Wednesday, 10 November 2010

If You Don't Like it Put a Blanket Over YOUR Head

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.


Mike Lemonick said...

Nicely done. I guess the problem with women breastfeeding discreetly in public is that it forces people to imagine what's going on under that blanket, and that there's a nipple involved.

Of course, male people imagine what's going on under that top even when there isn't breastfeeding going on, and there's a nipple involved there'm more confused than ever.

But you're absolutely right: laws prohibiting breastfeeding are insane. Which leaves me grasping for a term to describe Saudi laws and customs concerning women.

Miss. Grain said...

The breast has become synonymous with sex, it is regarded as a sex organ. Therefore when a woman breast feeds in public it is regarded as indecent, shameful - almost as though she's having sex in public. So we're at this stage in the UK where page 3 of The Sun is perfectly acceptable - on there the breasts are performing their 'proper' function - the sexual gratification of men. But a woman breast feeding in public borders on the outrageous. It's a crazy, fucked up logic.

Emma said...

Yes, Michael if one could only harness the power of my nipples under a t shirt, I could rule the world. Every woman knows the ultimate power she wields when going bra-less in a slight breeze. It's a strange but interesting phenomenon. And as someone wrote on my Facebook wall, using my favourite word of all time, nipples send men beserk. ;)

Emma said...

@Kerrie, I totally, wholeheartedly agree. Those whispering righteous freaks who deem breast feeding so morally outrageous should direct their ire toward sexualistaion of schoolgirls, traffiking of girls and women, the extreme oppression suffered by women under Islamic law and the status of women as regards their reproductive rights in Catholic countries. But, hey, breast feeding in public - thats should be fucking outlawed!

profiteering prophet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ozogg said...

Someone once said, that if we were meant to go around naked, we would have been borne that way.

As for the grossly sexual interpretation of "public sex" (wrongly) applied to breast-feeding, well we'll only get over that - when our society can start to regard sex, public or not, as another perfectly human and normal activity, like eating in public, kissing in public, displaying sinful knees, elbows, faces, etc.

You don't see nay of the apes regarding public sex as shameful, so how dare humans impose this interpretation on others ?

Oh, I get it, all the holy books are 100% true and irrefutable, is that it ?

Or church dogma cannot be challenged, is that it ?

Or long-standing social customs can NEVER be challenged or over-thrown, is that it?

Or your view of social norms is absolute, and mine are only relative? You can interfere with my choices, but not vice-versa?

No wonder mankind is destined to destroy itself.

Emma said...

Profiteering Prophet, there is nothing ambiguous about my article. I make it plain I find the censorious attitude toward the female body (and breast and nipples) abhorrent, ridiculous and dangerously judgmental in the way that the male body is never ever judged. I find it absolutely repulsive that Islamic culture is so androcentric, so misogynistic that women have to cover up with those black shrouds and cannot even go outside without being harrassed.

However the rest of your comment was good and I will be handing out sweeties later for good behaviour :) ps water your fucking garden!

jeanette said...

Interesting article. I am compelled to add that "man boobs" should be banned no matter where they sway. Why are they permitted & accepted? They serve no purpose in furthering the human species.

Emma said...

LOL Jeanette, I quite agree. Man boobs (or Moobs as they are colloquially termed) are enough to put anyone off their dinner and should rightfully be banned. Or they should at least have to pay a tax on them, depending on size and wobble factor.

Nin3inch3r said...

There's something very sexy about seeing a woman breastfeeding!