Breast-feeding and the ‘Grihalakshmi’ Magazine Controversy



“Breastfeeding reminds us of the universal truth of abundance; the more we give out, the more we are filled up, and that divine nourishment – the source from which we all draw is, like a mother’s breast, ever full and ever flowing.” ~ Sarah Buckley

The controversy over a cover-picture of the Malayali magazine ‘Grihalakshmi’ featuring model Gilu Joseph posing as if breastfeeding an infant, has been in the news for some time now. From the legal point of view the matter seems to have been settled with a recent order of the Kerala High Court dismissing the petition filed by one Felix MM, who had contended that the magazine cover violated provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and Rules, as well as Section 45 of the Juvenile Justice Act. This was among numerous other petitions against the magazine, e.g., one filed by Vinod Mathew Wilson at the Kollam CJM court, for offence under sects 3 and 4 of Indecent Representation of Women Act, which claimed that since the magazine used a model for the shoot and not a real mother, the cover cannot claim cinematographic or public awareness exemption granted under the act. It is however worthwhile to review some of the rhetoric that the case generated from various quarters, both in favour of the magazine’s stand as against, to try and articulate our responses from the ethical-moral point of view.

The magazine had defended itself stating that “it was an effort to create awareness on breastfeeding, especially in public places.” Before we go into the merits of this claimed intention, let us dwell on some of the opinions that were expressed in the social media space against the representation in the magazine: the most widespread one of these being, that a woman would normally cover herself while feeding her baby and that such exposure as in the contentious picture is deliberately sexually provocative, meant as a publicity stunt.

 

One well-known Facebook-page with a goodly following that purports pro-Hindu leanings even went on to suggest an equalisation that if women can choose to breast-feed without covering their breasts, men would be justified in exposing their genitals in public too. One of the leering male supporters on the thread drew a parallel with a man who masturbates in public. Another said that women who breastfed in public without covering her breasts should not complain if they get molested for it. Yet another one suggested that this justified men exposing their private parts while urinating in public. When one sees such opinions emanating from seemingly educated Hindus, one is hit with the realisation of the extent to which India as a civilisation has regressed.

 

‘Mahishasuramardini’ at Osian, Rajasthan
(Source: Monidipa Bose)

From a culture that produced majestic expressions of art, sculptures and paintings, celebrating the beauty of the feminine form, including those of the Mother Goddess, with beautiful, open and unveiled breasts, to one where a lactating mother has to ‘cover-up’ to even feed her baby! One would wonder wherefrom has this perversion seeped into the Indian mindset? Are these puritanical, body-shaming mores of Indian, alternatively Hindu origin? Are these people who shame women for exposing that part of her body which nature has endowed her with for nurturing life, one of the most sacred acts she is equipped to perform, really Hindu?

 

 

Picture of a woman from a tribe in India in which members are so one with nature that women nourish even young ones of animals with their milk. But the picture is from an Indonesian magazine which pasted black patches over the woman’s breasts. Apparently, the people in that country are unable to view even this pure act of love without sexualising it.

How else is a woman supposed to feed an infant if not by exposing her breast, at least part of it? How much of exposure will these people deem “OK” for feeding a baby? Are they any different from those Islamists who put black patches to cover women athlete’s bodies which they feel should not be exposed? In truth they are not. The millennium long interactions with Abrahamic cultures has corrupted the average Hindu so much that they

The picture as it appeared in Indian publications

think and behave exactly like them. This is the only way in which they have come to the same level as the invaders who destroyed their land and civilisation. Every other sign of nobility, manliness, deep reverence for the feminine as a manifestation of the Goddess, spiritual and intellectual vigour has been lost.

 

Some portions of the Hon’ble court’s verdict may be cited in this context. In its judgment the court stated that “shocking one’s morals” is an “elusive concept”, and that “one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric”. The judgement further read: “We do not see, despite our best efforts, obscenity in the picture, nor do we find anything objectionable in the caption, for men. We looked at the picture with the same eyes we look at the paintings of artists like Raja Ravi Varma. As the beauty lies in the beholder’s eye, so does obscenity, perhaps…” The judges noted that “the petitioner fail to convince that the respondent publishers have committed any offence, much less a cardinal one, affecting the Society’s moral fabric, and offending its sensibilities.”

