Women and Mental Illness

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For an Anthropology of Mental Illness at UCLA (graded as an A paper).



Christopher Boe
UID #904206682
Anthropology of Mental Illness, 137
November 5, 2014
A Latah Cultural Origins
All mental illnesses have cultural origins because culture itself can be the underlying
catalyst or cause of certain mental afflictions. Culture may also simultaneously provide the
norms, behaviors, and symptoms to the person experiencing the illnesses. Using arguments and
data sets from Hildred Geertz and Byron Good, I will show how political and cultural
oppression’s devastating effects on women can be underlying causes for mental illness in
women. Both latah and heart distress are culturally constructed illnesses that have been caused
by the social, cultural, and political systems in place in both Java and Iran, respectively.
In Latah in Java: A Theoretical Paradox, Hildred Geertz examines a mental illness
afflicting a particular subset of women in post-World War II Java. The term latah refers to both
the name of the illness and the people suffering from the illness (Geertz 1951). People who are
latah have symptoms such as compulsive outbursts of obscene words (mainly referring to male
and female genitalia), compulsively imitating other people’s actions, and strict obedience to
directions no matter how foul or obscene the directions may be (Geertz 1951:93). In Java, the
people who become latah are always found to be a part of the same demographic or social group:
mainly older women around the age of fifty, who have been married with children at some point
in time, and who are a part of the urban lower class who don’t own any land and are considered

to be unskilled laborers (Geertz 1951:95). Geertz states that latah is a specific behavioral set that
provides Javanese women with a way to display that they are mental disturbed (Geertz 1951: 98).
In this case the Javanese culture defines who can be latah and how they should act.
A latah’s behavior and symptomatic actions are tightly woven into the Javanese culture;
mainly in regards to the Javanese norms of social etiquette, social hierarchies, and language
(Geertz 1951). There are four main cultural themes and taboos that the latahs break: the value for
elegant and polite speech, the concern over social status, sexual prudery, and the dread of being
startled (Geertz 1951:99). These four norms stem from Java’s political history of being ruled by
an aristocratic government because the ruling hegemony set these cultural standards and norms
in place for the proletariats to follow (Geertz 1951). In the Javanese culture, etiquette in the form
of graceful, stylized, and formal speech is considered to be the highest form of morality in
human relations (Geertz 1951: 98). The people of Java see etiquette, with elegant and highly
stylized language being central to it, as being essential to overall societal well being (Geertz
1951:98). The people in Java also display a hyper awareness of social hierarchies and social
status; constantly knowing and monitoring who has inferior or superior status (Geertz 1951). The
Javanese have a cultural belief of not wanting to be suddenly startled because they believe that if
they are startled they can become extremely susceptible to harm because it can let in evil spirits
and foreign objects (Geertz 1951). These cultural norms are extremely rigid and one would be
considered deviant if they break any of these rules.
Due to the restrictive and oppressive nature of the social and cultural systems in Java, a
behavioral set is provided to the latah through the Javanese culture because these women are in
conflict with their culture’s standards, norms, and expectations (Geertz 1951). This behavioral
set allows them to break cultural norms and taboos without punishment that they would usually

garnish if they were considered normal and not latah. The women who are latah are oppressed
and marginalized individuals in their society as many of them were the women who worked for
the imperialistic Dutch colonists who enforced Java (Geertz 1951). They had to adhere to a strict
set of cultural norms and standards that were put into place by the hegemonic class of Java
(Geertz 1951). The symptoms and behaviors of the latah have been provided by the Javanese
culture as a way to express their conflict with the world around them (Geertz 1951). Latah’s
symptomatic and behavioral set is a symbol that “gives meaningful external form to the inner
meaningfulness at an unconscious level” to the sufferer and those around them (Geertz
1951:100). Latah’s symptoms are symbolic, as Geertz claims, because the significance of the
symptoms are agreed on by both the sufferer and the observer (Geertz 1951).
In the Heart of What’s the Matter, Byron Good provides an in depth look and understanding
to an Iranian “folk illness” called heart distress. The people from the Iranian area of Maragheh
inform Good that the symptoms of heart distress include abnormal and fast heart beats, feelings
of anxiety, nervousness, fatigue, pain, shaking hands, and depression (Good 1977). The people
who suffer from heart distress state that the cause of their affliction is based on emotional,
physical, and interpersonal problems which include high blood pressure, weakness, tiredness,
pregnancy, infertility, taking/using contraception, miscarriage, anxiety over money, liver disease,
hemorrhoids, and pneumonia (Good 1977:33). Good notices that while some men do suffer from
heart distress the majority of those afflicted with the illness are women of low social status
(Good 1977:32).
In many ways, the symptoms and feelings (possibly the disease itself) associated with heart
distress may have been created by the culture of Maragheh. The Iranian women in Maragheh live
in an extremely patriarchal, male dominated society in which they are oppressed of displaying

any amount of sexuality (Good 1977). Because of this oppression, Good states that heart distress
is a complex of female stresses regarding their own sexuality (Good 1977:43). Good states while
Iranian women are sexually “very potent” and fertile they are sexually oppressed by their male
dominated culture to keep the women pure (virgins), to make sure paternity is accounted for, and
to maintain the structures of their male dominated society (Good 1977:43). For example, in
Maragheh many men are referred to as black-hearted men, meaning they keep their wives
completely secluded due to their jealousy and paranoia of cuckoldry (Good 1977:43-44).
Furthermore, if a women is even minutely sexual in nature she can bring shame and dishonor to
her husband which is why the women must remain “behind the walls” and completely cover their
bodies while in public (Good 1977:43-44). The women in Maragheh are also under the
impression that contraception (i.e. birth control pill) is somehow polluting their hearts and
making them impure (Good 1977). This stems from the cultural belief that the heart is resting
place of the vital soul; it is where blood is pumped to the rest of the body and gives life to the
body (Good 1997). These women believe that contraception, abortion, childbirth, pregnancy, and
menstruation (amongst many other causes) causes their blood to be polluted and because the
heart is what pumps their blood to the rest of their body they are being polluted throughout their
entire body (Good 1977). The complex dichotomy of female sexuality and male patriarchy
coupled with rich, long standing cultural beliefs is the ultimate cause of heart distress for the
women in Maragheh.
In conclusion, both subsets of women living in Java and Maragheh have been oppressed by
the cultural, political, and social systems in their respective areas. As a result of these systems
the women in Java and Maragheh have developed specific mental illnesses that are directly
relatable and interwoven into their respective cultures. The cultures of Java and Maragheh have

also provided these women with a set of symptoms and behaviors for their given illness. In my
opinion, the symptoms and behaviors of the latah are a way for these Javanese women to both
express their internal conflict about the world around them as well as rebel against the overarching, ultra-stratified and conservative society in which they live. On the other hand, the male
dominated hyper-patriarchal society of Maragheh and Iran writ large have caused these women
to contract heart distress because of how oppressive the society is towards women. The culture
of Iran has essentially censored these women and their sexuality and female bodies from society.
The longstanding cultural traditions and association of the heart and the soul and how easy it can
become polluted also accounts for the feelings of heart distress. The cause of both latah and
heart distress can be directly attributed to the culture in which these two mental illnesses stem

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