Tales from the (Un)segregated maternity ward

You think this is going to be another post against segregated maternity wards, right?

That would be too easy.

When the brouhaha surrounding the segregation of maternity wards between Arabs and Jews erupted, I thought of my own experiences there – and realized the situation wasn’t so straightforward.

It happened after my second birth. I was frazzled and elated, recovering from delivery sans epidural. My tiny son lay down the hall hooked up to cold monitoring machines instead of me.  As I shuffled to the nursery to feed him in my pink hospital-brand nightie, I noticed that  Palestinian and Jewish women (all wearing identical pyjamas) were placed in separate rooms.

It must be because of language, I reassured myself. A hospital like this, the symbol of Jerusalem’s ability to move on despite it all, wouldn’t forcefully separate us. Integration and coexistence were their lifeblood. Located on the seam line between east and west, it regularly treats a diverse group: Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem, Jewish residents of settlements in the West Bank, ultra-Orthodox, and the rest of us.

This makes for a concentrated dose of Israeli multiculturalism. The maternity ward is (was) one of the few places where different people from Israel’s fractious society meet on equal footing. Most of the women I know enjoy this intimate encounter. It’s a rare opportunity to experience another world under happy circumstances.

Yes, language must be the reason for this shift to segregation, I told myself. This hospital’s management made a pragmatic decision. They did it so women in their most fragile states could comfort one another, like we did in my room. The three of us congratulated each other on giving birth just past the hour that would have required a brit milah on Rosh Hashanah. We then strategized on how to organize the celebrations on a fast day. Plus, I had landed myself in a bright room with quiet women – the gold medal of the birthing marathon. I wasn’t going to rock the boat by protesting this injustice.

When my oldest son was born 7 years ago, I roomed with a Palestinian women (and her family). She didn’t speak any Hebrew or English, and I don’t speak Arabic. Her affable husband spoke for both of them. They had been trying to have this baby for 8 years, he told us. The whole family was overjoyed at the birth of little Muhammad. Actually, he wasn’t so little, Dad noted; he was huge because his wife didn’t stop eating the whole time she was pregnant, he told us, laughing and taking advantage of his wife’s language barrier.  Later, in the dining room, as my roommate and I silently ate industrial schnitzel, I caught a glimpse of her hospital bracelet. She was 23.

At night, after her well-wishers left, she would squirm in pain from the deep scar in her belly. With my nursing son and my own sore parts, I couldn’t get up to find the lone Arabic-speaking nurse. Maybe she wanted me to push down her bed? Did she need something from her bag? We played an aimless game of charades while she continued to writhe. Finally, my repeated calls on the alert button bore fruit and the nurse came. If only I could have helped her more.

I lived the decision to segregate one of Jerusalem’s most integrated locales. The racist rhetoric permeating the debate makes me think that I was naive back then.

As if life here weren’t complicated enough, even the most universal and primal of acts – giving birth – is political here.

Needless to say, I condemn systematic segregation in maternity wards and anywhere else. But not everything is black and white. Sometimes we have to be practical. If my Palestinian roommate could have had an easier hospital stay, it may not be so bad – as long as it’s for the right reasons.

About the Author
Born in Canada and living in Israel since 2003, Melanie Takefman writes about life in Israel, herstory and cross-cultural identity. She is currently working on a book about women and migration.
Related Topics
Related Posts