Traditional Fertility Regulation

There’s a bookstore in my neighborhood that recently went out of business that specializes in used academic texts, and I thought I’d stop by yesterday and see what goodies could be swept up before they disappeared. I was delighted to find a book that I had never heard of but am totally into called Women’s Medicine: A Cross-Cultural Study of Indigenous Fertility Regulation. It’s an edited volume with articles on fertility regulation in Malaysia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Columbia, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and among the Aguaruna tribe of Peru. I flipped through it before bed last night and found the chapters to be quite fascinating.

As a budding herbalist and doula, I always like to see what cultures used and still use to regulate fertility prior to the introduction of modern medicine. First of all, I’m not a particularly huge fan of “modern medicine,” and I’m happy that it does some awesome life-saving things and newborn heart surgeries and so on, but for the most part, I think that what medicines are prescribed for us have more to do with giant pharmaceutical companies and greed than actually improving our health. It makes more sense to me to address underlying causes of health issues in our lifestyles and diets than to just keep on suppressing symptoms until we, well, expire. That said, not all traditional medicine makes sense either, and there are still a lot of ideas around the world that reflect poor and incomplete understandings of the way fertility works.  For example, a lot of people still believe that they’re most fertile during their periods. This idea has been around for a very, very long time, held firmly by both Hippocrates and the Greek gynecologist Soranus in the 2nd century AD. Greek or “Unani” medicine (Arabic for “Greek”) was introduced into Afghanistan by Alexander the Great, and still informs much popular understanding of health and human systems along with Ayuverdic medicine. But just because traditional Afghan medicine thinks that ovulation and menstruation are concurrent events doesn’t mean that the medicines they use don’t influence fertility, and so I like to keep an open mind, see what techniques and plants are being utilized, compare it to what I know and learn something new.

A "Hakim" Preparing Medicine

As of 1995, when the book was published, Afghan women mostly wanted to enhance their fertility. There are a number of techniques that they used to do so, the first being diet. In line with most traditional medicinal principles, Afghans understand the body as being either too hot, too cold, or balanced. Women are “colder,” an idea similar to how women are more “Yin” in traditional Chinese medicine, while men are “hotter,” similar to “Yang.” “Heat” is necessary for a woman to become pregnant, and so women consume food and herbs that are believed to increase bodily heat. These include clarified butter, fish, eggs, dates, walnuts, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon. Cold foods, such as yoghurt, buttermilk, and pickled and sour foods are to be avoided. Second, women intake certain warming herbs like catnip, rue (Ruta graveolens), mint, wormwood (the source of absinthe), hashish, and opium. Specific herbs are thought to encourage female children and others for male. If a woman has only delivered daughters she is believed to be “too cold,” and eats herbs like fennel and opium. If she’s only had sons, she is “too hot” and should eat cooling herbs.

Third, hot substances are applied to warm the body. The technique called post-poshidan (the “wearing of skins”) is a practice indigenous to Central Asia, and involves wrapping a freshly slain sheepskin, yucky-side down, around a woman for two days. She may also wrap the skin of a freshly killed chicken around her abdomen with certain herbs applied first such as cloves, turmeric, and cinnamon, and then she eats the chicken meat cooked with ginger.

Fourth, another technique is to vaginally insert certain types of ground mineral substances into the vagina. For a son, she would use red alum and for a daughter white alum. The author notes that though this may seem counterintuitive, the minerals may actually help in clearing up cervical infections that prevent a successful pregnancy.

Finally, women use body alignment techniques to position the uterus. One technique is called Noff-geriftan (“taking of the navel”) in which the dai (a traditional birth attendant) forcefully massages what is described as “a layer of skin” back in place. In another technique, the dai spreads clarified butter and raw dough across a woman’s abdomen and then, using a small clay pot in which a small fire has been lit, creates suction over the dough, gently lifting the dough and the skin beneath, which is believed to straighten out the reproductive organs. The author notes that these techniques are similar to what some Western medical practitioners use to enhance fertility, which is pretty cool.

I’m enjoying this book and will be sharing more tidbits as I go through it. I’ll follow up tomorrow with a second post on how Afghan women prevent pregnancy.

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