This is my post about breasts. So, breast feeding. Well, we've all done it. Okay we haven't all done it but we all know someone who has done it. I was in the tea shop the other day and a group of women came in with babies, one began breast feeding. It was discreet and nothing could be seen. I only knew she was breast feeding because her crying baby suddenly disappeared under a towel and shut up. And because I was discreetly staring.
However, talk about breast feeding in public and some people think that not only is it gross, its scandalous, immoral and probably satanic. Or something. However, it may be a little known fact that breast feeding is protected by law in the UK. There is not and there never has been a law that prohibits breast feeding in public, for example in a cafe. We are talking about breast feeding a baby, here, not the more unusual kind. The 1975 Sexual Discrimination Act (SDA) created legal protection for a woman breast feeding a child in public. In 2008 an amendment to the SDA brought in more specific cover under the wording of "maternity" meaning a challenge could be brought by the mother on the broader grounds of maternity rights. The current Equality bill seeks to further tighten this legislation that maternity protection includes breast feeding by making this a part of the statute.
Now Taiwan has passed a similar law, with anyone preventing mothers from breast feeding in public there, facing a substantial fine. In most parts of Africa and India, breast feeding in public is regarded as normal and is encouraged and supported. It is forbidden in Iran and Saudi Arabia, regarded as very rude in Hong Kong but seen as normal in China and Japan. The US allows breast feeding in public in all States although State laws differ. New York even has its own Breast feeding Mothers Bill of Rights.
This is all great, but do we have a cultural nipple phobia? Or rather is it a female nipple phobia? For instance, in most western countries men can march about topless on a hot day, but a woman doing it gets arrested.
" R v Jacob, the Ontario Court of Appeal carefully studied the evidence, that Gwen Jacob:
".... on July 19, 1991 an extremely hot, humid summer day, ... walked along several Guelph streets with uncovered breasts. Along the way she was seen by and spoke to a number of people, including three police officers. (They) asked the (Ms Jacob) to cover her breasts. (She) responded by telling him that since males were permitted to be in public with their chests uncovered, she had a constitutional right to walk on the street topless as well. Further, she stated that it was more comfortable in the heat to walk topless. (Ms Jacob) noticed two topless males walking down the street and asked Constable Wicinski why she was not arresting them. Constable Wicinski replied that 'society doesn't view that as that act being wrong.'"Another police officer ... located her sitting on the porch of a Guelph residence without her top on. She refused his request to put on her shirt as she said it was her right to expose her breasts. He said that there were five or six young males sitting on a nearby porch drinking beer and watching the appellant with binoculars."
Okay well thats funny and I would be looking too but only because we have such a taboo about the female breast. Or rather, nipple. Gwen could have walked down the street with most of her breast exposed as long as the all important nipple (that Aureole of Sin) was covered. Gwen Jacobs appealed her conviction and won in higher courts, a ruling that gives women in Ontario the right to go uncovered in public. However not many women in Ontario claim this right. (so who's coming with me to Ontario to test this law?)
Of course we're talking about the meaning of indecency vis a vis the public standard of tolerance. Indecency means many different things in different countries. I can wear pretty much whatever I like, here in England, but I must cover my nipples. However I'd be literally locked up if I wasn't covered from head to foot if I lived in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Cultural mores would make it virtually impossible for me to step outside without the full covering, unless I wanted to spend all day fending off the harrassment of men, unused to seeing a woman wearing whatever she liked. As Ed Husain describes in this enlightening piece.
"Part of this local culture consisted of public institutions being segregated and women banned from driving on the grounds that it would give rise to “licentiousness”. I was repeatedly astounded at the stares Faye got from Saudi men and I from Saudi women.
Faye was not immodest in her dress. Out of respect for local custom, she wore the long black abaya and covered her hair in a black scarf. In all the years I had known my wife, never had I seen her appear so dull. Yet on two occasions she was accosted by passing Saudi youths from their cars. On another occasion a man pulled up beside our car and offered her his phone number.
In supermarkets I only had to be away from Faye for five minutes and Saudi men would hiss or whisper obscenities as they walked past. When Faye discussed her experiences with local women at the British Council they said: “Welcome to Saudi Arabia.”
This is the extreme end of the Modesty Scale which women are assumed to abide by, simply because we are women. What is it about the female body that is so outrageous that in some cultures it must be covered from head to foot? Why are those Saudi men such jerks? I don't know, and the culturally assumed male privilege and arrogance that informs the above reaction is beyond my comprehension, but it often strikes me as entirely odd that womens bodies are still subject to so much taboo. Perhaps not odd, for womens bodies are still the battleground of sexual autonomy. There is a cultural bias that says mens bodies belong to men, womens bodies belong to, well not women. Because if they did we would not be still having abortion wars in 2010 or be witness to antiquated Islamic laws that say an uncovered woman is considered to be transgressing some arbitrary moral code.
So, yes, you women of the USA and the UK, if you want to breast feed your baby in public, then please go right ahead. Nobody can stop you. Just spare a thought for our sisters in Saudi who cannot even go outside with their hair flowing free.