Birth and circumcision in Turkey

Turks are known for being very family-oriented. Most Western foreigners are under »»

Turks are known for being very family-oriented. Most Western foreigners are under the impression that every Muslim family has many children.

As I spoke to people in America about Turkey this past month, people were surprised to hear that some Turks choose to have only one or two children.

Although the birthrate in Turkey is high, urban Turks tend to have only one or two children. Modern urban Turks give birth in the hospital. Private hospitals offer the expectant mother the most modern technology, advice and good prenatal care. Turkish women in cities tend to elect Caesarean births. However, the village differs: Women tend to give birth at home with a midwife. Village tradition is that grandparents choose the name for the baby. Urban Turks choose their child’s name, but may keep with tradition by having another name given by elderly relatives. Turks use the second of two names, e.g., Mehmet Cenk Atakan would be known as Cenk Atakan or M. Cenk Atakan. (Cenk may be the name chosen by parents, with Mehmet the name chosen by elderly relatives.) Sometimes there is a religious ceremony for a secondary name that is given to the baby. The ceremony involves an imam coming to the home and reciting from the Quran. The imam then says the call to prayer in the child’s ear and then whispers to the baby, “Your name is…” The ceremony ends with a blessing on the household.

In urban areas children of either sex are highly valued, although sons are preferred. In villages a son is more valuable because he brings growth to the family through marriage, whereas the daughter will grow up, marry and leave the family. (If there is a lull in conversation and everyone falls silent, someone may say “A daughter has been born,” i.e., something has happened to put a damper on the party.) A family member may shoot a rifle into the air to celebrate the birth.

The child is registered under the family of the parents. The registration involves some details; each family has a number. This is representative of the wider dynasty, not the small family unit, and the child will be allocated an ordinal number showing the child’s position in the family (“1st” was the oldest person back in the Atatürk era). Before the end of the 20th century the birth date may have been recorded incorrectly, particularly in village areas. Often babies were registered late, which resulted in the date of birth being the arbitrary date of Jan. 1, with the wrong year.

It is customary that friends and family visit the baby as soon as possible after the birth and give gifts. Turks tend to not buy much for the baby before the birth. This is due to the concept of fate and the fear of tempting fate. It is customary for the mother and baby to not go out for the first 40 days. Turkish women receive paid maternity leave, with a basic rule of eight weeks prior to birth and eight more weeks postpartum. They also have the option to receive unpaid maternity leave for six months after the birth. Turkish women tend to work until as near to the birth as possible.

A wealthy family may announce the birth in a newspaper, and in the advertisement appreciation will be expressed to the doctor and nursing team.

What about the rite of passage of circumcision?

Circumcision is a major rite of passage for a boy. It is seen as a step towards becoming a man. This practice is part of the Sunnah (the way of the Prophet Muhammad) and is a ritual of Islam. Usually the son is circumcised at around age 8. Some poor families will choose to have two sons circumcised at the same time because of the finances needed for separate parties. It may be that one son could be older or younger than 8. The circumcision party involves the son wearing a special suit for a week before, looking just like a little sultan with a sequined cape, hat and scepter.

The tradition for a religious family is to have a recital of a “mevlüt,” a poem about Muhammad, just before the circumcision. The actual ceremony is usually done in public on a white bed. The child receives a lot of presents. Usually around the start of summer is a popular time for circumcisions. A wealthy religious employer may sponsor the party for the children of employees. Wealthy businesspeople may show their benevolence by paying for the requisite party for poor boys in their neighborhood.

Watch out for the parade that kicks off the circumcision ceremony. The child is paraded in a car around town in a convoy with honking horns, accompanied by live traditional Turkish music.

Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey, 2005.” Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: [email protected]