“Can you come and squirt some of your breast milk into our nephew’s eyes? He’s got sore eyes, and it will help them.”
At the time I was asked, I was young, still unsure of myself as a new mother and as someone living in a new culture, and that was the first time that I had heard of breast milk as a cure for conjunctivitis. I was horrified at the thought, and at the exposure required; so I found some excuse and didn’t go down to the neighbour’s apartment to lactate as requested. A more courageous friend was faced with the same situation in Muslim country in another region of the world. She recalls, “Having to drip breast milk direct from my breast into a stranger’s eye is certainly one of my more bizarre cross-cultural experiences.” (I should note that the understanding that breast milk is helpful in treating conjunctivitis is not a specifically Muslim understanding, but has been endorsed by many, including some doctors in western countries.)
Breastfeeding can be an intimate experience shared between mother and child. However attitudes to it vary around the world. In some cultural contexts it must be done in private, or in a very discreet corner if it is in public space, with the breast completely covered up. In other situations a pendulous breast may be prominently displayed as the demanding infant gropes for it and attaches him/her self. I remember sitting with a group of Indigenous women when a toddler became hungry, but his mother was busy elsewhere. The toddler was passed to the nearest lactating woman and she fed him, satisfying his hunger. In other settings, women may feel unsure about breastfeeding a child that is not theirs. Weaning may happen at different times, according to what works biologically, and there are also cultural factors. I breastfed my children for about two years, which was normal in the surrounding culture. In Mongolia, children may be breastfed for longer – maybe for four or six years, or until the child is nine – or maybe more.[i]
Not just how and where it is done, but the significance of breastfeeding varies in different cultures. Within Islam foster-milk relationships constitute a legal mother-child relationship, so that the children of the suckling mother are not able to marry another unrelated child whom she has suckled. The Qur’an lists suckling connections among the forbidden incestual relationships:
Forbidden to you (for marriage) are: your mothers, your daughters, your sisters … your foster mothers who gave you suck, your foster milk suckling sisters, … (An-Nisa’ 4:23).
The hadith confirm it:
Narrated ‘Aisha: (the wife of the Prophet) that while Allah’s Apostle was with her, she heard a voice of a man asking permission to enter the house of Hafsa. ‘Aisha added: I said, “O Allah’s Apostle! This man is asking permission to enter your house.” The Prophet said, “I think he is so-and-so,” naming the foster-uncle of Hafsa. ‘Aisha said, “If so-and-so,” naming her foster uncle, “were living, could he enter upon me?” The Prophet said, “Yes, for foster suckling relations make all those things unlawful which are unlawful through corresponding birth (blood) relations.” (al-Bukhari, Book #62, Hadith #36)[ii]
The understanding of maternal milk as constituting a spiritual or legal bond goes back before the beginning of Islam. It exists in some other groups, where milk kinship could cross class and status, including in Hindu Kush society. It can even cross species. One ethnographic study suggests that ‘among the Transkei in Africa “if a man drinks milk from the cattle of a lineage other than his own he may not thereafter marry a woman of the lineage”’ (El Guindi 2020: 89). In Papua New Guinea, where pigs have great economic, political and religious importance, women may breastfeed baby pigs: and some have speculated about the spiritual bond that may be generated through doing so.
The intimacy of the breast-feeding bond substantiates its strength as a relational connection. Its place within the women’s world may be the reason that male anthropologists have tended to classify it as ‘fictive’ kinship as contrasted with ‘real’ kinship ties that are based on blood (consanguineal) or marriage (affinal). However El Guindi argues powerfully in her book Suckling that within Islam suckling kinship is as strong and legally binding as kinship by blood or marriage (and more powerful than adoption, which is not legal within Islam, but does occur). She supports her claim by both Qur’anic injunctions around incest relationships (Al-Nisa’ 4:23) and avoidance relationships required with non-related (maharim) men (An-Nur 24:31), and ethnographic examples. (See book review.) Significantly, it is a kinship relationship that can only be conferred through women.
As a practice endorsed by the Qur’an and hadith, it would be good to find out how the foster suckling kinship operates in other non-Arab Muslim societies. You might like to ask if there are examples in the community within which you are living? What does that mean for long-term relationships – not just between woman and child, but with her other relatives or children, and the suckling child? What is allowed in terms of marriage? Being able to mix with or without veiling?
How do we understand the place of breastfeeding, both in how it is practiced in our community, and in faith? The mystery of God’s incarnation in Jesus extends to his birth from Mary’s womb, and his nourishment as a toddler. One writer reflects, “Jesus was so embodied that he needed to suckle at his mother’s breast, just as my son does. He was nourished by her body so he could redeem us with his.”[iii] Numerous pictures and sculptures have been inspired by the concept of Mary breastfeeding Jesus. In the vulnerability of God become human in Jesus, the feeding of humanity by faith on the shed blood and broken body of Jesus was first preceded by Jesus feeding on humanity, as he received the nourishment of breast milk.
Picture credits to: Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz from Pexels; Image by planet_fox from Pixabay, ; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nursing_Madonna. Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Orazio Gentileschi, c. 1628, Louvre.
(c) When Women Speak… June 2021
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women.
Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and Doctor of Theology (Melbourne School of Theology).