While growing up in Oklahoma, Shayoon Mendeluk didn’t see a lot of South Asian women breastfeeding in public.
Perhaps that’s why she decided to change things a little. She dressed up in a traditional lehenga-choli, and did a glamorous photo shoot as she was breastfeeding her little baby.
That Shayoon’s pictures of breastfeeding have gone viral in no time is a reflection of how rare it is for a woman in South Asian culture to express herself in a glamorous way while breastfeeding in public.
The imagery that Shayoon is presenting here is powerful: she is brown, she is fiercely feminine, and yet, she is nurturing. Not shying away one bit from exhibiting a biological function long relegated to the extended pallus.
“ I feel absolutely free and liberated and honored to be able to feed my child,” Mendeluk tells me. Her Instagram feed regularly features her posing while nursing her baby.
My goal wasn’t to rebel. I’m simply making a movement to show that it’s okay and to stop living in fearShayoon Mendeluk
With roots in Pakistan and India, Mendeluk is currently based in Ibiza and is an entrepreneur and Instagram influencer.
She is also among a growing tribe of brown women, who are advocating for the freedom to feed in public.
‘Freedom to Feed My Child Wherever I Want to Go’
On most days, Adhunika Prakash is managing a community of 1,00,000 breastfeeding women across 12 cities and three countries, all of whom are connected by virtue of their biology.
In the four years of its existence, Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers (BSIM) has given guidance and counselling to many breastfeeding Indian mothers. But Adhunika’s fight now is something else: On Change.org, she is petitioning the Indian govt to introduce a law to not discriminate against women for breastfeeding in public.
A prominent case of the poor treatment meted out to nursing mothers came to light last year when a Kolkata mall shamed a woman for breastfeeding in public.
Abhilasha Arup Das Adhikari had gone to the mall with her baby girl — then seven months old — and she had found the nursing room to be very dirty.
When she posted a bad review, the social media team employed by the mall doubled down on her and told her she “should have done her home chores” first and come.
Looking back, the audiologist and speech therapist says when she read that, she just did not know how to respond.
I felt .... that did I make a mistake my taking my child out? I wondered whether I had failed as a mother. My mind stopped working because nobody had insulted me that way before. But after some reflection, I became sure that what they said to me was wrong.Abhilasha Arup Das Adhikari, who protested against the lack of a clean nursing room in a Kolkata mall
“A lot of people called me an attention seeker mom,” which hurt Abhilasha a lot. But more than these comments, in volume, were the number of women who reached out to her about how they too felt confined inside their homes because they had to breastfeed their kid.
Many women called me and told me this has happened to them. They also used to go to the toilets, or the basements to feed their child. They said it is very difficult to go to the mall, or another public place with a kid.Abhilasha Arup Das Adhikari
But it’s not to say that India is no country for breastfeeding mothers. In fact, Adhunika Prakash who runs the breastfeeding community BSIM says, “To be honest, India is a very breastfeeding friendly country.”
But it’s the middle class and city dwelling populace — which has grown up with the over-sexualisation of breasts — that finds it difficult to conflate motherhood with breasts.
Breasts are over-sexualized. They are now being used to sell things to you when the primary focus of breasts is to breastfeed and provide nourishment to the babies.Adhunika Prakash, Founder and CEO, Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers
Breastfeeding has often been a theme in Indian art: whether it is Prokash Karmakar’s 1980 Haloed in the Round or Yashoda Breast-feeding Krishna in Mysore traditional art — Indian art has never ceased to celebrate the breastfeeding woman.
And yet, it’s not that breastfeeding has been fully accepted in public. Recall the flak Raj Kapoor’s 1985 film, Ram Teri Ganga Maili had to face because of its scenes of a woman breastfeeding?
Not just art, science too has been guilty of giving a stepsisterly treatment to the breastfeeding mom.
There is twice more research on erectile dysfunction, for instance, than breastfeeding moms.
However, things are changing for sure. But while science remains far behind, attitudes are changing more rapidly.
And who is at the centre of the change? Of course, the women!
As a new mother, Basabdatta Majumder dreaded going outside. Because she didn’t know when and where her child would demand a feed. “Most of the time I hurried like a storm so that I could go back to my car to nurse the baby. I was about to give up on the idea of going out with my little one (and that broke my heart!)“ But stories of other breastfeeding mothers empowered her to get the confidence to breastfeed in public. Now she breastfeeds anywhere (and without any inhibitions whatsoever)!
Bollywood actor Neha Dhupia too recently started a campaign called Freedom to Feed, which calls for women to breastfeed in public, without fear or embarassment.
If the mall has so many places to sell a baby’s clothes or for new moms’ merchandise, can it not have a small place to feed a baby?Abhilasha Arup Das Adhikari, who raised a storm after complaining about a dirty nursing room in a Kolkata mall
A few months after Abhilasha’s incident at the Kolkata mall, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and the Kolkata mayor made nursing rooms mandatory in commercial buildings, particularly malls and markets.
While nursing rooms are important for new and vulnerable mothers, Adhunika says it’s important for breastfeeding women to not shy away from feeding their babies in public.
As women, we need to be able to feed wherever we are...because we are feeding our baby. We are not doing anything wrong.Adhunika Prakash, who runs the community, Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers
Adhunika also says that while a lot of women have access to spaces that can boast of nursing rooms, for women who don’t have the luxury of a car, or for women who shop in mandis and not malls, the problem becomes one of privilege.
She believes that not every space can have a nursing room, so a woman must have the freedom to be able to breastfeed in public.
As a breastfeeding woman, I cannot restrict my movement only to places where there are feeding rooms.Adhunika Prakash, Founder and CEO, Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers
In fact, both Adhunika and Shayoon are of the opinion that women should be seen in public while breastfeeding, and that the general public must be normalised to the sight of a woman breastfeeding.
“We should not be secluding breastfeeding mothers inside nursing rooms,” says Adhunika. To the mothers, she says, “Don’t go to a car and breastfeed. Go out.”
As a breastfeeding mother, everyone should be seeing you. Not running away from you or putting you in a physical space.Adhunika Prakash, Founder and CEO, Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers
Meanwhile, Shayoon can’t wait to tell the story of her breastfeeding photo shoot to her son after he grows up.
“We have to change things for future women,” she says. Aye to that, we say, captain!