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50 colours of menopause – reframing the ‘age of despair’. By Maya de Vries and Laila Abe Rabho

Laura Haapio-Kirk30 September 2019

Authors: Maya de Vries and Laila Abe Rabho

Photo (CCBY) Maya de Vries. Activity at the senior’s club: colouring pine cones.

Right from the beginning of the ASSA project, one of the main topics that we discussed was menopause. Although menopause is less of a taboo, and people talk about it much more in the al-Quds field site compared with some of the other ASSA sites, it took a us a while to be able to speak with informants about this sensitive topic. We discovered that for many women speaking about the physical and mental ramifications of menopause is still not easy to do and they tend to be shy and even embarrassed by it. It was only recently, after a year spent at the field site that gathering information about menopause became easier, mainly because women felt more comfortable to open up.

Research about menopause in al-Quds is rare. However there is some research about this issue focusing on the West Bank. In the article Age of despair or age of hope? Palestinian women’s perspectives on midlife health (Hammoudeh et al., 2017), authors depict the perception of menopause among Palestinian women in the West Bank who were born between 1960-1975. They clearly say that they had no access to Palestinian women in Jerusalem due to political and security problems entering Jerusalem from the West Bank.

The term used in Arabic in medical literature and discourse to describe menopause in the West Bank and in al-Quds is the ‘age of despair’ (sin al-yaas). However, in Hommoudeh’s article this term was unpopular with the women interviewed, and they preferred not using it. Similarly, in al-Quds, women that we spoke with in Dar al-Hawa, do not like to use this term. They are familiar with it, but do not wish to use it when talking about themselves, since it is not describing them correctly. The word despair is not relevant for them and perceived as negative, whether they are married with children, widowed, married with no children, or never married. They simply do not see themselves as in despair; for them it is very strong word, that does not describe their daily life.

The women we interviewed knew that they are in their midlife, but midlife for them means much more than just menopause, which carries negative associations. Many women articulated a positive view about midlife and ageing as a natural process that is part of life. Midlife, is considered to be an age of peacefulness and wisdom in the Holy Quran. The ‘age of despair’ is not mentioned; the term to describe older people is ‘old in years’ (Kbar fi al-Snin or Sheikhoukha, referring to old people, but they tend to see their age as an advantage because of increased life experience.

While talking with the women in al-Quds we found out that they talk about menopause in private and intimate situations such as meetings with girlfriends or with other women from their family. In such occasions, they talk more about the various physical symptoms characterising this age, such as – hot flashes, tension, incontinence, lack of sleep and more, and less on the mental issues that might appear. Some said that they were sure that these symptoms will pass with no need for medical treatment. They thought menopause is natural thing, and temporary. What was interesting to hear is how they refer to the term ‘menopause’, and what are the alternatives they are using instead.

In Yasmin’s (42) interview she referred to menopause as the ‘safety age’, when there is no chance to get pregnant.

yes, I have heard about it, there is another term that is used as an alternative to menopause and it’s the safety age. I know many women relatives and friends that reached this period of their life, but they never said that they were going through it (menopause). I think that this term is wrong, because there is no age that stops women.

Abeer (58) called menopause in a different name, considering it as ‘maturity age’, while referring not just to physical consequences of menopause, which are usually negative, but also to a better self.

I have been through the menopause period, I consider it maturity age, in this period women feel that they are able to take decisions by themselves, she feels that she is strong, she lives her life the way she wants, before the menopause her life was different.

Tagreed (60) sees menopause in contrast to what it represents. For her, the role of the women as grandmother is significant:

I don’t know, maybe when women reach this period her role in life ends, on the contrary, I believe that they are wrong because in this period her role becomes even more important than before, she takes care of her grandchildren, her children get married, she takes care of everything, and all the family depends on her. They think that if her period stops, that she is no longer able to become pregnant, her role in life ends. In contrast, in this period she takes care of her grandchildren, and her children depend more on her.

Tentatively, we can say that the term ‘age of despair’, is no longer relevant, and the concept of a novel, ‘golden’ prestige age is rising now. Our guess is that there are plenty of reasons for this shift, mainly because medicine is progressing and leisure activities are more commonly pursued. We will continue exploring how the digital environment impacts on this change; this still is an enigma for us, as many of our informants are not using digital devices, or health apps heavily. Some do not even carry a smartphone.