 

One cannot but agree with these observations, particularly when applied to some of these comments of social media users that are cited above. There is a difference between a man exposing his genitals or masturbating in public, and a woman who has to expose her breast to feed her baby. The former are overtly sexual acts thrust upon unconsenting onlookers, while the latter has no sexual connotation. A woman feeding her baby, irrespective whether she covers herself or not, is not inviting sex. Definitely not! To be able to feed her infant without inhibition, without enduring discomfort or constricting her child, on account of lascivious or censuring gazes of others, is her right! Breasts are not a sex organ. The enlarged mammaries of females have a natural, vital biological function! That it is alluring to males, out of evolutionary or psycho-sexual reasons, cannot become the cause for hindering a woman to fulfil her natural function. It is the adult male fantasy which sexualises the female breasts and the onus too on them alone to check their thoughts on how they choose to regard the sight of a mother feeding her baby. Why would it remind males of the sexual act? Why would it not remind them of their own mothers having nourished them with this energy to life?

 

Men move around bare-chested freely when they want to be comfortable. They have no right to judge or determine un-/acceptable manner for women when they don’t have the same experience of physicality. No one in fact has the right to dictate this for any other person. Any woman who has gone through the experience of say, travelling for hours with cumbersome clothes, the burden of a baby that needs to be fed constantly, in hot climate, while travelling by public transport packed to the gills, will know exactly how difficult it is to be saddled with the extra inconvenience of covering up to feed. It is suffocating and miserable for the infant and makes them irritable and unmanageable. Why should it be necessary? Most times women find even a jeans and T-shirt hard to manage in the circumstances, leave alone the Indian three-piece suit or saree. And indeed many women do not bother! Especially the rustic, uneducated (or shall we say, unspoilt) multitudes of India, who take it in their stride as normal course. It is the educated who have undergone disruption in their sense of Indic values who express squeamishness at the sight of an act that comes so naturally to most women. And this is the way it should be: women should be free to nurse unabashedly, as it comes to them naturally, as and in whichever place comfortable for her and her baby, without bothering about what others will think.

I have witnessed all over in India, all through my life, in public transport, construction sites, small towns and villages, women feed their babies in full public view, many of them without giving the effort to cover themselves, and the onlookers regard them with complete nonchalance. A couple of times I noticed that baby and mother had both dozed off, the infant having released the teat it was latching on to and the Mother unaware that her breast had come exposed. But none of those present ever was upset by the sight. On the contrary, people only extend cooperation and make them comfortable. The only way they look at the woman is that she is a nursing mother. There is no other way to look at it! Whoever ascribes sleaze to it is mentally sick! In fact, the beauty is in this unapologetic, natural selves, not those stricken with ideas of prudishness. There’s a pride and glow of love in this act of mothering. As a child I would observe them with wonderstruck eyes. Would a child react in the same way to a male exposing his genitals? We all recognise instinctively the intent behind actions of people and not difficult to see why such a comparison is wholly obnoxious.

It is truly all in the gaze, the thought with which one looks at his/her surroundings. To a twisted mind even a fully covered woman’s or a child’s body will produce salacious imagery. We know it only too well, especially from Islamic societies, that no amount of ‘covering up’ cures perversion of an observer’s own mind.

 

I have a personal anecdote which prompts me to express myself strongly in this matter:

