It’s wonderful when mothers want to bring their newborn babies to gurdwara and nurture their Sikhi early on. The power of sangat and kirtan is undeniable on the mental and spiritual health of a mother and her child. But, the question many new mothers grapple with is, “Where is it appropriate to breastfeed outside of the house?”
We often hear about stories where mothers are hassled for nursing in public and are sometimes asked to leave certain places or told to “cover up.” This is despite the fact that in almost all 50 United States, law explicitly protect mothers who breastfeed in public. “Forty-seven states, DC and the Virgin Islands have laws that specifically allow moms to breastfeed in any public or private location,” notes Jessica Samakow, managing editor of HuffPost Voices. “Two of the remaining states — South Dakota and Virginia — exempt breastfeeding moms from public indecency or nudity laws, and Idaho is the only state that has yet to pass any similar laws.”
Majority of Kaur Life readers live in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and India so, here are the laws about breastfeeding in public in those countries. In Canada, federal laws do not specifically address a woman’s right to breastfeed in public and only two provinces have laws that protect breastfeeding as a right: British Columbia and Ontario. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees “gender equity,” and most breastfeeding rights advocates reference this charter for protection. In the UK, breastfeeding in public is protected under the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975. In India there is no legal statute dealing with breastfeeding in public and prevalence and social acceptance vary from region to region.
But what about at gurdwaras? This public-private hybrid of a space is one where many Western social behaviors are trumped by Punjabi culture.
Recently, Parveen Kaur, wrote an article encouraging gurdwaras to create nursing rooms for mothers to breastfeed babies. With the increasing number of women choosing to breastfeed and wanting to attend gurdwara, she says, this needs to be addressed.
But, there is another side to the argument, where proponents state that such rooms could be detrimental to the growth of our community. Here are the two sides. What do you think?
YES: Gurdwaras need nursing rooms
Women may not feel comfortable breastfeeding in the divan hall: “I was raised to keep my chest covered, so I feel uncomfortable nursing when surrounded by both men and women; I’m afraid I might expose myself,” is one frequent comment. So, the best way to support a breast-feeding mother is to give her the option to do what is most comfortable for her and her child.
Women should have option to be part of sangat while being a mother: While breastfeeding around others may be challenging, it should not be the reason mothers choose not to attend gurdwara; there should be an option for women to do both. Gurdwaras are meant to serve the community and thus, should be “family friendly.” “The Gurdwara was built on the premise of inclusion for all people,” said new mother, Gurbans Kaur. “Not having a space for a mother to nurse her baby, which has to happen frequently and on-demand, makes it very challenging for her to engage in divans.” Feeding a baby and having the opportunity to be in sangat to connect to Waheguru are not mutually exclusive; gurdwaras need to be accommodating to breast-feeding mothers’ needs.
Breastfeeding mothers do not want to be shamed by others: The site of a woman breast-feeding in gurdwaras can raise eyebrows and draw disapproval. Parveen Kaur said she is “…worried about the reactions” she might get and wishes there was a place for her to breastfeed comfortably and in private.
It can be distracting to other sangat members: “I don’t want to be listening to kirtan and look over and see boobs,” is one comment sometimes heard. Others find breastfeeding distracting because they feel it is an act that should be done in private. A gurdwara nursing room would help facilitate the comfort of everyone and make it welcoming to all.
NO: Gurdwaras should not have nursing rooms
It perpetuates the idea that breastfeeding is indecent: If Gurdwaras make nursing rooms, it continues to maintain the idea that women breastfeeding is indecent and that breasts are purely sexual. “The message that breastfeeding needs to be hidden perpetuates the over-sexualization of the female body and the act of breastfeeding,” says breastfeeding mother Abby Theuring, “These nursing rooms could perpetuate the idea that breastfeeding is supposed to be ‘private,’ ‘modest,’ or whatever ….” If sangat members are distracted, they should get over it; breasts are no longer sexual when used for what they were designed for: sustaining life. The breastfeeding mother’s intention is not to seduce others with her breasts but to feed her child and thus, it is neither immodest nor immoral for a woman to breastfeed her child as openly as she pleases.
Rooms may become mandatory: Such rooms, while created with good intentions (for mothers’ comfort, pleasure and choice), could evolve from “an option for mothers,” to a “requirement for mothers.” These rooms could be manipulated in the future to control women and segregate mothers.
Rooms may be used to demonize other women: If a mother chooses to breastfeed in the divan hall and opts not use the available nursing room, she may be stigmatized by other sangat members. “Why isn’t she using the room? She is so rude!” they might think. Furthermore, it might cause schisms between nursing mothers within the community.
It is hypocritical for the sangat to expect nursing mothers to go into a different room: On one hand, in divan we sing shabads that compare Waheguru’s sustenance to a mother’s breast milk (see Guru Nanak Sahib’s revelation in Siree Raag on Ang 62, Guru Ram Das’ revelation in Raag Bihaagraa on Ang 538, Guru Arjan Sahib’s revelation in Raag Malaar on Ang 1266, and Bhai Gurdaas Ji’s vaar), yet on the other hand we have created a culture that makes women feel they need to breastfeed in secrecy, strongly encouraging them to separate themselves from sangat, or verbally asking them to “cover up or leave,” or subtlety “asking” through body language and dirty looks. Women would not feel the need for nursing rooms if we created a welcoming culture that supported the breasting feeding mother who wishes to engage in the Gurdwara community.
MAYBE: Perhaps Gurdwaras should have nursing rooms, or perhaps not
Kaur Life believes that empowerment is about the ability to choose, not the choice itself. Ultimately, we would like women to be able to choose when, how, and where they feed their children (breastfeeding or not) .
The “breastfeeding debate” is not a black and white situation and each breastfeeding mother has a unique cultural background and set of life experiences that influence her choices about when, where, and how to feed her child.
Kaur Life published this article with the hope that the community can starting thinking about and doing what is best for nursing mothers and to encourage continuous evolvement to become more Guru-centric in our practices. Perhaps the solution is a combination of the above polarizing arguments, perhaps it is a gradual transition, or perhaps it is a hybrid of different ideas not covered in the article. Regardless, nursing mothers should be involved in the decision making process. Ultimately, Kaur Life’s wish is for nursing mothers to be supported and comfortable.
What do you think?
Photo source: www.sikhmumsnet.com