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Afghan baby-naming ritual: Circle of women

A wish for the child -- that she not fear men

Rose Arce is a CNN producer, currently on assignment in Afghanistan.
Rose Arce is a CNN producer, currently on assignment in Afghanistan.  

By Rose Arce

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Just as the annual Muslim pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca ends, the men of Afghanistan gather and slaughter an animal to commemorate the scriptural story in which Ibrahim (Abraham) sacrifices a ram in place of his son.

During this Feast of the Sacrifice -- Eid al Adha -- the women usually watch from the windows, sharing small talk and sweets and a general distaste for bloody things. But this year, several women have had something else on their minds: a new baby girl to be named.

CNN's Rose Arce talks to some Afghan women who are publishing Kabul's first newpaper for women (February 21)

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In post-Taliban Afghanistan, rituals have taken on deeper meaning. Girls are returning to school and their mothers to jobs. Women can look out windows and walk the streets. Sometimes they can even ditch their burqas.

While the men celebrated the sacrifice by boasting about the size of this year's slaughtered cow, the Afghan women invited some of us to join them in celebrating the freedoms this baby girl can enjoy.

So they pulled us away from the feast and the men and the cow, asked us to kick off our shoes and settle on the floor for cakes and candy and tea -- to share wishes for the new baby. They'd suffered five years without education so at the top of the list was a wish that this girl would go to school.

A teen-ager who'd secretly learned English expressed her mixed feelings about the September 11 attacks. It was so terrible to watch all those people die, she said, and yet it had ultimately led to her and this baby's liberation from Taliban control.

One woman talked of her new job and wondered what job this girl might have. She proudly announced that she works right alongside males, even though the men in her family refuse to let her venture out alone.

Names were discussed for the little girl, written on scraps of paper and placed in a dish. The lobbying was done in whispers to avoid alerting the men focusing on the cow downstairs.

For Eid, the women had dipped their right hands into henna and put on their snappiest clothes. The baby wore thin lines of mascara, eyeliner and blush. One of the women remarked that Taliban chiefs were partial to eyeliner and big black turbans, so it was funny to see the makeup on a baby girl. The woman also noted that a turquoise ring had been pinned to the infant's pajamas to guard against evil.

'May all the wishes come true'

About 30 of us settled onto pillows and singing began. A colorful, goat-skin tambourine appeared and anyone who wasn't singing began to clap and sway and even dance. Smiles lit up the room and heads nodded as someone wished for the baby's health.

Just that morning, the Lancet medical journal had reported that the maternal death rate among Afghan refugees in 12 camps in Pakistan in 1999 and 2000 was among the highest recorded. Of the refugee women of reproductive age who died in those camps, 41 percent lost their lives to maternal causes, the new report states. Sixty percent of infants succumbed.

There were women in this room who fled pregnant or with children into the mountains during the years of Taliban rule. Others recalled clutching their children at night in their houses' chilly entrances as bombs fell during the United States' military strikes.

On this day, the baby was passed from one woman to another, each rocking her back and forth and circling her head with a pair of clippers. Each woman banished a fear from this girl's life: that she not fear the bombs when they inevitably fall; that she not fear sickness when it inevitably comes; over and over again, that she not fear men.

The last woman gently clipped a snip of the child's fragile wisp of baby hair and blew it over her right shoulder. "May all the wishes come true," the women intoned and candy was scattered on the baby's tummy. Money and gifts were tossed into the middle of the room and the mothers clutched their own children extra tightly.

Did the women visitors have a special wish for the baby, we were asked? Would we stay the night for more dancing and treats?

Kisses and good wishes were exchanged along with a few crucial phrases of Dari -- "thank you," "congratulations," "good luck."

We'd completely forgotten about the cow and were lost in the warm embrace of these Afghan women; we were honored to share their dreams and hopes for a child.

And the baby now is Venus -- her name by general acclamation -- from a wish that she live with the stars.


• The Lancet

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