It's a shame people are finding Malayalam magazine cover showing breastfeeding model ‘offensive’

Motherhood should not become another reason to restrict women’s lives.

 |  5-minute read |   02-03-2018
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A Malayalam magazine, Grihalakshmi, has created a storm on social media with the cover of its latest issue, which features a woman breastfeeding a baby. The accompanying text says: “Mothers tell Kerala, 'please don’t stare, we need to breastfeed'". 

While a lot of people have applauded the magazine for its “bold” move, others have found problems, saying the step is a “cheap stunt” to grab eyeballs. Some have pointed out that the picture is an unrealistically glamourised, “Hindu-ised” depiction of motherhood.  

By Friday (March 2), a criminal case had been filed against the magazine in Kollam, Kerala, by advocate Vinod Mathew Wilson. His complaint alleges that the picture is "lascivious in nature, appealing to prurient interests and tends to degrade the dignity of womanhood. 

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The very fact that a breastfeeding woman is “bold” and “brave” says a lot about us as a society. Having babies is acceptable, even encouraged. Babies need to be fed. But breastfeeding is a radical measure – people either squirm and look away, or openly stop to stare.

This problem is more in the “educated, upper classes of the society". It is common for women from the poorer sections to feed their children at their workplaces, on public transport. But it is rare to spot a breastfeeding mother at, say, in a mall or a restaurant.

Breastfeeding is not shameful

Grihalakshmi should be applauded for initiating conversation around an important topic. The “shame” around breastfeeding has worrying causes and consequences. It is based on the sexist assumption that it is a woman’s responsibility to spare men “unnecessary temptation”. The notion that a mother feeding her child is sexually titillating is sick, but still has so much currency that it drives people’s behaviour in public.

The consequence of it is that a woman cannot have a “normal” life till she is nursing her child. Her movements are totally restricted by the feeding needs of the baby, impacting her work, her social and public life.

Malayalam writer Indumathi Menon, who has also been featured in the Grihalakshmi issue, says: “Even when I was in the hospital, I had breastfed openly. So many people told me off for this. Some even said that if I fed my child without covering my breasts, they would dry up very soon. These are all age-old superstitions which are still being spread by young people. Some would even throw a towel on me while I fed my baby and then check if I was trying to remove it.”

According to government data, India is set to be the world’s youngest country by 2020, with an average age of 29. This population will include a lot of women of child-bearing age, and it is harmful for the country if a regressive society hampers their productivity.

Whether or not she wants to feed her child in public should be the woman’s prerogative. While, as the Grihalakshmi cover says, people need to stop staring at breastfeeding women, public spaces need to be made more inclusive. Malls, offices, restaurants must provide places where women who would like privacy can comfortably feed their children.    

The vermillion row

While the magazine cover is a good step, the picture does have some problems. The model on the cover, Gilu Joseph, has a prominent line of vermillion in her hair. Joseph says the magazine was “focused on telling lakhs of mothers and wives that they can exercise their right to breastfeed their children fearlessly”.

The problematic assertion here is that the “default” mother is a Hindu wife. The picture did not need any religious or marital status identity markers for the mother. It could have been more inclusive if the mother was just a mother – married, divorced, single, of any or no religion.

However, this does not take away from the fact that Grihalakshmi has taken a welcome stand on an important issue. It is time the society lets women be, and not make motherhood another reason to restrict their movements and their lives.

Also read: Truth about how ads show Indian women

Writer

Yashee Yashee @yasheesingh

The writer is a journalist.

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