Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Reflections on a Photograph of a Mother and Child


A mirror held up to an entire world of women’s issues.

A photograph of Licia Ronzulli, an Italian representative to the European Parliament, taken in September 2010 was recently recirculated online, generating much discussion among young Iranian feminists. The bone of contention seems to be what a feminist should think of the image. On one hand, it is a loving picture of a mother and her newborn that cannot but generate sympathy. On the other, the fact that the young mother is a politician and is captured here in a public forum -- a parliament session in Strasbourg -- seems to be jarring to some feminists. Those who are offended apparently wish to project and affirm professional personae unencumbered by patriarchal models that define women as properly mothers alone, like that celebrated and imposed, for example, in the Islamic Republic of Iran (in many ways a gender apartheid state).

Feminism, in any of its many variations and whatever its other goals, strives to empower women. Women's reproductive rights are obviously crucial: if women have the civil right to form families and voluntarily bear children when they choose to, then it becomes imperative that they are able to nourish their children in ways that correspond with their overall situation. While most of us are acutely aware of patriarchal value-systems (religious, secular, or ideological) that abuse women’s reproductive ability to bear children to curtail their rights and confine them to lesser roles, it is also important to remember that while we fight for equal rights in the realm of law and society, we must not forget that if and when women voluntarily choose to have children, then those same laws and norms should apply to their need to, for example, breastfeed wherever they may happen to be.

Until recently in many cultures, breastfeeding was deeply taboo and even explicitly prohibited in public. Often the same societies that have little practical qualms with capitalizing on women’s bodies in pornographic contexts, still deem it unseemly for a mother to openly feed her child in the most natural manner. A publicly bared breast is thus deemed acceptable for male recreational consumption but not for its primary biological function. Not long ago, female members of the British Parliament were asked to breastfeed in public toilets, while on the streets outside, the newsstands were draped with magazines promoting women’s naked flesh.

Increasingly, women have to fight the devastating marketing policies of breast-milk replacement companies such as Nestlé, which are reportedly responsible for the death of countless children around the world, to provide their children with their own milk, which is medically proven to give children the best start in life. Hence the introduction of sophisticated electric and handheld milk pumps that help mothers store and refrigerate their milk so, when they need to be away from home, someone else can feed their children nutritiously.

While I love the gesture in this picture -- that parenthood is an integral part of citizenship and the public workforce -- there is something here to take issue with: the fact that Licia Ronzulli is a member of Silvio Berlusconi's The People of Freedom, which is among the most right-wing, patriarchal political parties in Europe. Before we celebrate or dismiss Ronzulli's act, before we expect one thing or another of women, we must ensure that their rights are secured by law and social practice.

While naturally as a feminist, I too firmly believe that women’s role should never be confined to motherhood, and certainly not to the patriarchal readings of it that have oppressed women since time immemorial, I also believe that once we have won the fight to access free and legal birth control, reproductive health care (including safe abortion), and pre- and postnatal care, and won the fight for the right to work, a minimum year’s paid maternity and paternity leave on the Swedish model, and universal high-quality childcare and education so that parents can actually continue to work, then I see no problem with women choosing, voluntarily, to bring their children to their workplaces. God knows how many times my husband or I -- we alternate “babysitting” duties -- have wanted to attend a conference or an event if only it were child-friendly.

There is an additional class issue here. What Ronzulli did at the European Parliament was a luxury at best, since she could hypothetically pump her milk prior to leaving home and afford to hire someone to look after her child. But she has instead opted to bring her newborn with her to work, most probably because it would ease the delicate phase of early breastfeeding (for me personally, this phase was among the most painful and challenging things I have ever done). It is important to remember that contrary to the rare Scandinavian model, most professional women in Italy (where their numbers are still terribly low) and the United States leave their children with domestic workers from the first or second week after birth, because that’s all the meager maternity leave most employers allow.

The domestic workers that are left to look after professional women’s children have in turn left their own children in their homelands to work in "free market" societies where they lack any labor protections. Many are paid vanishingly small wages, many are abused, and their children back home suffer. Middle-class women's "right" to work is thus largely contingent on the oppression of impoverished Third World women.

The politics of motherhood is complex and before we dismiss or celebrate any aspect of it, we must first place it within the larger picture of women's full reproductive rights -- their right to be or not to be mothers, to choose or not to choose to stay at home with their children, to breastfeed or not to breastfeed, without any cultural or political pressure either way.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a prime example of a state that has utterly politicized and abused the role of motherhood to the disadvantage of most women. It called on them to be revolutionary foot soldiers, and then to return home to raise martyrs and be servants of the state. So I can understand that from an urban, educated perspective, the issues surrounding motherhood may seem insignificant or even a realm that must be denied in order to reject patriarchy. Young women who have access to affordable birth control and reproductive health care may prioritize other aspects of women's rights and even belittle issues involving working mothers. But let us never forget that there are billions of women around the world who simply have no practical (or even legal) access to effective birth control and who simply cannot afford any form of childcare other than taking their children with them to work. We must remember that most women around the world have to work and have no choice in that matter whatsoever. The task ahead of us is huge, but well worth taking on. We all have much to contribute to our understanding of women's vastly different experiences, needs, struggles, and triumphs.

Golbarg Bashi is a feminist professor of Iranian studies at Rutgers University, mother of two young children, and a freelance photographer.

1 comment:

  1. I thought it was a lovely picture of Licia Ronzulli and her child, how on earth can anyone be offended by this? Very odd indeed. Also, great article, enjoyed the read.