The female breasts are the most vulnerable and controversial organ of a woman's body of which, sadly, she has little right over. Strangely, this part of the female body is the most fantasised organ among men, yet breastfeeding infants in public remains a taboo across the world.
The word breast has been so much sexualised that it has come to be associated more with verbs such as fondling, groping, shaming (a woman depending on the shape of her breasts). Or adjectives such as firm, sagging, big, small, flat.
It's breastfeeding week (August 1-7), precisely when an otherwise indifferent media starts talking about breasts in terms of a source of nourishment/food for infants other than depicting them to sex up news stories, think pieces and magazine covers (agreed there is one more occasion - Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October).
But that's not to say that all our conversations should be sprinkled with the word breasts. However, there is also no reason to be discreet about it or acknowledge its functionality. (The primary function of the female breasts, according to experts, is as a secretory organ for milk and as a secondary sexual organ). Even if one ignores the politicising of the female body with assigned roles and obligations for each organ, it's difficult to overlook how women continue to face criticisms for breastfeeding in public.
A Google search will confirm how often women are shamed, bullied and harassed for feeding their infants in public. Not that the sex-obsessed society feels women shouldn't feed their babies, in fact they must, but not in public. Why? Because they, including some women, find it objectionable (exactly what proves the sexualisation of breasts. If a woman travelling in a bus/train/airplane takes off her mittens exposing her hands in public to eat or to feed her child it would be hardly noticed by anyone. Now, imagine the same women unbuttoning her blouse to feed her baby).
Why is the sight of female breasts so scandalising?
Why are women shamed for feeding babies? And this is true for all women, be it a celeb in Hollywood or a daily wager on the streets of New Delhi.
Aliya Shagieva, the youngest daughter of the president of Kyrgyztan, was criticised for posting a picture on Instagram of herself breastfeeding. That was back in April.
She captioned it: "I will feed my child whenever and wherever he needs to be fed."
But after heavy trolling and being accused of "immoral behaviour", she took the image down.
She gave an interview to BBC recently, and countered those charges. According to Shagieva, a culture that hyper-sexualises the female body caused the outrage, rather than the image.
Credit: Instagram/ Aliya Shagieva
"This body I've been given is not vulgar, it is functional,” said the 20-year-old artist. "Its purpose is to fulfil the physiological needs of my baby, not to be sexualised."
It was not just strangers from her socially conservative society who slammed her pictures, but even her parents, president Almazbek Atambayev and his wife Raisa disapproved of their daughter’s picture.
"They really didn't like it. And it is understandable because the younger generation is less conservative than their parents. My mum received messages from her 'friends' about me.”
Back in India, in April again, Pune-based Swapna Kulkarni Ajgaonkar was asked to deboard a train because she was breastfeeding her child in public.
According to this report, Ajgaonkar was travelling from Pune to Mumbai in Deccan Queen with her husband and infant child. During the journey, the baby got hungry and Ajgaonkar started feeding her. But her co-passengers present in the compartment found it objectionable and insisted that they should get out of the train as the sight of Ajgaonkar feeding her baby made them uncomfortable.
However, lactating mothers travelling by trains will now have some privacy with the allotment of a "dedicated space in 100 waiting rooms of railway stations across the country" where they can breastfeed their babies.
According to this report, the railway ministry has informed the women and child development ministry that instructions were issued to all zonal railway authorities to create a private space in waiting rooms for women so that they can comfortably feed their babies.
Women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi had earlier written to railway minister Suresh Prabhu insisting on the need for private rooms for women who find it difficult to breastfeed their babies because of lack of allocated spaces.
Although a welcome step, how far would it solve the problem for mothers and their infants is yet to be seen.
Most importantly, will this stop the bullying and shaming of breastfeeding mothers, or change the mindset of the people?
The ministry naturally can't change the people's mindset overnight, so the next best solution is to quarantine the women.
And what about when they are inside a train and have to feed their babies during the course of the journey? Or when they are in a bus or any public space?
Can we afford to have private rooms away from the prying eyes (who find it objectionable or get incited/aroused to sexually harass a woman after catching a glimpse of her breasts) in every step of public life?
Private rooms and doors can cover the "shame of breastfeeding" only momentarily, how would it cure the mindset afflicted with sickness, perversity and prejudice?
Stop shaming and goading women into bathrooms and isolated corners. Feeding her baby is not a crime, but harassing her is.