Evil eyes a hurdle to breastfeeding in public places
CHENNAI: One evening we were stuck in the glorious ‘peak hour’ traffic. That’s when we saw a woman in an enclosed tricycle breastfeeding her toddler. A quick glance at fellow motorists around us (both men and women), exposed the bare truth of how breastfeeding in public is still a taboo in our society. A couple of quick stares, whispers and awkward faces could be noticed. The woman, unperturbed by this, continued feeding her hungry child.
In concurrence with this incident and the hundreds that happen around the city, City Express explores the socio-cultural taboos of breastfeeding during the World Breastfeeding Week 2016. We talked to mothers and others about one of the themes for this year — how to respect each other and care for the world we share.
Haripriya Madhavan, a media professional and mother of a 2-year-old, says that she breastfeeds her child in public. Is she comfortable though? “Well, I do get a lot of stares. But till someone comes up to me and asks me not to nurse, I am fine with feeding my child,” she shares.
She says that unlike foreign countries where there are several cases of women being thrown out of public spaces for breastfeeding, we witness only trivial issues that can be overlooked. “It’s the choice of the mother to feed her child in public and no one should interfere in her decision,” she adds.
A taboo on breastfeeding in public draws its origin from the various sexual overtones attached to a woman’s breasts. Rekha Elayakumar, a professor and a mother, rues her experience while travelling in buses and trains. “Some men sexualise breastfeeding and I have personally faced such issues. It not only makes a woman uncomfortable, but insecure as well,” she rues.
Being a regular commuter in trains, Rekha highlights the lack of nursing cubicles in railway stations are a bane for mothers. “I only feel comfortable breastfeeding my child in a ladies compartment. People have to change their mindset and not perceive breastfeeding in public as indecent. But expecting a positive change overnight is a tough call!” she admits.
Talking to mothers-cum-members of the group Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers (BSIM), we stumble upon several challenges that breastfeeding mothers face every day. Krithika shares, “I frequently travel alone from Chennai to Bengaluru and prefer taking a train. The only disadvantage is that I have to breastfeed in public, and sadly, some older men do not shy away when they see me feeding my child! Of course, there are a few that are well-behaved as well.”
With public spaces such as malls turning breastfeeding-friendly, some mothers say that it’s surprising to see rooms with good facilities. “There are provisions in passport offices, airports and bus terminuses in the city. I’m happy to see this. Sometimes we use trial rooms in malls to breast feed,” says Lakshmi.
Though private spaces are being installed, there are some situations that make mothers wary. “My experience is that breastfeeding mostly draws the attention of youngsters and perverts, due to the lack of awareness about breastfeeding,” says Kaveri.
And no, men are not the only ones who make it difficult. Elders in the families oppose feeding in public as they fear an ‘evil eye’. While social taboos are aplenty, cultural taboos on breastfeeding make it worse for mothers.
Bharathi Srivathsan says ‘evil eye’ and not feeding the baby immediately after a head wash are some of the common myths in our society. “Since the ‘evil eye’ factor is widely believed across many sections of the society, we cover up when feeding. I now know these are myths, but still there is a lot misinformation floating around,” she explains. While city folks might think that the situation in rural areas might be worse, Saradha, a wage worker from a village reveals, “In cities, women have a lot of inhibitions about breastfeeding. But in villages, we don’t think about anything. We freely breastfeed anywhere. I am not saying that men don’t stare, some do. But that’s how it is…what can we do?” she avers.
Though predominantly men are blamed, most mothers say that husbands are supportive when it comes to breastfeeding in public. Mohan says, “When my wife was pregnant, we saw a mom breastfeeding in public. Disgusted, I looked away. After my son’s birth, initially I was hesitant with breastfeeding in public. But once I learned its benefits from my wife, I have no issues at all if she nurses in public. It also changed my perception about women and breasts. I would urge all men to encourage their wives to breastfeed and not think about who is looking where or worry about supply,” he shares.