At the end of January this year, the Federal National Council of the UAE announced the passing of a mandatory breastfeeding clause.

Since then, my social media feeds have been dominated by commentary on this new law.  For the most part, the reaction is warranted.  It seems a strange thing to pass a law on.  How can you legislate a relationship between a mother and her newborn?  Especially if there’s little or no support, information or education on breastfeeding?  Do you know how HARD it is to establish a good nursing relationship? (I know you know.)

Then, there are all the logistics about implementing and enforcing such a law.  The questions keep mounting and they remain mostly unanswered.  Can a husband really sue his wife for not breastfeeding?  How and who will determine if a woman is unable to nurse at all?  There are far more grey areas than Westerners are used to and I suspect this is where all the hype is coming from.

The larger law, the UAE Child Rights Law, aims to protect children from all manner of abuse, neglect and exploitation.  The UAE has been harshly criticized for human rights violations in the past, so this law is both welcomed and commendable.

Clearly, there are some that feel that babies have a legally protected right to the best food they can get; their mothers’.  Being that this sentiment and added clause passed in an Islamic country make it shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding and the uproar is that much more sensational.

It’s understandable.  For those of us from the West, this region of the world is largely misunderstood due in part to the many ways it’s represented (or misrepresented) in our media.  Honestly, if I had read any of these articles before coming to the UAE, I may have reacted differently.  But, I live here now, and I’m finding that I’m not so quick to react.

Since moving here from the United States, I’ve been faced with my own (unbeknownst) prejudices and have been surprised since the day I arrived.  When you experience a part of a culture that is so distinctly different from your own, you actually do go through a bit of shock. Actually.  Your expectations and your beliefs are challenged on a daily basis.  So, you hold on, ever so tightly, to your own cultural mores and ideals.  You’re unwilling and unable to see how other cultures do things.  You’re right.  Your way is better.  The judgments seem never-ending. It is a crisis with no apparent solution because you’re just too different.  Until one day the crisis and the judgment end, and because of your experience, you can begin to understand more and more of the new and once offending culture.  You may not agree with it, or even like it, but it does make more sense to you.

I come from a secular country and now live in one whose laws are guided by the Quran.  (That’s exactly where this clause came from.) Obviously there are enormous differences between the country of my birth and that of my residence.  There are also incredible similarities.  Where I’m from women and men can wear what they want.  Believe it or not, they can here, too.  People are free to worship.  Women drive, study and work here. Women who have families go back to work, too.  They can also nurse freely, in public, with or without a cover, in peace.

The latter isn’t always true where I’m from.  Where I’m from, breastfeeding is seen, by many, as an obscene or even a sexual act and women are often kicked out of public places, given dirty looks, and/or made to feel bad for nursing their children.  Parenting and mothering are not highly valued, but work and productivity are.  Just have a look at our maternity leave in the States.  The message is clear:  Have your baby, but get back to work. Formula is fine. Your baby will be just fine.

Yet in recent years, politicians have gotten involved in trying to increase breastfeeding rates, too.  Former NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s Latch on NYC initiative followed Rhode Island’s then Massachusetts’ decision to encourage breastfeeding by not supplying new parents with loads of formula options at the hospital.  Although no laws were implemented, government stepped in, to protect the child’s best interests where society, the workplace, our expectations and our perspective have gotten out of control.

The key word here is perspective.  We can choose to see this proposed law as a mandate, an oppressive regulation meant to come down hard on women and their choices or lack thereof.  We can criticize it as such and continue to polarize ourselves.  Or, we can choose to see it as a way to encourage familial duty, to give the best possible start to every newborn that can have it.  It is as much a cultural issue as it may soon be a legal one.  Whether it’s right or wrong, it is admittedly a huge gesture at protecting every child by ensuring they are receiving the most optimal nutrition.  Is it the best way to encourage more mothers to breast feed?  Can it possibly work?  I have my own opinions, like you do, but these are questions that only time and the experiment can answer.

Image by Rapheal Goetter, creative commons license

6 Responses

  1. Victoria

    Thank you so much for such a great response! I’m also an expat in Abu Dhabi and before coming here I lived with my American husband in the US. I am breastfeeding my 18 month-old son who was born here and I, too, have been bombarded with criticism for our new home in my newsfeed regarding this new law. I completely agree with you and thank you for writing down what so many of us here think. I’ll be sharing your post! Best wishes!

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