Why we find it impossible to talk about birth, death and marriage

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Birth, Marriage and Death

Birth, Marriage and Death, the winter 2018 issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

Birth, marriage and deaththese are key staging posts. And that’s one reason why this issue looks at how taboos around these subjects have a critical impact on our world.

Sadly, there are still many of us who feel we can’t talk about problems openly at these times. Societal pressure to conform can be a powerful element in this and can help to create stultifying silences that frighten us into not being able to speak.

Being unable to discuss something that has a major and often complex impact on you or your family can lead to ignorance, fear and terrible decisions.

Not knowing about information or medical advice can also mean exposing people to illness and even death.

The Australian Museum sees death as the last taboo, but it also traces where those ideas have come from and how we are sometimes more shy to talk about subjects now than we were in the past.

The Sydney-based museum’s research considers how different cultures have disposed of the dead throughout history and where the concepts of cemeteries and burials have come from.

For instance, in Ancient Rome, only those of very high status were buried within the city walls, while the Ancient Greeks buried their dead within their homes.

The word “cemetery” derives from the Greek and Roman words for “sleeping chamber”, according to the Australian Museum, which suggests that although cremation was used by the Romans, it fell out of favour in western Europe for many centuries, partly because those of the Christian faith felt that setting fire to a body might interfere with chances of an afterlife.

Taboos about death continue to restrict speech (and actions) all around the world. In a six-part series on Chinese attitudes to death, the online magazine Sixth Tone revealed how, in China, people will pay extra not to have the number “4” in their mobile telephone number because the word sounds like the Mandarin word for “death”.

It also explores why Chinese families don’t talk about death and funerals, or even write wills.

In Britain, research by the charity Macmillan Cancer Support found just over a third of the people they surveyed had thoughts or feelings about death that they hadn’t shared with anyone. Fears about death concerned 84% of respondents, and one in seven people surveyed opted out of answering the questions about death.

These taboos, especially around death and illness, can stop people asking for help or finding support in times of crisis.

Mental health campaigner Alastair Campbell wrote in our winter 2015 issue that when he was growing up, no one ever spoke about cancer or admitted to having it.

It felt like it would bring shame to any family that admitted having it, he remembered. Campbell said that he felt times had moved on and that in Britain, where he lives, there was more openness about cancer these days, although people still struggle to talk about mental health.

Hospice director Elise Hoadley tells one of our writers, Tracey Bagshaw, for her article on the rise of death cafes (p14), that British people used to be better at talking about death because they saw it up close and personal. For instance, during the Victorian period it would be far more typical to have an open coffin in a home, where family or friends could visit the dead person before a funeral. And vicar Laura Baker says of 2018: “When someone dies we are all at sea. We don’t know what to do.”

In a powerful piece for this issue (p8), Moscow-based journalist Daria Litvinova reports on a campaigning movement in Russia to expose obstetric abuse, with hundreds of women’s stories being published. One obstacle to get these stories out is that Russian women are not expected to talk about the troubles they encounter during childbirth. As one interviewee tells Litvinova: “And generally, giving birth, just like anything else related to women’s physiology, is a taboo subject.” Russian maternity hospitals remain institutions where women often feel isolated, and some do not even allow relatives to visit. “We either talk about the beauty of a woman’s body or don’t talk about it at all,” said one Russian.

Elsewhere, Asian-American women talk to US editor Jan Fox (p27) about why they are afraid to speak to their parents and families about anything to do with sex; how they don’t admit to having partners; and how they worry that the climate of fear will get worse with new legislation being introduced in the USA.

As we go to press, not only are there moves to introduce a “gag rule” – which would mean removing funding from clinics that either discuss or offer abortion – but in the state of Ohio, lawmakers are discussing House Bill 565, which would make abortions illegal even if pregnancies arise from rape or incest or which risk the life of the mother. These new laws are likely to make women more worried than before about talking to professionals about abortion or contraception.

Don’t miss our special investigation from Honduras, where the bodies of young people are being discovered on a regular basis but their killers are not being convicted. Index’s 2018 journalism fellow Wendy Funes reports on p24.

