Traditions That Welcome an Afghan Baby

Malali Bashir

Afghanistan has some of the most amazing cultural traditions in the world, and many of them are so unique to the region in which they arose that they become part of its identity. Traditionally, boys are preferred to girls in the Afghan society “because a man is considered to be able to continue the family legacy, to financially support the families, and to protect the families in case of any disputes.”
1 Therefore, the celebrations related to childbirth are skewed to favor boys. While some of these traditions have been criticized as being unfair to Afghan women and minimizing their freedoms and rights, they nonetheless have traditionally been times of happiness — even times that honored women’s roles in the society.
One of the most significant of these traditions is jorra, which literally means things given to a bride, a child, or a groom, as well as the gift-giving occasion itself. Because jorra means both the day of celebration and the gifts given, “jorra for the day of jorra” would mean “gifts for the day of celebration.” Jorra is practiced religiously in the southern city of Kandahar and the surrounding provinces of Farah, Helmand, and Urozgan. The tradition is much like a Western baby shower, as both demand that the expectant mother be showered with gifts for the unborn baby; however, jorra differs from its Western counterpart in that the gifts for the newborn are given only by the mother of the mother-to-be. Where the maternal grandmother (or, if deceased, another female relative of her household) of the unborn child is responsible for preparing all the gifts of the jorra, the paternal grandmother (or her close female relation, if she is deceased) is responsible for hosting a luncheon party at her home. This tradition is so entrenched that most Southern Afghan women start sewing or buying baby clothes even before their daughters are married.
While Afghanistan, like nearly all Eastern societies, has a bias toward sons, a jorra is held for a baby of either gender. Because historically there was no way to know the child’s sex before birth, by tradition the grandmother-to-be brings gifts equally suitable for girls and boys. The simplest jorra presents may be 20 to 50 suits of clothes — half for a girl and half for a boy — and some herbal medicines for colic and other common discomforts, but families who can afford more expensive items add to the jorra gifts such as baby bath tubs, cradles, bath sets, a gold ring or a locket carved with Quranic verses (preferably the ayat-ul-kursi), and clothing for the men and women of the house. Traditionally a jorra was held only for a woman’s first child, but today people prepare it for the second and third baby as well.
The day before the jorra, the maternal grandmother informs her daughter-in-law (who usually lives with her in a family compound) that she will bring jorra on a certain date, and invites her relatives and friends for lunch on that day. The baby shower is all-female, and the women sing and dance to make it more memorable.

After the birth
In many rural areas, even today, when a son is born his relatives will shoot guns into the air at the new parents’ house. The father’s house prepares dusmaloona — literally “handkerchiefs” — which are filled with dried fruits and distributed to the guests who come to congratulate him.
Azan kawal is a tradition performed in almost all Muslim societies. The baby’s father or one of the grandfathers says God’s name into the child’s right ear.
Demonstrations of khairat, or charity, are an important part of welcoming a new baby into an Afghan family. On the day the child is born, a porridge called letai (in Pashto) or sheera (Dari) is prepared and is offered to the new mother to help her produce more milk and recover faster. More porridge is distributed to the poor of the vicinity as a goodwill gesture to ensure the safety of the mother and child. Another food-based tradition is dreyama, literally “third day,” celebrated only when the newborn is a boy. On the dreyama, a dish of rice with fenugreek called da malkhoozo wriji is prepared and distributed among relatives, neighbors, and the poor.
Noom ishawal is the naming ceremony, practiced on the same third day. A mullah is called inside the house to formally bestow the child’s name while reciting holy verses from the Quran. The name might be chosen by the parents or other relatives, or the family might let the religious leader choose a name.
Nashrah is a poem recited by the mullah to pray for the baby and advise the parents how to raise the child right (click here to watch an example). A crowd of children are present to say Ameen (“amen”) after each line the mullah recites. The mullah is rewarded for this favor with money and a dusmaal full of dried fruits, and the children are given dried fruits and sweets. Like the dreyama, this tradition is reserved to mark the birth of sons, although in 2011 one man in Kandahar broke the norm by writing a poem for his daughter and the mullah read it in public.
The Pashto owwama, or seventh day, and the Dari Shab-e-shash, sixth night, are again traditions that observe the birth of a son. Seven days after the birth, a huge, all-female party is held with fine food, dancing, and singing. This party is one of most joyous celebrations of childbirth. According to Islam, a sheep should be sacrificed on this day and the meat distributed among the poor; the slaughter on the seventh day is called aqeeqah in religious teachings.
The sar kali, or head-shaving, is another all-female party. Forty days after the child is born, scores of women are invited to a party with dancing and music. If the baby is a boy, a feast is included; if a girl, the traditions are practiced without the party or the feast. The baby’s head is shaved during the day by his father, grandfather, or other male relative. The party starts in the evening. The guests are supposed to bring gifts, usually in the form of money. A religiously advised practice, sar kali requires that an amount of silver (or, these days, money) equal to the weight of the baby’s hair be given to the poor, while the hair is buried in the earth. Many Afghans believe that shaving the baby’s head will help him or her remain healthy, that the first hairs are not pure or halal, that the baby’s hair will grow back much stronger.
Another tradition marks the appearance of a son’s first tooth. The family’s female friends and relatives are asked to attend an evening party where kocha — a dish made of ground wheat and chick-peas — is served. Kocha is eaten with a separately prepared paste that uses kurat, or dried balls of yogurt. The night before the party, the baby’s female relatives gather in his home and cook the kocha. The next morning, the other guests arrive and the party begins. The kurat paste is rubbed on the faces of the incoming guests, just for fun, and the party continues through the day. At night, the men of the family slaughter a sheep and dancing begins after dinner and lasts until the morning, with women playing tambourines and singing. This tradition has its roots in Kandahar and is overwhelmingly practiced in the south of Afghanistan. There have been instances when well-to-do families held a kocha party for a girl as well.
Sunnati, or circumcision, is a day that begins with a bath and new clothes for the baby. It is up to the family if they want to call the doctor to the home for this surgical procedure, or take the child to a hospital. Relatives and friends are invited for lunch and a lot of food is made to be distributed among the poor. Women enjoy the day by singing and dancing and playing tambourines. Since money is easy to give and the parents can buy anything with it, the guests are supposed to bring a gift of money to place in the hand of the newly circumcised child.

Life in Afghanistan has always been a fight to survive, but Afghans have always found excuses to have fun and enjoy their lives. Our traditions may make little sense to people from other parts of the world but they are alive until today because they give Afghans a connection to their roots and a sense of pride in being one of the ancient peoples of this world. Moreover, these traditions provide enormous opportunities to women to enjoy themselves amidst the continuous insecurity and their deteriorating equal rights in their own society.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! This is very helpful in knowing how to congratulate an Afghan family who just had a baby.