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The Public Breastfeeding Taboo: What Makes Indian Men Uncomfortable Around Breasts and Babies?

Creative by Mir Suhail /News18 Creatives

Creative by Mir Suhail /News18 Creatives

Regular breastfeeding can save millions of babies every year.

New Delhi: What makes most Indian men awkward? It's not the increasing number of rapes or violence against women. It's not open defecation. It's not skimpily clad women dancing inside swimming pools in Bollywood songs. But bring out a woman breastfeeding a baby in a bus stand or on the cover of a magazine and most men would squirm and cringe in distaste at the sight.

Even though breastfeeding is the most natural of human processes, most urban, as well as rural men, do not prefer women to breastfeed in the open. Despite several international campaigns and efforts by health agencies, breastfeeding in public continues to be taboo in India.

“It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to see a strange woman’s breasts, let alone watch a baby feeding,” said 32-year-old Rajan*.

While Rajan believes breastfeeding is a 'pure act', he feels men watching a woman breastfeed a baby is sexualizing that act.

This dichotomy in perception – that breastfeeding is ‘pure’ while the breast itself is vile and vulgar – is discernible in most Indian men (and even women). People often claim that they are, in fact, okay with the breastfeeding, as long as they don’t have to see the actual breast.

Rajan, who works as a software engineer in Delhi rubbished the idea that Indian men are not comfortable with breastfeeding. But he feels it's alright as long it's kept a secret. Popular outrage over public breastfeeding campaigns and incidents of women being shamed for breastfeeding in public point to a different reality.

‘Derogatory to motherhood’

“Women in India have been breastfeeding for ages. It is not something new in India and most Indian men are okay with it. Women should just cover it up with a cloth. That way their breasts aren’t visible,” Rajan said.

Recently, Malayali women’s magazine Grihalakshmi stoked a somewhat similar criticism after it depicted model Gillu Joseph on its cover, breastfeeding a baby.

The editor of Grihalakshmi, Moncy Joseph, said that the campaign was started after a man who got trolled for uploading a Facebook post about his wife, breastfeeding.

“Not everyone, but some males feel that breastfeeding is something that needs to be done under cover. Women in Kerala have often spoken out against this perception of breastfeeding in public as a kind of sin or sexual act. It’s not just in public, even inside their own homes women are sent to separate rooms or bathrooms to feed their babies,” Joseph said.

The image evoked several negative reactions. A Twitter user GL Verma said, “Such vulgar publicity of breastfeeding is derogatory to motherhood”. Another user, RajShekhar CV asked for the cover image to be banned as it was unacceptable. In fact, petitions were also filed against Grihalakshmi as well as the model who appeared for the shoot.

Critics said that it was okay to breastfeed in public but not okay to show so much breast. Covering the breast with dupatta or sari were suggested.

But why do Indian men have such an aversion to breasts and babies together?

According to Joseph, the problem could be Indian entertainment and media culture which has sexualized the female body to such an extent that associating breasts with anything other than sex is often hard for the average man.

“Be it films or songs, breasts have been so sexualized and objectified that many men would instantly be turned on at just the thought of them. Even though feeding is the most natural thing, a lot of men have a problem accepting it as a non-sexual activity,” the editor said.

25-year-old entrepreneur Vivek Srivastava also observed that such excessive sexualisation may also have caused a tendency among women to cover up as otherwise they would be shamed.

Gillu Joseph of the Grihalakshmi cover was ‘slut-shamed’ for days until Kerala High Court cleared the cover of all alleged charges of obscenity. The same happened to model and actress Lisa Hayden after she put out a photo of breastfeeding her son last year in time for the Breastfeeding Awareness Week. The phenomenon of shaming public breastfeeding is not just an Indian concept.

In fact, some argue that it was indeed the West that sexualised the breasts, leading to sexualisation of breastfeeding too. India was traditionally seen to be more breastfeeding friendly than western countries such as the US and Europe with a higher dependence on formula food in the latter nations.

In numbers

In 2016, India's infant mortality rate was at 34 deaths per 1000 live births with 8.4 lakh infant deaths.

Despite breastfeeding being a widely accepted and traditionally propagated child rearing practice in India, studies reveal that a staggering amount of children are not breastfed for the first six months, a practice that can help save almost 45 per cent of the infants in risk of premature death.

According to a joint UNICEF and WHO study titled ‘Capture the Moment; Early initiation of breastfeeding: The Best start for every newborn’, more than half of newborn babies in India are not put to the breast in the first hour.

Data revealed that only 55 per cent of Indian children are exclusively breastfed for the first six months. Feeding a newborn baby breast milk within the first 48 hours and then every few hours for six months of the infant’s life is vital for the proper growth and well-being of the baby as breast milk is the most optimum food for a newborn and can help the child build immunity against various diseases.

In India, 99,499 deaths of children are reported every year due to diarrhoea and pneumonia. These deaths can possibly be prevented through exclusive breastfeeding in the early months. Data from a 2017 University of Auckland study showed that regular breastfeeding can also prevent SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) risk that kills sleeping infants.

Improved breastfeeding practices are crucial to achieving various Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

The stigma around breastfeeding, unsympathetic environments that may prove hostile for breastfeeding, unflexible workspaces, public areas and transport-- all affect the number of women who breastfeed.

No safe spaces

“I feel a lot of women especially in cities are uncomfortable with public breastfeeding because of the lecherous environment that surrounds the concept. Since women in cities dress differently than rural women. They may not always have the option to cover the baby with her sari as many women wear shirts and other kinds of clothes,” said Sujoy Kumar Rai, who lives in Delhi’s Vasundhara Enclave.

Father to a 16-year-old daughter, Sujoy added that more spaces dedicated to breastfeeding needed to be established in public areas.

“We have smoking rooms, prayer rooms, why not feeding rooms. Everyone knows the importance of feeding a baby. But no one wants to allow women to do it freely,” Sujoy said.

Maternal healthcare experts have noted that public breastfeeding exists much more openly in rural areas rather than urban cities.

Dr Rita Prasad, Health and Nutrition specialist for CARE India said that it was common for women to feed bottled milk to babies in public to avoid embarrassment, adding that this was an important reason why many women did not continue breastfeeding for six months.

Making dads more conscious

“Breastfeeding takes a physical and emotional toll on women. It is very important for both mother and child to be in a secure, comfortable environment to breastfeed," Dr Prasad said.

While building spaces for women to breastfeed their babies is vital, Dr Prasad also stressed on the importance of changing attitudes.

The doctor said that childcare has traditionally been a female job and male partners tend to stay out of it. She added that education and sesnitisation can go a long way in solving this.

"Breastfeeding training should be mandatory for both mother and father. Hospitals provide pre-natal training to mothers regarding feeding. These sessions should include the father or male caregiver," she said.

To many men, the role of parenting remains restricted to financial support. But training fathers-to-be about breastfeeding and the changes it makes to a woman’s mind and body makes it a more understood and accepted practice in general and may lead to a change in the way men perceive breastfeeding in public.

(This story was first published on News18.com in August 7, 2018)