Interestingly, just as the term ‘menopause’ is being reframed, the same is happening also with the term ‘old’, as many in al Quds refrain from using it as it might be considered insulting. Many times, we see the word “seniors” instead of old, switching the word out of respect. A small example of the change in discourse can be seen in the new WhatsApp group opened two weeks ago by the coordinator of the seniors’ club under the name ‘The group of the golden age club’. The previous WhatsApp group, which is now being abandoned by its members, was called ‘The group of the older people of Dar al-Hawa’. The ‘golden’ age highlights the possibilities this age, despite menopause, can offer. Is this reframing simply concealing what is really happening in this age? Or due to various changes in the modern world, is ageing is coloured in gold? So far the al-Quds’s field site tells us that ageing is changing, and if you are financially secure, yes – you can experience the ‘golden age’.

 

 

Fare insieme: making and doing things together in Milan

Shireen Walton6 November 2018

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

In Italian, the word fare, means to do and to make. Doing and making appears to be a fundamental aspect of community life here in this inner-city neighbourhood in Milan’s zone 2, which constitutes the locus of my fieldwork. A number of activities, events and organisations I am involved in entail inter-generational and cross-cultural mixing, including retired Italians from Milan and the south of Italy, and foreign migrants and their children. These interactions centre around the sharing of skills and knowledge; from Italian language learning to a variety of artisanal crafts, and forms a subtle yet significant part of how social capital is shared and acquired here.

One particular hub for this is the Centro Multiculturale; part of a non-profit organisation, La Città del Sol: Amici del Parco Trotter, established in 2009 to support the wider community life of the state school in Parco Trotter, with which it is associated.

The school-community in Parco Trotter, Milano. Image: La Città del Sol: Amici del Parco Trotter

The Centro Multiculturale is run by community volunteers and teachers, envisioned and operating, year in year out, as a social space (‘spazio socialità’) for women, including mothers of children of the school and the broader neighbourhood. Housed in a small unassuming building in a corner of the park next to a main railway line, the Centro runs Italian classes for foreigners, a weekly sewing group, as well as a weekly open drop-in meeting where women of all ages and backgrounds participate in a range of activities, do exercise, drink tea, and learn about a range of bureaucratic aspects pertaining to life in Italy such as medical facilities and healthcare.

Centro Multiculturale, Parco Trotter. Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

The ethnographic make-up of the Centre sees a blend of ages, backgrounds and ethnicities (mostly Egyptian, as well as other nationalities such as Peruvian, Indonesian, Pakistani, and Tanzanian), including retired, middle-aged and more senior Italian women volunteering as Italian language teachers, sewing instructors and exercise class instructors, shifting between roles as facilitators, teachers and participants. The general spirit is one of fare insieme – making and doing things together.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Through the Centro, the different women experience a blend of social and personal purpose, including, notably the passing on and sharing of skills. Anna (70), Italian, retired, explained how the social make-up of the group and being around younger people in such a dynamic environment at her age ‘keeps me young and alive – it gives me a good feeling’. Coming to the Centro twice a week comforts Anna in her retirement, where she lives alone and her children are grown up and are busy with their own lives. Dahlia (35) from Egypt explains how the cucito (sewing) group at the Centro is a significant event in her week. ‘It means something for us to be together here. Many Mothers are at home all day with young children alone. It can get terribly lonely. Here there is the chance for us to meet and be together, practice a skill and share our time. Of course we are also here to get better at Italian!’ The issue of language learning and usage is a fundamental element underlying all the activities at the Centro.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

All this is not to paint either a rosy or otherwise picture of integration in Italy; in some instances this kind of cross-cultural social care flourishes despite challenges, while in others it struggles to contend with deep-rooted political resistance and paradoxical and problematic logics. Anthropologist Cristina Giordano addresses these kinds of tensions exquisitely in her 2014 monograph Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy based on long-term ethnographic research in Turin[i]. Giordano’s work describes complex relationships of care between Catholic nuns and foreign female sex workers from Eastern Europe and Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for the different womens’ personal alignments and institutional ideologies, caught between religion-inspired notions of altruism and social care, discourses of purity, and moral judgement.

At the Centro in Milan, older Italians share craft-based practices like needlework to younger people, who appreciated the care and attention involved.  This is especially pertinent given the current, xenophobic and populist political climate. What is most interesting here is how the different ages, life and technical experiences of the women work together, in the present context, while laying social and cultural foundations for the future.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

References

[i] Giordano, C. (2014). Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy. University of California Press.