By Sheerene Mohamed
Sheerene Mohamed is a B.A./LL.B. (Hons.) student at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS) in Kochi, India.
An Indian regional magazine, Grihalakshmi, published their March 2018 issue, featuring an actress suckling a baby with her breast uncovered and nipple concealed by the baby’s mouth . The headline reads “Mothers tell Kerala [the Indian state where the magazine circulated], ‘please don’t stare, we need to breastfeed’”.
The cover and corresponding article was intended to create awareness amongst members of Indian society about the struggles faced by nursing mothers on International Women’s Day. According to the magazine’s editor, the cover’s purpose was to lessen the stigma surrounding the activity . However, the cover received mixed reviews, with some vociferously applauding the move as a long-time necessity, while more conservative readers harshly criticised the actress and the content. Others criticised the model for wearing sindoor (a vermillion powder which married Hindu women wear on heads to signify that they are married) and a mangalsutra (a necklace which a Hindu bridegroom ties around the bride’s neck), as it failed to represent single or unmarried mothers. The most extreme reaction was a court case filed against the actress and the magazine, for violations of Section 3 and 4 of the Indian Indecent Representation of Women’s Act, 1986 . The complaint alleges that “the picture is lascivious in nature, appealing to prurient interests and tends to degrade the dignity of womanhood.”
Curiously enough, India isn’t the only country where public breastfeeding is looked down upon. American mothers have as difficult a time nursing their progeny as their Indian counterparts. A quick search on public breastfeeding highlights the number of Americans mothers who have been shamed for breastfeeding their babies or uploading pictures of themselves on social media doing so. In a similar incident to Grihalakshmi’s, a U.S. magazine called Babytalk also received backlash from its readers for featuring a baby nursing at a bare breast . Even more surprising is that public breastfeeding is in fact protected by law in 49 American states, D.C. and the Virgin Islands, a position yet to be taken by the Indian legislature .
In contrast, Indian courts are unlikely to order censorship of magazine pictures such as Grihalakshmi. In Aveek Sarkar v. State of West Bengal, the Court considered whether a nude photograph of Boris Becker and his darker skinned fiancée Barbara Feltus would violate the Indecent Representation of Women Act . As it was widely known that the picture was intended to make a statement against apartheid and racism in Germany, the Supreme Court opined that it could not “incite lustful thoughts”. The Court also took into account that the photographer was Feltus’ father, serving to reinforce the idea that the context and background of the photo were relevant to determine its obscenity.
But if Courts can take such a liberal view, what stops the legislature? According to Section 2(c) of the Indecent Representation of Women Act, “indecent representation of women” is defined as “the depiction in any manner of the figure of a woman, her form or body or any part thereof in such a way as to have the effect of being indecent, or derogatory to, or denigrate or denigrating, women, or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals .”
Though well meaning, the Act does not envision a circumstance where a woman may want to display her body on a magazine or use her body for a particular cause, which serves to reinforce patriarchal ideas of what a woman should be depicted as. This Act no longer finds place in 2018 without this valuable exemption, though it may have been relevant in 1986. Its vague definition of “indecent representation” makes it impossible to argue for the freedom of a woman’s autonomy over her own body, as it makes no mention of consent. The obvious use of passive voice in its wording also makes the definition even more difficult to be reconciled with. Almost any depiction of a woman’s body or breasts could serve to “deprave and corrupt public morals”. It ultimately propagates moral policing or shaming of women’s bodies in society.
Interestingly, the Act exempts the depiction of women in relation to ancient monuments, Hindu idols, or temples from its application, re-enforcing the double standard . Ancient Indians had no qualms about women being depicted with their breasts visible, nor was there any custom of censorship. Indian culture has so many strong women in its history and mythology, that it is perhaps the Western influence of sexualisation of breasts which has resulted in it being considered “depraving public morals”.
India still has a long way to go in protecting public breastfeeding through legislation, and an even longer way in changing public opinion towards breast exposure, for breastfeeding or otherwise. We can only hope that in the years to come, Indian women will be able to depict themselves in whichever way they choose.
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/01/kerala-magazine-challenges-indias-breastfeeding-taboo Retrieved on June 13, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-43238253
http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/case-filed-against-grihalakshmi/article22909196.ece Retrieved on June 14, 2018.
 https://www.cbsnews.com/news/breast-feeding-cover-sparks-debate/ Retrieved on June 13, 2018.
https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/01/map-where-its-legal-to-breastfeed-in-public_n_5637301.html Retrieved on June 14, 2018.
 https://indiankanoon.org/doc/195958005/ Retrieved on June 14, 2018.
 http://www.wcd.nic.in/act/indecent-representation-women Retrieved on June 14, 2018.
 Section 4(a) of the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986.
Photo Credit: Grihalakshmi Magazine
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