We also look at the taboos around birth and marriage in other parts of the world. Wana Udobang reports from Nigeria (p45), where obstetrician Abosede Lewu tells her how the stigma around Caesarean births still exists in Nigeria, and how some women try to pretend they don’t happen — even if they have had the operation themselves. “In our environment, having a C-section is still seen as a form of weakness due to the combination of religion and culture.”

Meanwhile, there’s a fascinating piece from China about how its new two-child policy means women are being pressurised to have more children, even if they don’t want them — a great irony when, only a decade ago, if women had a second child they had to pay.

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In other matters, I have just returned from the annual Eurozine conference of cultural journals, this year held in Vienna. It was interesting to hear about a study into the role of this specific type of publication. Research carried out by Stefan Baack, Tamara Witschge and Tamilla Ziyatdinova at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, is looking at what long-form cultural journalism does and what it achieves.

The research is continuing, but the first part of the research has shown that this style of magazine or journal stimulates creative communities of artists and authors, as well as creating debates and exchanges across different fields of knowledge. Witschge, presenting the research to the assembled editors, said these publications (often published quarterly) have developed a special niche that exists between the news media and academic publishing, allowing them to cover issues in more depth than other media, with elements of reflection.

She added that in some countries cultural journals were also compensating for the “shortcomings and limitations of other media genres”. Ziyatdinova also spoke of the myth of the “short attention span”.

At a time when editors and analysts continue to debate the future of periodicals in various forms, this study was heartening. It suggests that there still is an audience for what they describe as “cultural journals” such as ours – magazines that are produced on a regular, but not daily basis which aim to analyse as well as report what is going on around the world. Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times newspaper, spoke of his vision of the media’s future at the James Cameron Memorial Lecture at London’s City University in November. As well as arguing that algorithms were not going to take over, he said he was convinced that print had a future. He said: “I still believe in the value and future of print: the smart, edited snapshot of the news, with intelligent analysis and authoritative commentary.”

His belief in magazines as an item that will continue to be in demand, if they offer something different from  something readers have already consumed, was made clear: “Magazines, which also count as print – are they going to just disappear? No. Look at The Spectator, look at the sales of Private Eye.”

The vibrancy of the magazine world was also clear at this year’s British Society of Magazine Editors awards in London, with hundreds of titles represented. Jeremy Leslie, the owner of the wonderful Magculture shop in London (which stocks Index on Censorship) received a special award for his commitment to print. This innovative shop stocks only magazines, not books, and has carved out a niche for itself close to London’s City University. Well done to Jeremy. Index was also shortlisted for the specialist editor of the year award, so we are celebrating as well.

We hope you will continue to show your commitment to this particular magazine, in print or in our beautiful digital version, and think of buying gift subscriptions for your friends at this holiday time (check out https://shop.exacteditions.com/index-on-censorship for a digital subscription from anywhere in the world). We appreciate your support this year, and every year, and may you have a happy 2019.


Rachael Jolley is editor of Index on Censorship. She tweets @londoninsider. This article is part of the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine, with its special report on Birth, Marriage and Death.

Index on Censorship’s winter 2018 issue is Birth, Marriage and Death, What are we afraid to talk about?  We explore these taboos in the issue.

Look out for the new edition in bookshops, and don’t miss our Index on Censorship podcast, with special guests, on Soundcloud.

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Discussion: What are taboos and what role do they play in society?

Do taboos play an essential role in culture and society or must we simply get rid of them? Index on Censorship magazine editor Rachael Jolley spoke on the topic at Fritt Ord headquarters in Oslo, Norway, on 21 June at a discussion co-organised by Index, Fritt Ord the Free Word Centre.

Other speakers included Maria Stepanova, poet and editor of the webzine Colta.ru, Moscow, and Pål Johan Karlsen, author and editor-in-chief of the website Psykologisk.no.

Index magazine’s winter 2015/16 issue was on the theme of taboos and why breaking down social barriers matters. In her talk, Jolley presented a global survey of taboos, discussed their history in certain countries and explored why certain taboos lead to censorship.

“Who decided these are the rules and how do they change?” she asked. “Sometimes it takes a generational shift such as we’ve seen in Ireland with the vote to change the law on gay marriage.”

