When will breastfeeding in public become acceptable?

It’s downright absurd that you can’t feed your baby with any dignity except in your home, or behind closed doors.

 |  6-minute read |   23-07-2016
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Shaming is par for the course in Indian society. Between self-styled moral policing and cultural vigilantism, Indians who just want to go about their lives with minimum fuss and interference have a hard time. Now there’s a vocabulary for shaming – body shaming, slut shaming, online shaming, social shaming, shaming people for their sexual choices, caste or religion, shaming women for not reproducing (as Perumal Murugan’s controversial book One Part Woman showed so beautifully), and old-fashioned eve teasing. The list goes on.

But I want to focus on a form of shaming that is increasingly gaining vogue not only in India but different places across the world – shaming breastfeeding mothers. There’s really no winning. Women are derided if they choose not to have children. Women are derided when they have babies and nurse them outside their homes. If you breastfeed your child in public, you’re causing a public nuisance. If you don’t breastfeed for various reasons – inability of the baby to "latch on", lack of milk production, returning to work or simply the choice to use formula milk – you are shamed, accused of being too selfish to provide the "best" for your child. New mothers are a hunted lot.

brazil_072316031310.jpg A Brazilian MP breastfeeding her child in open debate in the country’s National Assembly.

Isn’t it strange that men can urinate in public, anytime, anywhere, but women cannot nurse their children?

We’ve all seen viral videos of women being abused when they breastfeed their babies in public. It’s downright absurd that you can’t feed your baby with any dignity except in your home, or behind closed doors. What happens when they get hungry outside? Babies cannot exist on love and fresh air. Breast milk is the queen of superfoods – it contains water, fat, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals, amino acids, enzymes and white blood cells, and is the most beneficial for the first year of a baby’s life. But the social censoring of breastfeeding mothers seems to rest on the assumption that mothers be homebound for the period that they are nursing.

Letting a woman breastfeed her baby without censure is not rocket science. It’s a life function, and a civic courtesy extended to women. Why we rank so badly in basic decency is a mystery to me. We can safely assume that no woman will want to bare her breast in a country like India, for fear of being verbally abused or worse. Those baying for breastfeeding mothers to "cover up" should think for a second of the discomfort faced by the infant smothered under a covering sheet while feeding. It’s like eating your meal inside a shroud. It’s not fun.

People want you to believe that breastfeeding is an intimate affair that should be performed in private. That’s a lie. There is nothing private about it, or shouldn’t be, unless it’s a matter of choice. In fact, there’s really nothing private about raising children in India, with unsolicited advice making its way to you from the most unexpected corners. But mothers, especially new mums who nurse their babies, are looked upon as performing a sacred duty. This sacralisation of a biological function is where the trouble lies. It not only fetishises the act, but also disables a woman from leading a normal life.

In a country like India where people are just waiting to get offended, it is not easy for a new mother to go about her regular life with her baby outside of home for fear of public censure. And if you do, there are no public amenities to help mothers nurse their children. Even the best malls and airports often don’t have facilities for women to breastfeed in comfortable, hygienic conditions. At Kolkata’s biggest mall, I noticed that there was a breastfeeding/diaper changing room in the restroom area. Impressed, I went in to investigate and was shocked to see that it was just a small room with a mirror. There were no seats, not even a slab on which you could place your baby to change them, much less sit and breastfeed. Such tokenism is our downfall.

If women feel uncomfortable feeding their babies outside, they will wean their babies off breast milk and give them packaged formula milk, which doesn’t have the same benefits. Science and paediatricians tell you to breastfeed for at least the first two years of a child’s life. Slogans like "Breast is best" are increasingly becoming popular, and for good reason. Breast milk helps babies to ward off a range of infections, strengthens their immune systems, and produces people who can claim "maine ma ka doodh piya hai". That isn’t just lip service. Its benefits can effectively reduce child mortality.

But without any infrastructure to perform this simple function, women are forced to operate in secret, trying to make themselves invisible, smothered in dupattas or pallus, desperately balancing their babies while trying not to expose themselves. Why? Whether or not mothers choose to breastfeed, the option of doing so outside the house should be available to them. Provisions must be made for them to do so in clean, sanitised areas. Instead of shaming breastfeeding mothers (and mothers who don’t breastfeed), there needs to be a structural mechanism to address these concerns.

Though there is a move to push a new bill in Parliament which will provide 26 weeks maternity leave, private sector firms currently offer only three months maternity leave. This means working mothers need to return to their workplace, thus often affecting a baby’s breast milk intake. There are few arrangements for a mother to pump or express her milk when at work. One of my paediatricians scolded me when I said I needed to wean my baby off breast milk because I had to go to work. He said a family member should come by to my workplace with my baby whenever he needed to feed. It was such an absurd suggestion! So I decided not to resume work for as long as I could delay it.

In a country where sex education is an awkward, segregated affair (yes, sex-ed classes are often conducted separately for girls and boys) and you can’t even watch a kissing scene with your folks without going red in the face, sensitisation about public breastfeeding is no easy task. But such compromises should not be features of our 21st century lives. Brazil has set a great precedent in this regard. We need to take our babies into public spaces and fight for our right to occupy them, and for the state to provide civic amenities to aid breastfeeding mothers. In the age of social media, more photos of women in positions of power nursing their babies in public need to be circulated. We need to normalise breastfeeding; we need to make it acceptable.  

Breastfeeding flash mobs anyone?

Writer

Piya Srinivasan Piya Srinivasan @srinivasanpiya

The author is a research scholar.

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