Academic journal article Asian Social Science

Understanding Religion and Social Expectations in Contemporary Muslim Society When Promoting Breastfeeding

Academic journal article Asian Social Science

Understanding Religion and Social Expectations in Contemporary Muslim Society When Promoting Breastfeeding

Article excerpt

Abstract

The paper aims to examine religious and cultural issues with regards to breastfeeding and explore how this awareness can improve breastfeeding promotion in a contemporary Muslim society. Focusing specifically on Malay women, the study looks at how breastfeeding is being negotiated into women's understanding of modesty in Islam and how this may affect the practice of breastfeeding in public. Using qualitative approach, nine focus groups were conducted among Malay mothers in different parts of Malaysia to explore their experiences breastfeeding in different locations. The respondents were also asked to comment on a breastfeeding picture taken from a local magazine to explore their level of acceptance and responses to image of breastfeeding in the media. It was observed that Malay women were very concerned about Islamic rules with regards to female modesty but often negotiated the sexualized breasts into their overall understanding. The combination of these concerns has discouraged many Malay women to breastfeed in public. The study also found that while many respondents are not comfortable with the idea of having images of Muslim breastfeeding women in the media, their concerns are all related to religious matters. The study suggests that images of Muslim women breastfeeding can and should be used in any promotional items in order to make it a culturally accepted behavior but must also adhere to Islamic rulings.

Keywords: Malay, breastfeeding, culture, Islam, health promotion

1. Introduction

Breastfeeding is complex not because of its biological nature but because it is deeply embedded within society's social context and cultural practices (Britten, 2009, p. 310). In her article entitled 'Breastfeeding.* A natural phenomenon or a cultural construct? ' Cathryn Britton (2009) writes about breastfeeding as a social experience (p. 307) and highlights that culture plays an important role in how a woman understands her breasts and their functions in everyday life (p. 310).

Kukla (2006b) argues that the sexualized status inscribed on breasts can contribute to mothers' feeling vulnerable to nurse in public spaces. As she explained, 'Breastfeeding [in public space] opens women to offended, sexualized and even violent and punitive gazes,' (p. 163). This sexualized status inscribed on breasts may also generate other dilemmas such as the designation of public and private space and the notion of domesticity.

However, in Malaysia, sexualized breasts are not the only reason women feel uncomfortable to breastfeed in public. In Islam, women are bound by religious rules that do not allow them to show their skin in the presence of non-Mahram (Note 1) males (except for the face and hands). This has made breastfeeding physically and emotionally difficult for women to perform in public areas and often deters many from breastfeeding in public. With this additional social expectation, Muslim mothers in the 21st century are put into an even more complex predicament. Understanding mothers' dilemmas with regards to this issue could generate a better understanding and improve health practitioners' and health policy makers' approach in future breastfeeding promotion for Muslim mothers / in Muslim society.

Breastfeeding is mentioned in several verses in the Quran, which include in its very first chapter, Surah Al-Baqarah. The verses in Surah Al-Baqarah emphasized responsibility for parents to provide breast milk to their children during the first two years of life. The verses state:

Mothers suckle their children for two whole years, if they wish to complete the term, and clothing and maintenance must be borne by the father in a fair manner If by a mutual consent and consultation, the couple wish to wean (the child), they will not be blamed, nor will there be any blame if you wish to engage a wet nurse, provided you pay as agreed in a fair manner. Be mindful of God, knowing He sees everything you do. (Translation from the Quran, Surah Al-Baqarah v. …

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