I Had No Idea How Hard It Would Be To Navigate Breastfeeding As A Muslim Woman
When I was pregnant with my son, I already knew all about cluster feeding, mastitis and tongue ties.
I could reel off the benefits of colostrum from the top of my head and I’d watched enough mummy blog videos about the optimum positions for breastfeeding to do the ‘rugby ball’ in my sleep.
But it was only once I’d given birth that it hit me. The one thing I hadn’t factored in, because there was so little information available about it, was how on earth to navigate breastfeeding as a Muslim, hijab-wearing woman.
All new mothers have a lot to contend with in the early weeks. It’s no small thing to see your entire world shift and suddenly have this tiny, ravenous, needy person attached to you 24/7.
But as a Muslim woman, this was compounded by the misogyny and racism that rules my every day.
Not only was I wading through all the emotional and physical changes of postpartum life, but also extra layers of cultural expectations, societal stereotypes and the sheer practicalities of it too – like what to do when my baby screams so much for milk that he chokes on his own saliva (hint: whipping out a breast in the middle of Tesco is not exactly an option as a hijabi).
Or how to tell whether that man watching me is being a creep or about to call me a “Paki” (answer: both).
Muslim women and breastfeeding actually have a lot in common. We are misunderstood and stereotyped in equal measure – politicised, criticised and objectified all at once.
But that can mean, at times, that breastfeeding as a Muslim woman in public has felt like the odds are stacked against me. And I’m not alone.
Tamanna*, 31, is a mother-of-three who has exclusively breastfed each of her children. Even when using an extra large scarf to cover herself, she found that strangers were too surprised by the notion of a hijabi woman breastfeeding to afford her any real privacy.
“I ended up mostly feeding in toilets or changing rooms because it was just too problematic for strangers to be staring at me so much,” she explains.
Farah*, 25, has experienced this too: “I thought I found the most secluded place I could in the park, but an old white lady actually came and sat next to me, watching really intently before asking very innocently if I needed my husband’s permission to breastfeed my child.”
But it’s not all mere harmless intrigue. Tamanna* recalls how the hypersexualised way Muslim women are viewed turns breastfeeding into an opportunity for voyeurism for some. “I was once feeding (whilst covered) on a plane and I realised the man behind me was peering through the seat gaps to get a closer look, which obviously made me very uncomfortable,” she recalls.
In the UK, breastfeeding in public is protected under law, but in my experience, this legal protection is far from inclusive of women like me. After all, it’s great that nobody can be prevented from breastfeeding out in the open, but the same focus is not given to those who prefer a private space to feed – for personal or religious reasons.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve breastfed my son in a dirty toilet or on a changing room floor because of a lack of proper facilities. And there’s nothing like inhaling the smell of someone else’s urine whilst your child cluster feeds for an hour straight to really cement the fact that your very existence no longer seems welcome in public.
I ended up mostly feeding in toilets or changing rooms because it was just too problematic for strangers to be staring at me so much.Tamanna
For Bushra, 38, a lack of spaces to feed in private made her “a prisoner indoors” for the first three months of her son’s life. At the time, she wore a niqab (full face veil) and in her words, the “traditional” views of her husband meant he thought it was inappropriate to breastfeed in public – even if nothing was on show.
“I remember seeing a woman effortlessly pushing a trolley with a baby latched to her breast in a supermarket one day and feeling jealous that she could be so unbothered and confident,” she says. “But I had just never seen a Muslim woman feed in public so it just didn’t seem like something that was an option for me.”
But when new mothers remain trapped inside because of a lack of public facilities catered to us, this has an inevitable impact on mental health, which is already precarious in the postpartum stage.
“Within four months, I realised I was sinking into postnatal depression and I just had to get out,” says Bushra. “I started breastfeeding in the car during outings instead.”
Bushra is like many Muslim women I know who see their cars as the key to having some semblance of a life as a new mother, whilst maintaining their own religious standards of modesty when breastfeeding.
I too have spent plenty of time pulled up at the side of the road soothing my inconsolable child (I can attest there’s nothing like stumbling upon a breastfeeding woman to send a traffic warden running) or trying to get to the nearest drive-thru to at least spend the next hour feeding with a frappuccino in hand.
Likewise, women like Ayan*, 29, have been driven to use formula sooner than they would have liked to because of how hard it is to feed in public. “I wanted to breastfeed for two years, like our faith recommends, but I just found it so isolating to have to constantly find somewhere private to feed,” she explains.
“If everywhere in the UK had feeding rooms it would be different but for now, formula gives me the option to live a normal life as a mum. Otherwise, I’d go out and spend the whole time looking for somewhere to feed.”
But what does this say about how inclusive our public spaces are, and which mothers can – and cannot – access them freely?
As of today, I am 18 months into my motherhood and breastfeeding journey. In that time, I’ve had it all: the dramatically averted gazes and all-too-long lingering stares. The tutting uncles who think any hint of the existence of a breast underneath multiple layers of cloth is indecent and the aunties telling me I must have eaten something wrong to make my baby so fussy.
Luckily these days, my son can mostly be placated with blueberries and crackers and the odd bribe in the form of chocolate, but whenever I see a new mum feeding in public – especially a hijabi (and particularly one whose baby is viewing her cover as an invitation to play peek-a-boo) – I make sure to offer a smile in solidarity, because I know all too well how it feels to be doing the seemingly impossible.
*Some names have been changed to provide anonymity.
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