“There’s a tipping point theory where a body of resistance builds up to such a point that the dam breaks and the public suddenly demands another way is found and an older way is discarded,” Jolley added.

Stepanova focused on taboos in Russia, paying special attention to “government-inspired” taboos that were virtually non-existent until a few years ago, but which are now shaped and encouraged by propaganda. Johan Karlsen spoke in defence of the elephant in the room: Why are taboos useful? If we are to co-exist and find inner peace in a dangerous world, we must make space for taboos in our lives, he argued.

Knut Olav Åmås, executive director of the Fritt Ord Foundation, moderated the discussion.

6 Aug: What’s the taboo? at Wilderness


Join Index on Censorship for a fast and furious quiz exploring what you can and can’t say in today’s society.

Watch our panelists struggle to evade the censor, cast your own vote on where to draw the line, and expect plenty of no-go subjects to come out from the shadows.

Featuring Guardian and Index on Censorship cartoonist Martin Rowson, comedian Athena Kugblenu, theatre-maker Nadia Latif, director of Homegrown, and journalist Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk and Erotic Review.

When: 6 Aug 2016, 2.10pm
Where: The Forum, Wilderness, Oxfordshire
Tickets: From the Wilderness site

Wilderness takes place on 4 – 7 August 2016, at Cornbury Park set in Oxfordshire.

Index panel debates taboos of sex, race and hairy legs

Kunle Olulode, Max Wind-Cowie, Jodie Ginsburg and Shazia Mirza at last nights debate (Photo: Sean Gallagher / Index on Censorship)

Kunle Olulode, Max Wind-Cowie, Jodie Ginsberg and Shazia Mirza at last night’s debate (Photo: Sean Gallagher / Index on Censorship)

“When I went to the Loaded offices with hairy legs they told me to get out and that I could never be on the cover of the magazine because apparently I’d made an effort with my nails but not my legs,” said comedian Shazia Mirza, at the launch of the latest taboo-themed issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

Do taboos still exist in society today? Are taboo subjects still brushed under the carpet instead of being faced head on? Is comedy a perfect platform to tackle these issues? These were just some of the questions discussed during the evening of discussion and debate.

Chaired by Index on Censorship chief executive Jodie Ginsberg, panellists included Kunle Olulode, director of campaigning charity Voice4Change England, writer and political consultant Max Wind-Cowie, plus comedians Grainne Maguire and Mirza.

The night kicked off with a fast and furious comedy performance from Michele Moran, filled with tales of taboos and secrets.

Wind-Cowie told the audience at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern of his surprise when people reacted to Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall’s marriage with jokes and disgust at the thought of older people having sex.


Index on Censorship’s CEO Jodie Ginsberg with comedians Shazia Mirza and Grainne Maguire (Photo: Sean Gallagher / Index on Censorship)

He said: “I think it’s a bit sad because I hope to be an older person one day, and I hope that the older person that I will become will be allowed to have sex with someone. And I hope that when we are having sex they won’t be looking at me and thinking ‘my God you’ve got disgusting’. So I think it’s wrong that it’s something we all laugh at so much.”

Maguire joked to the audience that mental illness was a requirement as a comedian but agreed there was still a lot of stigma around mental health.

“In certain careers you’re supposed to be macho and mental illness is still seen as a sign of weakness. I just think that’s really depressing and sad. I think you should be allowed to be vulnerable, but I don’t think were there yet,” she said.

The panel moved to discussing whether suicide and grief were taboo in different societies. Mirza said: “Some Muslims believe that suicide is wonderful. You blow yourself up and go into the afterlife where there are virgins and wine. So it may be terrible in the West but to Muslims suicide is great, and we talk about it all the time.”

Olulode told the audience how for him the last taboo was racism. “In terms of race, there’s a lot of discussion about the discrimination and the attitudes towards black people, but we rarely discuss the construction of what it is to be white.”

He said: “There’s an old left-wing saying: ‘Nothing is alien to me.’ And that idea of investigating every aspect of humanity seems to have become lost along the way. The contestation of ideas in society today is more about protecting people from being exposed to difficult subjects or ideas than actually tackling them head on.”

The evening was rounded off with a lively taboo disco set from DJ Bamboo.