Udder Nonsense

Religious extremes: breastfeeding fatwas in Saudi Arabia.

Posted Jul 01, 2010

The blogosphere is abuzz with a recent breast-feeding fatwa or religious ruling in the Saudi world. Sheik Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, a scholar and consultant at Saudi Arabia's royal court, called for women to suckle their drivers and male coworkers in order to avoid illicit mixing of the sexes. Yes, you heard me.

According to conservative Islam, if a woman breast-feeds a man five times the two are considered "relatives" rather than potential lovers. They are therefore allowed to intermingle or be alone together. This milk-relationship permits other familiarities normally forbidden between an unmarried man and woman: the woman can also remove her veil and reveal her hair.

The strict Wahhabi form of Islam is the official religion of Saudi Arabia.  It holds that breast-feeding creates a maternal bond and symbolically turns the male colleague into the woman's son -- thus precluding any sexual relations. Prominent clerics disagree over whether the women should nurse the man directly at her breast or pump her milk out and serve it to him in a glass.

Yet I'm stumbling over the cultural (il)logic here, which stems from anxieties over gender desegregation. As men latch on (or drink up), what about the erotics between the symbolically cast mother and son? And who doesn't like engorged breasts and sweet, warm milk? Sexual arousal from breast-feeding, sometimes referred to as "erotic lactation," has even carved a niche market here in the West in the genre of lactation pornography.

Saudis, themselves, mock the reasoning behind the fatwa. Female blogger Eman Al Nafjan addresses the subject with unusual moxie:

"The whole issue just shows how clueless men are. All this back and forth between sheiks, and not one bothers to ask a woman if it is logical, let alone possible, to breastfeed a grown man five fulfilling breast-milk meals... the thought of a huge hairy face at a woman's breast does not evoke motherly or even brotherly feelings. It could go from the grotesque to the erotic, but definitely not maternal!"

However, the maternal is erotic. What mother hasn't felt, at times, the tit/illation during breast-feeding -- the lips at her nipple, the hands and fingers of an infant tracing the surface of her bosom during nursing? Many psychoanalysts, in fact, support the claim that breast-feeding is the precursor of every sexual relation. Freud said that this first and most vital act of sucking is echoed in adult life by the activity of kissing. 

Religious and political leaders in the Arab world declare that recent fatwa practices are causing a crisis in Islam because they promote extremist behavior and intolerance.  We, ourselves, in the West, must be mindful not to use what we hear of such decrees as a way of dehumanizing Arabs, of turning Muslims into "them" -- as distinct from "us." Certainly, we contend with our own brand of Christian fundamentalism (approximately 25-30% of the U.S. population) and its literalist devotion to a "divine" text.  It's, in fact, a struggle we share with Islam.

Following the recent announcement of the breast-feeding mandate, a bus driver in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia reportedly approached one of the teachers whom he habitually chauffeurs in order to suckle at her breast. In response, the teacher slapped him with the threat of lawsuit. 

Such mammary madness, which fueled a week's worth of headlines in the oil-rich Saudi kingdom highlights the challenges many Muslim scholars face as they strive to interpret their faith while also preserving balance and flexibility in Islamic law. The controversial decree also sparked outrage in many Islamic communities that are trying to adapt the teachings of the Koran to the embodied realities of modern life.

"Cimon & Pero" (1523-25), engraving by German printmaker Hans Sebald Beham.

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