Supporting moms who breastfeed is crucial to their dignity and would help to improve our infant survival rates, says Ena du Plessis.
Cape Town - As a member of the social movement Normalise Public Breastfeeding in South Africa, I was shocked by the online response of readers to Cape Argus reporter Sipokazi Fokazi’s story “Call for law over breastfeeding”.
Although the story made it clear that protection of breastfeeding mothers from discrimination and harassment is no trivial matter, but is crucial to the improvement of our infant survival rate and the health of our children, a significant number of readers seemed to deem it fitting either to express their horror at the notion that babies might be allowed to eat wherever they and their mothers have the right to be, or to make distasteful and misogynistic jokes that paint a distressing picture of the society in which we are living.
The disgust expressed at the idea of public breastfeeding is riddled with irony. First, several of the comments claim that public breastfeeding is impolite, not in line with basic etiquette and something that only “low class” women would consider. These statements lose sight of the fact that breastfeeding was, until nearly a century ago, recognised in all cultures as the normal way to feed a baby – nothing more and nothing less. Countless Old Master paintings attest to this: portraying royalty and even revered Biblical figures casually breastfeeding happy, chubby babies and toddlers.
Second, it is ironic that several readers object to public breastfeeding on the basis that it would put them off their food if they saw a woman feeding her child in a restaurant. I can think of several sights that would potentially put me off my food, but seeing another human being eat (unless it is an adult displaying really horrible table manners) is definitely not one of them.
This brings me to the third point, namely that some readers compare breastfeeding to urinating and defecating. How is it possible that eating, when done by a baby, is more readily compared to adult excretion than to adult eating?
Fourth and last, what strikes me as most ironic is that some readers seem to be objecting to the prospect of having public breastfeeding declared legal. Public breastfeeding has always been legal, not only in South Africa but, to my knowledge, in every country in the world. The aim of the proposed legislation is not to declare something legal that has never been illegal – that might have been as absurd as declaring breathing legal. The aim is to actively protect mothers and babies from harassment by those who wrongly believe that they have a right not to be exposed to a baby’s eating, or to dictate how and where someone else’s child is fed.
It is a very sad reflection on us as a society that we need such legislation at all, but unfortunately countless discriminatory remarks and actions by radio show hosts, restaurant owners, and members of the public have made it abundantly clear that we do.
On the topic of discriminatory remarks, one can scarcely conceive of anything more disturbing than the blatant misogyny displayed in some of the twisted comments some readers made in response to Fokazi’s story, and which they seem to get away with purely because they were being light-hearted. In the name of jest it is being insinuated that the female breast is perfectly acceptable to behold, whether clothed or naked, as long as its primary association is that of male sexual gratification. Obviously, a baby interferes with this association and reminds society of the true primary purpose of the mammary gland. And that, I believe, is the root of the problem in our society.
We are not being so utterly irrational about breastfeeding because we are somehow stuck in a Middle Ages mentality – as I have already pointed out, public breastfeeding was not an issue back then. One reader suggested that religion was to blame, but I do not believe that is the case either. For example, the Tanakh, also known as the Old Testament of the Bible, waxes poetic about the beauty and fulfilment of breastfeeding; the Qur’an explicitly recommends two full years of breastfeeding for each child; and Hindu Vedic literature and ancient ayurvedic texts emphasise the importance of breastfeeding. So, whenever religious leaders imply that (public) breastfeeding is somehow shameful, it would seem that they have sadly allowed themselves to be influenced by the warped mentality of our sex-obsessed Westernised society rather than by the writings and traditions that are supposed to inspire them.
Religious leaders are not the only ones touched by this misogynistic influence – even women themselves fall prey to it. As in the case of the responses to Fokazi’s story, the most vocal opponents to public breastfeeding are often women.
From having had several conversations and discussions with such women, online and in real life, I have come to the conclusion that many of them are bearing the horribly unfair burden of feeling guilt for not having had access to the information and support required to breastfeed successfully.
That women are feeling guilt for something over which they had no control is even more ironic than any of the grounds on which readers object to the notion of public breastfeeding, but sadly this is exactly what is happening. Let me state categorically: women do not fail at breastfeeding. Society fails women. Society fails women by not supporting them, by discriminating against them and by wanting to segregate them when they are using their breasts for their primary purpose.
Society furthermore fails women by sugar-coating the facts on the importance of breastfeeding and the risks of artificial feeding, “so those who don’t breastfeed won’t feel guilty”. The moment society realises that no woman ought ever to feel guilty about the fact that she and her baby were robbed of something highly significant, we’ll all be on a winning path.
Women need to be freed from this unbearable burden; they need to allow themselves to mourn that which they have lost through no fault of their own; they need to direct their anger towards the society that failed them. I even know of women who, once they started to recognise their feelings for what they truly were, found healing in helping other women gain access to the necessary information and support.
It is time to lay the blame where it belongs and do something constructive about it. It is time to spot the misogyny that pervades our thinking and to refuse to accept it any longer. It is time to create a better, healthier, more supportive and more respectful future for all South Africans.
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.