It is the gaze that decides what it will see. That which appears "lascivious" to one may be completely natural to another. A popular Malayalam magazine, Grihalakshmi, recently published on its front cover the photograph of a breastfeeding woman, with the caption asking people not to stare. What should have been seen as path-breaking was instead perceived as an attempt to titillate. A criminal case has been filed against the editor of the magazine and the model on the cover under the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act. Some years ago, when a similar case was filed against a vernacular newspaper and a sports magazine for publishing a nude photograph of Boris Becker and his then fiancée, the apex court had observed that the merit of publishing such a picture had to be seen in the context of the message it sought to convey. Surely spreading awareness about the right of a woman to breastfeed in a place of her choosing is not wrong. But the legal validity of the complaint is the least of the problems exposed by this case. The complainant also said that a 'real mother', not a model, should have been featured on the cover; something that the magazine could not get women to agree to. Can anyone blame them given the hassle that has ensued? In fact, one of the 'real' mothers who is featured inside the issue was severely bullied online.
The breast has been sexualized to the point that even a glimpse of it, never mind that it is for feeding an infant, invites harassment of various kinds. So lactating mothers need to wear clothes that cover the breast and the baby while feeding - this can be extremely uncomfortable - spend hours pumping the milk before going out, switch to formula milk or, worse, wait for the child to be weaned before resuming normal lives. Breastfeeding awareness programmes either gloss over the freedom to breastfeed in public or highlight enclosures that are present for the purpose. A hygienic shelter for breastfeeding is of utmost importance, but it is also impractical to expect one to be nearby every time a child gets hungry - which is often. Lactation is a difficult period for mothers, the accusatory or voyeuristic gaze only makes it worse. Women everywhere are uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public because of the attention it garners. But in India, where mothers are ritually deified, the lack of understanding about the attendant struggles of motherhood and the disregard for the mother's right over her body are especially glaring.