Twenty nine-year-old Kolkata resident Abhilasha Arup DasAdhikari’s phone has not stopped ringing for the past few days. Last Tuesday, she made a complaint on a mall’s Facebook page about its lack of facilities for breastfeeding women. The complaint and the mall’s initial response referring to breastfeeding as a “home chore” have made national and international headlines. But the incident has also triggered the countrywide campaign for #freedomtonurse by members of the online platform Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers.

The group is planning an awareness drive on Sunday across major cities, where women will talk about why they should not be forced to leave a premises or be allowed to breastfeed only at specific places. In some countries like the Ireland, United Kingdom and the United States, it is illegal to ask a woman to leave a premises if she is breastfeeding.

The #freedomtonurse campaign’s goal is also to create an environment where nursing mothers do not feel anxious stepping out with their babies and do not fear any kind of harassment. Meanwhile, a photo story campaign is catching on online featuring women holding placards and talking about unpleasant experiences and inconveniences they have faced while nursing in public.

In Kolkata, the mall where DasAdhikari was harassed, has turned down a request to hold the demonstration there.

As I spoke to DasAdhikari’s over the phone, I heard her seven-month-old daughter coo and cry. I offered to call back later. “No, no, I’ll nurse her while talking to you and she’ll be fine,” she said, demonstrating a calmness a nursing mother tends to feel in the security of her home, which is in sharp contrast with the air of disapproval and anxiety that she is confronted with when she attempts to feed in public.

DasAdhikari’s daughter has been running a fever since the day her post created a furore online. When she took her baby to the paediatrician on Friday, she overheard a nurse in the hospital talking about the incident to another patient. “The nurse didn’t realise I was the woman who had made the complaint. She was saying things like, ‘Why did she have to take her baby to the mall, why can’t she stay at home?’”

Photo story campaign for the freedom to nurse. (Photo: Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers)

At the mall

Last Sunday evening, DasAdhikari visited South City Mall, which is described on its Facebook page as “Kolkata’s landmark shoppers paradise”. When her daughter started to get restless, she looked around for a feeding room. She could not find one on the first and second floors, where the washroom staff suggested she feed in the toilet. “I entered the toilet but felt like puking so left from there,” said DasAdhikari. “I then started looking for a bench to breastfeed but alas there are so few benches and that too so uncomfortable. I thought of going inside INOX to feed but they didn’t allow me to enter. Finally I thought of using a trial room and requested a shop which was totally empty to help me, and they did.”

DasAdhikari left a review on the mall’s Facebook page on Tuesday saying that it did not have any place to breastfeed, to which the mall first responded by saying that the mall was meant for shopping and that DasAdhikari should “make sure you do your home chores at home and not in the mall”. It also said that she should have “planned beforehand” and that the mall had to safeguard the “privacy of other people in public places”.

“I took a screenshot,” said DasAdhikari. “I have never felt so humiliated in my life. I posted it on a few Facebook groups and went to sleep.”

When she woke up, she was greeted with a flood of comments, some of it supportive but many shaming her for daring to complain. “Many of the trolls are women, calling me an ‘attention seeking idiot woman’. They have been saying things like ‘why can’t she pump and take a bottle?’ Or ‘why can’t she stay at home?’”

The post was later deleted and the mall management apologised for the response.

Photo story campaign for the freedom to nurse. (Photo: Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers)

A new discomfort

DasAdhikari’s experience highlights two problems. One is the lack of breastfeeding facilities in public places like malls. The second, as evident by the mall’s response, is the notion that women need not and should not breastfeed in public.

What was once a perfectly acceptable thing to do in public places in India – lifting your saree pallu to nurse a hungry baby – is increasingly being treated as a private activity, forcing many parents to turn to bottle-feeding when outside the home, or not stepping out of the house at all.

Many nursing mothers, especially in urban areas, have stories about being harassed in little and big ways while nursing in public. Srividya Narendran, a teacher in Benguluru, who often nurses her toddler on the go in a baby carrier, has been at the receiving end of comments from strangers – all women – such as “oh my god, see what she is doing, feeding this big child”. One of them told Narendran that her son’s speech will be delayed for being breastfed at 18 months.

“Others made faces,” she said. “But I have fed every where, and the craziest place I have fed in is while crossing a busy intersection when he refused to settle down.”

Camilla Conti, a lactation consultant in Noida, remembers that thirteen years ago when she was nursing her child in a park, two mothers of her own age came to tell her off. “Note that I was using a feeding T-shirt and nothing was visible,” she said.

Four years ago as a new mother who was often out and about with my son, I learnt of three magical words through my breastfeeding peer support group – two-shirt method. This is a clever trick of wearing a stretchy camisole under a shirt so that you can pull the shirt up and the tank down to nurse discreetly in public. And so I fed everywhere – in trains and planes and malls and theatres, without needing a nursing cover which my son disliked or needing to look for a baby room, though the latter was always helpful for diaper changes. I was once shamed for nursing in public on a half-empty Shatabdi from Bengaluru to Mysuru, by an elderly woman who shook her head vigorously in disapproval and changed her seat so she was not facing me anymore.

DasAdhikari’s post spurred the founder of Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers, Adhunika Prakash, to start the #freedomtonurse campaign. “I felt despair and disappointment at the way the representative from South City Mall had called breastfeeding a ‘home chore’ that needs to be done at home,” she said. “While the mall has published an apology for the comment, I feel this is how the general public perceives breastfeeding, and this is exactly the mindset that we need to work on changing.”

Prakash herself has been asked to breastfeed in a toilet at an upscale restaurant in Pune. At that time, she had been breastfeeding for four years already and had the confidence to politely inform the individual that she would not be going to a toilet because that is not a place to breastfeed.

“I, however, can understand how a new mother would have felt if given the same advice,” she said. “The over-sexualization of breasts has led people to forget that the primary purpose of lactating breasts is to provide nutrition to children.”

Freedom to nurse

Prakash strongly feels that women should be empowered to breastfeed anywhere, anytime. Nursing rooms can be useful in the initial stages when a new mother is getting used to stepping out with her baby and lacks the confidence to breastfeed in public, and it would be good to have a law that makes it mandatory for commercial places to have them. But Prakash recognises that there cannot possibly be breastfeeding rooms everywhere that a mother will go. “Which is why it is important to help these mothers gain confidence and also work on changing the mentality around breastfeeding in public,” she said.

The #freedomtonurse campaign also comes at a time when more women are pushing to reclaim public spaces.

Conti believes that seeing women breastfeed is highly educational and if it was more a more common sight, there would be fewer breastfeeding problems to solve. With more openness, fewer women might have to struggle with problems of the infant latching on to the breast, understanding how to hold a nursing baby and understanding the concept of nursing on demand, that is, responding to a baby’s hunger cues and feeding till he baby is satisfied.

“We are very comfortable with an organ that is meant for feeding being showed in all possible ways except when it is even mildly exposed during the act of doing the job it is meant to do by nature,” said Conti.

Peer support networks like Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers are helping increase awareness amongst social media savvy mothers that feeding in public is possible and it is their right. Even so, episodes of harassment put mothers in a very difficult psychological frame and undermining their confidence. This in turn can and seriously harm their babies’ health because delays in breastfeeding are detrimental. Conti goes so far as to say that harassing a breastfeeding mother “touches her most intimate feelings about her own body as well as her relationship with her infant and therefore it holds the gravity of sexual abuse”. What we need, she said, is more disobedience, loud voices, proud stubbornness, education and fighting spirit. The #freedomtonurse could be all that and more.