It’s funny how when one thing enters your radar a stream of related things seem to follow close by. In the past couple of days I’ve been forced to reconsider.. reevaluate if you like … my views on abortion, homosexuality and Santa Claus. And yes, the three are related! But it’s breastfeeding that’s, inevitably at this stage in my pregnancy, playing on my mind.
I’ve always, always been pro-women; in every way. Since converting there have been many times when at first glance it would seem that my pro and ’empowerment’ views contrast, or even conflict, with the teachings of my religion and the way, as a practising Muslim, I should think and represent my thoughts.
Growing up in the UK, with a mother who prided herself on her size 8 figure post-4 kids and the ability to squeeze into butt-exposing hotpants when she picked us up from school, exposing flesh was never really a topic touched upon. It ‘just was’ that being thin was ok, being fat was not and if you were thin enough to pull it off, wear whatever you want. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it”, was and to an extent is, Mums’ moto. So I did. And developed bullimia. (Go figure…)
By the time university came around, though my body was quite probably “flauntable”, I refused to be judged by shape anymore. So instead, I turned to clothing and wore what I wanted, when I wanted. The more outlandish the better. Pink cord flares wide enough to take out a Beatle, a friends 6’4″ Dad’s jeans (I’m 5’6″ on a good heel day). I pierced my lip, wore an African hoop in my ear and dyed my hair florescent…. You get the picture. I’d gone from exposing, to covering in the most outlandish way possible. Then I found Islam…
Today, I wear ‘normal’ clothes, but they don’t expose my flesh. My jeans are wide cut and tops cover my thighs. My hair’s always ‘done’ but you’d never know, because when I leave the house the only features of my body you see are my hands, feet and face. Oh, and I fear, sometime soon, you may spot the occassional wandering boob.
You see, I’m a hijabi who will, God willing also be an active breastfeeding Mum. Not only is it Sunnah (recommended in the Koran), but it’s what I have always believed to be best for baby – both in health terms and in bonding with the mother. What I don’t want is to be a breastfeeding mother too afraid to breastfeed in public.
The breastfeeding controversy raging through the western world is not about whether or not breast is best – most of the time, sensible people are unable to avoid the facts that if the mother can, breastmilk trumps formula anyday. The controversy arises about where (and for how long) it is suitable to feed your baby. Here in Turkey, hospitals are pro-breast and it’s actively encouraged by doctors. Sadly, outside the hospital it can be a whole different ball game. Numerous friends have told me stories of how they’ve been encouraged -some may say pressured – to swap or at least supplement breastmilk with formula..especially in the first few weeks when it is totally normal for baby to loose a little of their birth weight.
As I’ve re-evaluated breastfeeding in relation to Islam, the contrast between the religion and the country I live has surprised me. In Islam we’re encouraged to feed our babies. In fact, we’re encouraged to feed our toddlers until they’re two years old if they so want. Yet in Turkey, women often feed their baby for only the first month; of all the Turkish women I’ve spoken to on the subject – those who’ve had children in the recent past- only one fed her child to six-months.
Why is that? Why is it, in a country where the hospitals are pro-breast, where the majority of the population follow a religion that explicitly advocates breast-milk and there are facilities in place to support breastfeeding mothers in shopping centres and such like, why is it that so few women feed to toddler age. Or do they? Do they feed but out of sight? I think this may be more the case; the women who feed, and continue to feed their babies, are the women who are content to stay at home when baby needs feeding.
I’d love to say I could be one of those women, but I know that staying at home and resolving to feed my baby only at home or in a designated room in a shopping centre would quickly reduce me to a stressed, isolated mess. My baby’s not born yet, but I know I’ll be less likely to succeed doing the above than if I learn from the start to incorporate feeding into every aspect of my life.
So how to do it? There has been a video floating round the blogosphere the past couple of weeks that I found beautiful. It looks at breastfeeding in the same vein as a womans’ choice to dress as she pleases; how and what she exposes is a matter of personal choice, and no choice is wrong. As a covered woman, the last thing I feel I can do do – or should do – is to expose my breast…at the same time, I want to feed on benches in the park, as we walk by the sea or over coffee in a cafe. So, I invested in a nursing cover; one of those rigid easy-tie things…a waste of money I suspect as a blanket tied properly would be just as effective, but hey. It was only when I got it home, I wondered how it would work for me. You see, all of my clothes cover all of my body. My tops are thigh length – not so easy to simply lift up discreetly, and with far too much material to bunch unnoticed. So pull down then…well, see, my headscarf is often pinned to my top to prevent it blowing away…and if not, the top’s likely turtle neck…
Days away from my due date, I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to make this breastfeeding in public thing work for us. The only thing I do know for sure, is that somehow I will. Because it’s a womans’ right to feed, just as it’s a womans’ right to choose between a miniskirt or a burka. And it’s videos like this, doing the rounds, sparking debate, making you think, that will hopefully change societies views on breastfeeding and make it easier for all women, all over the world to feed their babies without insecurities.
Breasts were intended for one option: to feed your child, not for the sexual tantilisation of men (or women) around you. So if you happen to be in Istanbul in the upcoming months and spot a headscarfed woman with a boob hanging out, it’s probably me. Give me a wave and say hello. Think of my boob as you would my face and hands; a necessary exposure of skin as I try to live my life following Gods’ will, doing my duty as a muslim, as a Mum and overall as a woman of today.