As a young first time mother, I had taken my daughter, barely a month or so old, to the clinic for her vaccine. The trip was not likely to last more than half an hour and I expected to be back to the comfort of my home soon. However, due to some stock/staff issue (don’t recollect now exactly what it was) I was forced to wait there about 2 hours. While I waited the baby woke up as she wanted her feed and started crying. Unfortunately, as the clinic had no secluded spot to feed and I was not dressed in a manner that I could cover myself while feeding, I could not feed her. Unfortunately, I was also unaccompanied. Her hunger growing, my baby daughter wailed constantly, until it grew to a screaming rage and she was purple in the face. It is impossible to explain the kind of helpless distress I felt as a mother unable to feed her hungry baby! Babies’ crying is maddeningly persistent until their needs are fulfilled. It just went on and on, and I had no choice but to wait up there with the screaming baby. Mercifully, the vaccine was done in a while and finally I was out. My famished daughter had fallen into an exhausted sleep by that time, tired by her own crying, without being fed. I cannot possibly describe the anguish of that moment, something that I haven’t forgotten till date. If only someone, from the people present there, the doctors, the nurses, several mothers, fathers, grandparents… anyone had just told me, that it is ok to just lift my shirt and feed the baby! But I was too acutely conscious of what people would think, of those judgemental gazes. Would a mother who chooses to feed her baby irrespective be wrong? Among the urban, so-called educated classes we have created such a repressive atmosphere that even a mother’s body that nurtures a life is not free from lustful eyes, or frowning priggish ones.

Which brings me back to the specific issue of the controversial picture in the magazine: Wasn’t this the stigma what the magazine set out to remove with the picture? Well… wrong. And this is where finer lines must be drawn and one must move aside from questions of general social attitudes and apply discrimination in a case-specific manner.

 

It is indeed funny that the magazine had to choose a model who’s a not a mother herself, suckle a baby to make their point about taboos (that they imagine exist in India). A preliminary internet search can reveal scores of such pictures of young mothers feeding their babies without any drape of shame. It is altogether too common a scene. It is obvious that the magazine had no such honourable intention that it purports of encouraging breastfeeding with this contrived advertisement. It was much rather a perverse sexualisation of the sacred act of breastfeeding to titillate an audience under this stated pretext. What it actually did is that a baby was used as an excuse for undue nudity and sensationalism. The Hon’ble court should have been more circumspect in assessing intention instead of making an idealistic statement. Even pictures of a model with fully exposed breasts would have been more honest and respectable. It is not that such aesthetically presented pictures are not published by magazines. I remember an Illustrated Weekly issue from the 1980s which had published a set of pictures of topless models. Had ‘Grihalakshmi’ used a real mother’s image feeding her baby, no one would have given a second thought to it, leave alone find it objectionable. People are not stupid not to perceive motivations and cannot be fooled by claims.

Also, the model attired as a Hindu woman, with conspicuous marks of mangasutra and sindoor, aimed at a regional belt where Muslims and Christians together outnumber Hindus, and even married Hindu women in the region do not typically don the mentioned adornments, makes the motivations of the magazine suspect. Why could a burka-clad woman or one with typical Christian distinguishing features not be used to make the same point? The model herself is after all a Christian. What was the reason for the ‘dressing up’ the mother as a Hindu? Given that the judgements, restrictions and reactions against breastfeeding and the female body are far more severe among Christians and Muslims, it would have made far more sense to aim the advertisements at these communities. Apart from this obvious insincerity in the purpose it claims, the picture is an insinuation against the Hindu community, as if they are the ones specifically who impose the taboo against breastfeeding. The reality is however exactly the reverse: apart from the smaller urban sections, Hindu India largely celebrates and sanctifies acts of mothering and does not objectify women’s bodies. It is the Abrahamic religious minorities which perpetuate the mores and restrictions related to feminine expressions and freedoms. Even most of the petitioners in the present case were Christians.

 

In India, there are naked sadhus (advaitīn mendicants) and munis of sects like Jaina tradition who remain naked. People do not see their nakedness as ‘improper’ because they see it in a context, of spiritual practices related to certain philosophical outlooks. Why is it that a naked image of the Mother Goddess does not evoked sexual feelings? Why does a withered body of an old lady not arouse one? Until the last century in Kerala, the same state where this magazine is published, women went about topless without it occurring to anyone to view their dressing as immodest. It is all ultimately about the thought process of the observer. It is possible to make a clear distinction between a blatant sexual act and an innocent circumstance of nakedness, e.g, of a child, or a mother feeding or a woman in the process of giving birth. It is all about context and not that people in general are not intelligent enough to see this.

 

Cover Picture: (Source: IndianMomsConnect)

 


 

Author: Smita Mukerji

Published: July 10, 2018

 

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