Taj Mahal, one of the eight wonders of the world, became the first Indian UNESCO Heritage Site to get a breastfeeding room dedicated to women tourists visiting the Agra monument with infants.
Two other historical sites, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, will also get a separate space for nursing mothers so they can tend to their infants’ needs away from prying eyes, discomfiture and shame.
Who’s behind the move?
The Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) made the announcement Thursday, marking step towards destigmatising breastfeeding in a country where women exposing even arms or legs warrant the male gaze.
Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, an official at the ASI in Agra city said the room set aside for feeding babies would be set up by July to help the “millions of mothers who visit with their babies.”
Taking such a step was a pressing matter, he said, after he spotted a mother concealing herself behind a staircase and struggling to feed her baby, despite the husband covering her to protect her privacy.
Is it a step in the right direction?
The move has also drawn ire from many who believe such a move would further perpetuate the taboo around women’s breasts, just as banning the female nipple on Instagram broadens the distinction and sexualises them further.
There is a growing movement in favour of normalising breastfeeding in public to make spaces more accessible for women where they don’t have to feel ashamed because of their changing bodies, and more importantly to stop gender roles from dictating the codes of shame and moral policing.
Yet, unfortunate incidents where women nursing at the mall or on public transport are asked to put their breasts away, or forced to wear an extra layer of clothing in tropical weather to shield her infant as they feed, continue to make headlines across the world.
The director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum had to apologise in 2017 for asking a mother to cover up while breastfeeding. Another nursing mother was expelled from Spain’s Corral del Carbon monument in 2015.
Such occurrences make it abundantly clear that society at large expects mothers to do this only at home, or they must pump the milk and carry it while traveling, or wait till the child is weaned off breast milk to resume normal lives.
Australian senator, Larissa Waters, recently defied the taboo by proudly feeding her 11-week-old daughter while moving a motion in Parliament.
Is it culturally acceptable in India?
Such issues persist in our own country as well and is further complicated by greater stigma and callousness towards reproductive health.
Just last year, women in Kolkata protested after a mall department store asked a woman who was breastfeeding at the store to do it in the bathroom, even saying she should “take of her home chores at home.”
A south Indian women’s magazine in March 2018 drew both outrage and praise for the cover of its latest edition, which shows poet and actor Gilu Joseph breastfeeding her baby, with the headline, “Mums tell Kerala: don’t stare – we need to breastfeed”.
In India, the problem is a cultural one, where women who are expected to be modestly dressed, making the baring of the breast in public areas, even if it’s for feeding a child, a brazen act.
It is also worth noting that women—here and everywhere—are help culpable for all the atrocities committed against them, and that issues concerning women’s and children’s health are relegated to secondary importance, as evidenced by the ongoing abortion bill controversy in the US.
A separate room offers privacy and safety
“The situation turns even more embarrassing on days when there is a rush of tourists. Considering this, the ASI decided to provide some space for them,” said Swarnkar, clearly indicating that thre move is preserving women’s modesty and the culture that demands it, rather than taking a radical stand to change the mindset.
Nonetheless, having a designated room creates a safe space for women to nurse children in a country where less than 55 per cent of Indian newborns are breastfed, especially those living in urban areas. This is probably due to widely held misconceptions coupled with family pressure to stick to the bottle and feed milk formula, which is often considered a healthier substitute for the real thing.
But will it help women reclaim public spaces?
Nearly two-thirds of our 1.2 billion population is below the age of 35, including women of prime childbearing age; this number is only growing.
So it is the society that must accomodate women’s needs, not the other way around.
Many would argue that more of such hygeinic shelters should come up in public spaces to offer privacy and safety from harassment—set up and maintained by the state, corporations or non-profits.
But what we really need is legislation enabling breastfeeding in public. We need to stop giving women a run for the nearest booth to feed their child. Even at the family level, we must facilitate conversation about breastfeeding instead of doing it behind closed doors; that unnecessarily sensationalises a perfectly normal act.
The world is already shedding these taboos and notions in favour of brave new approaches to women’s health and body politics like ditching the bra to #freethenipple, encouraging free bleeding during menstruation and owning hormonal issues like facial hair growth and hyperandrogenism.
Surely, we can be adults and collectively grow to respect a mother’s right to feed her child wherever she wants.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.