Being born and brought up in a so-called ‘third – world developing country,’ the kind of debates in the public domain I have witnessed in the supposedly ‘first world developed country’ in the last one year makes me both laugh and cringe.
A case in point is breastfeeding in public. In July 2018, finally, all 50 states in the USA have allowed women to breastfeed in public. Earlier it was illegal; there was a fine for public indecency and women could be charged for that. However, women still need to cover breasts while feeding and yet there is a lot of confusion around it.
Humans are generally breast obsessed, bigger the better. Now that the breast concerns women, it is necessary for the patriarchal society to wrap it in misogyny and hide it in the name of obscenity.
Covering or not covering breasts has been a contentious issue since human civilization discovered clothes.
In the rural parts of my country, especially Odisha and Bengal one can see women wearing saree without a blouse. And yes, women breastfeeding their children is a common sight in public across India.
Wearing a blouse with a saree is a British concept and was popularized by Jnanadanandini Debi, the wife of Satyendranath Tagore, brother of the famous Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore who was reportedly refused entry to a famous club by Britishers as she was not wearing a blouse. (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30330693)
The Indian society absorbed this foreign concept of breast and modesty at different points in time.
In the nineteenth century, Kerala, women from certain sections of the society did not wear clothes that covered their breasts and bosom.
With the advent of Christianity, they started becoming conscious of their bare upper body and revolted against the prevailing societal norms. Many embraced Christianity and began to wear clothes that covered their breasts. There were statewide protests against it, and the state imposed a breast tax known as mulakkaram on the women if they wanted to cover their breasts in public.
There is a famous village tale around Nangeli, an Ezhava woman who lived in the early 19th century in Kerala who cut off her breasts to protest against breast tax. Here breast symbolized her pride and as a weapon of protest against the practices which were discriminatory.
There are several hymns in Vedas, and other Hindu scriptures on the Goddesses were voluptuous breasts, and shapely hips have been praised and celebrated. Even Vedic Gods had protuberant breasts or chests filled with honey and gold. The breast was considered symbols of progeny and food.
We have Goddesses who have three or multiple breasts. The breast was just another organ for us and was not to be hidden and to be ashamed of.
Hidimba, the flesh-eating dakini who married Bheem (one of the five Pandav brothers) had three breasts when she was born. She worshipped Lord Shiva when she was five years old. Lord Shiva granted her boon that her third breast would disappear when she finds husband fit for her. The legend says that her third breast fell off when she saw Bheem.
There is a similar legend regarding Goddess Minakshi who is seated in Madurai. She is one of the many manifestations of Goddess Parvati. Once, a king and his wife worshipped Lord Shiva for seeking a son. But a three-year-old girl was born to them who had three breasts. Lord Shiva asks parents to bring her up like a son, and when the right time comes, she will lose her third breast. After she grew up, she takes over the reign of the kingdom from her father. She challenges Shiva but eventually marries him as there is a change in her personality once she sees him.
So is the third breast the third eye just like Lord Shiva had? Or it is the male pennies? Or is the sun, moon and the earth. Or is it a sign of abundance and fertility? Though, there could be various interpretations of its symbolism.
But now, it’s a taboo to talk about breast, and breastfeeding has become an issue in urban India. It was quite surprising to see the uproar when a magazine from Kerala published images of a woman breastfeeding on its cover page.
Breastfeeding is an essential part of our culture and tradition. Putana, the female demon tries to kill baby Krishna by breastfeeding him.
We need to rethink as to how did our society become so illiberal and narrow-minded that now there is a need to smash taboos associated with breasts.
Image: Cover page of Malayalam Grihalakshmi Magazine