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Malayalam magazine cover with breastfeeding model sparks a debate

The use of a model instead of a breastfeeding mother and the composition of the photo has evoked praise, outrage and reasoned criticism.

This month, the cover of Malayalam women’s magazine Grihalakshmi features the photograph of a woman breastfeeding an infant. “Mothers tell Kerala, ‘please don’t stare, we need to breastfeed,’” says the headline. The cover story is part of the magazine’s “breastfeed freely” campaign to mark International Women’s Day (March 8). It aims to encourage a public acceptance of women tend to their newborns openly.

In addition to prompting heated discussions, the magazine, published by the Mathrubhumi group, has become the subject of a court case. A Kerala advocate had moved a district court against Grihalakshmi under the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986, according to reports on Friday. The complaint alleges that the photograph is “lascivious in nature, appealing to prurient interests and tends to degrade the dignity of womanhood”, said LiveLaw.

On social media, opinion has been sharply divided on the cover, with some people lauding it as a bold move by the magazine and others panning it as a publicity gimmick.

However, beyond mere outrage, there was also reasoned criticism against the magazine’s decision to use a model instead of a lactating mother on the cover. Some also pointed out that while ostensibly taking a progressive stance by encouraging free and open breastfeeding, the magazine reiterated patriarchal norms by choosing to adorn the model, Gilu Joseph, with a sindoor and a mangalsutra, both markers of a married woman.

Some social media users pointed out using a model did not take away from the message of the campaign. The News Minute spoke to people working for Grihalakshmi, who said that they chose Joseph for the cover because it would have been hard to find a breastfeeding mother willing to be photographed, even though many were happy to share their experiences with the magazine.

Twitter user Pallavi Rao pointed out that the way the cover had been shot to reitenforce the male gaze – the depiction of women from heterosexual male point of view. She argued that the photograph would have been more effective had the woman been looking at the infant or her surroundings, instead of looking determinedly into the camera.

Meanwhile, blogger Anjana Nayyar pointed out that the magazine did have a breastfeeding mother willing to be photographed, but she was relegated to the inside pages. “A genuine mother who genuinely believed in the cause. Stood for it. Campaigned for it. She was not enough to grace the cover? So what really was the genuineness of this cover picture and the loud message below it? Excuse me, Grihalakshmi, but in my mind, you have just lost all credibility and all good intention with this. You grabbed eyeballs.”

Addressing the controversy around the photograph, Joseph told The Indian Express that she had no regrets over her decision to pose for the cover. “When I had come across the ‘Breastfeed freely’ campaign, the makers were looking for anybody who would be willing to feature on the cover page,” she said. “I grabbed the opportunity because I have never been taught that breastfeeding is a sin and something to be covered up.”

Moncy Joseph, the editor in chief of Grihalaksmi, told The News Minute that their campaign wanted to end the taboo associated with feeding in public. “So many times, new mothers are helpless when their children cry of hunger, simply because they are unable to feed in public,” the editor said. “This has to change. Breastfeeding is a matter of pride, and women have to be able to feed their children freely and openly. You don’t need feeding rooms to feed your children. So we figured that having a discussion around this would be the most relevant thing to do this Women’s Day.”

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