Traditionally boys have always been preferred over girls. Documents from the Achaemenid archives indicate that mothers with baby boys were given two times more rations than mothers with newborn girls. Even the midwife or the physician delivering baby boys was paid twice as much in terms of rations and wages. Modern Iranians do not hold such notions anymore. However, traditional families, particularly in rural areas, still regard having boys as more desirable.
For Iranians, having children is regarded a blessing and a very important life task to be accomplished by married couples. All major religions in the area have recommended having children. Both the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian and Islamic literatures advise the young that being married is preferable and having children is far more praiseworthy than not having any.
Childless marriages were a source of concern for both parents, especially 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 (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.
The birth rituals traditionally started with the pregnancy itself. The rituals involved efforts to make sure the baby was male, especially if no boys had been produced earlier. First-born sons were particularly desired. Wishes were made and alms were 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, if was believed that 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 sacred to the ancient Zoroastrians was regarded as 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, the collection was very elaborate. Normally colour white was used for the baby’s clothing reminiscent of the ancient Zoroastrian traditions.
Earrings, necklaces and bracelets mainly gold (if affordable) were included for the girls, while 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 were sometimes in gold or silver cases decorated with precious stones, were always given to the baby for protection against evil eye, bad spirits, diseases etc. These would be pinned down to the baby’s cloths or placed in the bed or close to the baby.
||The most common prayer was van yakad,a verse from the Quran written on paper, engraved on semi precious stones, gold, silver etc. In popular tradition, the Muslims believed 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 the prophet the same way, but the angle Gabriel notified him by bringing in this verse. Prophet recited 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 the 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. On the other hand, the Husbands’ family, after receiving the seismooney, would slaughter an animal (calf or lamb) or a bird (chicken or roaster) and elaborate meals were provided for family and friends. Young couples normally resided with the husband’s family, so it was mother-in-law’s 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, although 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 gender segregation, however many traditional families still prefer a female gynecologist. Until the 19th century, all midwives used by the 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 the babies and were offered sweets and fruits but never meals.
The Muslim midwives arrived on foot, stayed for meals and took part in the weekly celebrations after the birth. The birth normally proceeded in a sitting rather than lying position. A huge copper tray was placed on large leather spreads. Inside of the tray was covered by extremely fine ash to absorb the blood. Brick (khesht) platforms were raised on either side and, at the moment the baby was arriving, the mother was helped to sit on the platform. Throughout the contractions, the midwife and others assisted the mother. Songs were sang, jokes were told and prayers were recited.
The two prophets, Khezr and Elias (Elijah), were always asked for help. The origin of these characters appearing at this occasion is not clear. The ancient Zoroastrians had deities who were responsible for opening the uterus and then closing it after the delivery and prayers were read to such deities. However, none resemble these two Muslim deities. Khezr is mentioned as a Prophet in the Quran. It means green and in popular Islamic culture has replaced the Zoroastrian Peer e Sabz (the green old venerable person). The word Peer is used for a saint whose tomb is made into a shrine (in the manner of the ancient Zoroastrian shrines to deities or Eyzads). Zoroastrians adopted the term from the Muslims in order to protect their shrines. There are many Zoroastrian shrines belonging to a number of Peers, such as Peer e Azar Eyzad, Peer e Elias, Peer e Sabz etc. It is not quite clear which deity Peer e Sabz represents at present. However, the deity Amordad, protector of all plants, is closest in concept.
||Elias is a Muslim prophet mentioned in the Quran and is the same as the biblical Elijah. It represents the Zoroastrian deity Soroush and the name Elias was applied to his temples for protection after the Muslim conquest. It is interesting to note that both Khezr and Elias are the only two immortals in Iranian Islamic mythology. Both had found the fountain of life and as a result became immortals. The origin of such stories in Iran goes back to the ancient Mesopotamia and the Gilgamesh epic. The most famous story of the sort is the medieval story of Alexander’s search for the fountain of life in Nezami’s Eskandarnameh. Both deities represent renewal and life. Khezr brings greenery everywhere he walks on land, even in the barren deserts. Elias saves people from drowning and helps those lost at sea. Their presence at the time of childbirth is to protect the newborn against death and ensure longevity.
Ali, the first Shiite imam, is also mentioned. As is the custom with Iranians, Ya Ali is always mentioned and repeated loudly when help is needed. His wife, Fatima, is also asked for by calling Ya Zahra.
Once the baby was born, the mother and the baby were cleaned. The mother was placed back in her bed and was offered a local sherbet (mainly aragh e beadmesk) and a local hot food such as Kachee. The placenta was cut and immediately it was poked with a pin or a needle to frighten bad spirits such as Al, which resembles the ancient spirits. These spirits were closely associated with the death of the baby or the mother and with anything else that could go wrong at this time. Zoroastrians believed in a number of such dark spirits attacking the mother and the newborn. Placenta was buried outdoors with a piece of charcoal to keep cats away. The belly button was cut and tied with two pieces of blue and white coloured threads. The baby was washed in warm water with the powdered soap from seismooney.
The baby was first dressed in a long white cotton material with a head-size cut in the middle to cover the front and the back. This was called peerahan e ghiyamat meaning, ‘the dress of resurrection.’ Next, diapers were put on and the baby was dressed with a shirt or a dress on top and was placed in ghondagh, all in white. The head was covered with a small hat for boys and a scarf for girls. A specially blessed safety pin was normally attached to the headgear while saying prayers to frighten the bad spirits away for forty days. Blessed clay from Karbala (khak e torbat) was touched and the same finger was placed in the baby’s mouth for protection while prayers were recited. Karbala is the place where the popular Imam Husayn was murdered.
For the first three days, the baby was feed with tiny pieces of butter with a few spoonfuls of crystallized sugar (nabat) dissolved in warm water. Due to fear from bad spirits, the baby would not be left alone for forty days. Most wealthy families had wet nurses; normally new mothers themselves breastfeed the baby. These people were chosen very carefully and, if they claimed descent from Prophet’s line, they were called seyyed and it was a blessing to have them as nursemaids. The midwife would visit the baby a few times until the sixth day in order to check the baby and the mother. The girl’s ears were pierced on the sixth day and again blue and white color threads were used. The boys were circumcised on the odd days, the third, the fifth, the seventh or the ninth day. The significance of such days is Zoroastrian in origin; however, circumcision is a Muslim tradition. Sometimes this was postponed until the fifth or the seventh year if the baby boy was ill or weak or simply circumcision was not available.
The sixth day was a very significant day. It was believed that on this day the baby and the mother were in great danger and prone to attack by dark spirits. The midwife would visit again and the process of proofing against the bad spirits would start. The first step was called mohr kardan (to seal). One piece of cotton ball (panbeh) was made into a long roll that was pressed down by fingers at regular intervals. This was called band band kardan. Then these pressed areas were blackened, by rubbing them over the outside of a cooking pot. These were always burnt on the outside and were black with charcoal (dodeh). The result was a long rolled piece of white cotton darkened at intervals. This was called a mohr and was either hung over the mother’s head or was cut into smaller pieces and hung around the walls. Espand and camphor were burnt until they turned into ashes and a common prayer called ayat ul korsi from the Quran was recited. The incense was turned around the room and the midwife would blow toward the baby and the mother and the so-called six directions (north, south, east, west, up and down) while verses from the Quran were recited.