There is much hullaballoo out there in social media on the controversial cover of Grihalakshmi magazine featuring a woman breastfeeding her baby. Model Gilu Joseph is featured on the cover of the Malayalam magazine, dated 1-15 March, 2018, with a headline, “Mums tell Kerala: don’t stare – we need to breastfeed”.
Controversy has got ignited because a local advocate, Vinod Mathew Wilson, has moved a local court in Kollam over the depiction in the picture on the cover of the magazine in what he calls “lascivious in nature, appealing to prurient interests and tends to degrade the dignity of womanhood”. Wilson seeks action against the publication under Sections 3 and 4 of The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986. Parallelly, social media is all abuzz with bouquets and brickbats in almost equal measure.
In another part of the world, almost by coincidence, the brand Gap broke a campaign in the UK on February 27, featuring Nigerian US-based model, Adaora Akubilo breastfeeding her 20-month-old son, Arinze. The actual campaign had come about quite by accident when the said model started to breastfeed her son during a shooting break and someone took a few candid shots. Gap decided to convert it into an Instagram campaign, which now is being massively applauded in the UK. The Gap campaign was mentioned on Campaign UK last week.
This surely is different strokes for different folks.
In India, the entire controversy has moved onto a different stratosphere. The foremost of these is the vermillion angle. Model Gilu is a Christian, she is not married and is not a mother. In the cover shoot, she is made to look like a Hindu, complete with ‘sindoor’ in her ‘maang’, a ‘bindi’ on her forehead, a ‘mangalsutra’ around her neck and a ‘saree’ as her dress. So, the entire controversy has taken on religious overtones, in addition to the original breastfeeding fracas. Also, in the crossfire, is the issue whether the magazine had any right to prejudge motherhood basis being married, or divorced or being single.
Of course, whether the breastfeeding shot is sincere in intent, or just meant to titillate remains at the heart of the raging social media debate. On the other hand, Gap’s almost could-miss-it-in-a-blink Instagram campaign is gathering positive momentum in trade press and social media across the world. Gap is being lauded for a sensitive portrayal that helps to ‘normalize breastfeeding’. It is seen as a campaign that encourages and empowers all women to “be the woman they want to be as a friend, partner, wife, mother and voice in today’s society”. The campaign has so far attracted 33,000 likes and nearly 2,000 comments. That really is wonderful news for Gap.
Which brings us back to our home country. Are we too prudish? Are we too conservative? Are we looking to create issues where none exist? Perhaps, yes and no. As The Telegraph UK put it, the controversy is pregnant with “issues of taste, morality, and sensationalism”. The UK newspaper goes on to say that the “cover is a bold one for socially conservative India but the magazine’s editors said they wanted to make a statement on the ‘taboo’ that still surrounds public breastfeeding in the country”. For the record, Grihalakshmi’s campaign ‘Breastfeed freely’ is a part of its International Women’s Day celebrations and was inspired by a real 23-year-old mother known as Amritha, whose breastfeeding photo went viral, after it was shared by her husband, Biju. But, for most critics, the cover is in bad taste and can in no way play any major role in stimulating a public display of breastfeeding without social pressures.
Who is right and who is wrong, will now be decided by the courts in Kerala. Till then social media will continue to take sides as the controversy takes on global proportions and finds mention in media all over the world. Gap’s campaign meanwhile continues to bask in its own glory, giving it enough reason for some well-earned breast-beating!
(Carol Goyal is a Mumbai-based lawyer, who also writes on subjects of branding, marketing and communication.)
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