection.
Traditionally boys have always been preferred over girls. Documents from Achaemenid archives indicate that mothers with baby boys were given twice more rations compared to mothers with newborn girls. Even the midwife or the physician delivering baby boys was paid twice more in terms of rations and wages. Modern Iranians do not hold such notions any more. However traditional families particularly in rural areas still regard having boys as more creditable.
The birth rituals traditionally started with the pregnancy itself. The rituals involved efforts to make sure the baby was male if no boys had been produced earlier. First-born sons were particularly desired. Wishes were made and alms would be paid to the poor. Visiting shrines and slaughtering lamb and sheep were promised if a boy was born. If the mother looked healthy, active and happy it was assumed she was expecting a boy. If her face and body were covered with rashes or there was discoloring or redness the mother was carrying a girl. By the time the mother was six months pregnant, the shape of her belly was used to decide the gender of the future baby. Perfect round bellies indicated a boy and other kinds a girl. Quite often the gender of the newborn would decide the status and position of the mother in the household, especially if the husband had more than one wife.
The women’s parents were obliged to prepare and send cloths and other baby items. The seventh month was normally designated for this purpose. Number seven so precious to the ancient Zoroastrians was regarded the lucky number and normally seven sets of cloths, socks, hats for boys and small scarves for girls, diapers, bibs etc. were made and send for the baby. Diapers were made of cotton and were placed inside a waterproof material called moshama. This was made of a natural fabric called metghal that was treated with hot wax to make it waterproof. An essential part was a cover material called ghondagh that was normally white. The whole collection was called seismooney and with the wealthy was very elaborate. Normally color white was used for the baby’s clothing reminiscence of ancient Zoroastrian traditions.
Earrings, necklace and bracelets mainly gold if affordable were included for the girls, whiles boys received a small wooden knife in a green velvet cover. Nanno or a small hammock for summers and a rocking bed for other occasions with quilts, pillows sheaths etc. were also included. Talisman, written prayer rolls that sometimes were in gold or silver cases decorated with precious stones were always sent for the baby for protection against evil eye, bad spirits, diseases etc. These would be pinned down to the babies cloths or placed in the bed or close to the baby. The most common prayer was ‘van yakad’ a verse from Quran written on paper, engraved on semi precious stones, gold, silver etc. Muslims believe that in Prophet Muhammad’s time there was a man famous for his evil eye. He could kill people simply by looking at them. He had intended to kill prophet the same way but the angle Gabriel notified him by bringing in this verse. Prophet read the verse when the evil man tried to look at him. Immediately he exploded and since then all Muslims use this verse for protection against evil eye.
Other essentials like soap, cleansing powder, herbal medicine, the incense ‘Espand’, camphor, powdered crystallized sugar (nabat) were placed in small white bags made from silk if affordable. The new mother and her husband’s family were notified in advance for delivery time. Once everything was ready, all would be placed in a chest or chests with candies and sweets like noghl, gold and silver coins in between the items. Servants carried the cases to the expectant mother’s house. The Husbands’ family on the other hand after receiving the seismooney would slaughter an animal (calf or lamb) or a bird (cock) and elaborate meals were provided for family and friends. Young couples normally resided with the husband’s family, so it was mother in laws’ duty to open and inspect the items. After she had gone through everything the servants were tipped and send back with gratitude. The higher the status of the bride the more elaborate was the seismooney.
Midwives delivered babies, though before Islam male physicians also performed such acts. The Zoroastrian texts mention how much the physicians should be paid in such cases. However segregation of sexes in Islam ended such practices and only in very exceptional cases males delivered babies. Most modern Iranians do not follow segregation in this respect, however many traditional families still prefer a female gynecologist. Till 19th century all midwives used by Muslim women were either Muslims or Jews. The latter only delivered babies and did not participate in the first week celebrations as the Muslim midwives did. They usually arrived riding a donkey with their head covered. They were paid after delivering babies and were offered sweets and fruits but never meals.
Modern Iranians still follow the seismooney tradition. Though it is all modernized and parents themselves are mostly responsible for purchasing baby items. Babies and mothers will be under medical supervision and baby showers popular in west are becoming accepted norm amongst Iranians. Annual birthday celebrations for children are new, very popular and conspicuous if affordable. Children are very loved and cared by the entire extended family and their birthdays are an occasion for expressing such love and attention. Grandparents are particularly close to their grandchildren and are expected to be actively involved in their upbringing and education.