A Sign of Modernization: Saudi Clerics Promote Kinship by Sharing Breast Milk

Two Saudi clerics have followed an Egyptian one in advocating breast-milk feeding as a way of establishing kinship between men and women, which would then allow the two to be in each others’ presence when the woman is alone and unveiled.

The things driving this legal advice or fatwa are first of all that Saudis mostly practice the Wahhabi form of Islam and people in the Arabian Peninsula generally tend to be more strict about the notion of gender segregation. Segregating women from unrelated males and having them veil when they go out of the house is not in the Qur’an and historians think they are customs adopted into early Islam by the Arab aristocracy from the Byzantines and ancient Iranians. The Qur’an just says a woman should cover her charms (zinah), and I suspect women in ancient pagan Arabia, where it is very hot, went about as those in some parts of subsaharan Africa still do, with very little clothing on, and the Qur’an just wanted them to cover up a bit. There is no mention in it of a face veil or even headscarf per se. And the only mention of anything like seclusion concerns the Prophet’s wives, and cannot be taken to refer to all Muslim women (in fact early Muslims would have probably thought it blasphemous to put ordinary women in that legal category).

Most Muslim women in history never veiled or were secluded. Pastoral nomads were a significant proportion of most Middle Eastern societies, and their women rode camels and horses outside during migrations to where the pasturage popped up. And peasant women worked the fields and could not be secluded or mostly afford to veil. Only in the past two centuries has veiling and sometimes seclusion been adopted in some Muslim countries as a sign of upward mobility (since these were aristocratic customs they are ways of putting on airs if you bet better off some year).

Since the Saudi religious authorities are so worried about secluding women, they are inevitably also worried about the ways in which contemporary societies and economies increasingly make such practices (which were only practical in the past for the very rich anyway) impossible.

Thus the appeal to “milk kinship.” Now, milk kinship is in fact a social institution in premodern Muslim societies, but it was not typically appealed to with regard to loosening gender segregation (which anyway was not so common in the medieval period). Where upper-class families had a nanny she might breastfeed the aristocratic baby at the same time that she breastfed her own infant, and that practice was considered to make the children a kind of sibling. Then the aristocratic could never take the daughter of his nanny to wife, and he might give special promotions or patronage to his ‘milk brother,’ the nanny’s son. These customs existed everywhere from Iran to Senegal, though they affected a small sliver of Muslim society.

I don’t always recommend a wiki article, but this one , which compares milk kinship in Islam to god-parenting in Christianity, is pretty good if not well sourced.

If you weren’t religious or weren’t Wahhabi, you could just suggest that strictures on women and men mixing socially are hidebound and more customary than Islamic, and just change the practice. Hundreds of millions of modern Muslims practice gender mixing (Saudi Arabia, which Westerners often misunderstand as having a normative Islam, is viewed by most Muslims as an outlier). In fact, the spread of the headscarf in places like Egypt is probably not a sign so much of increased female conservatism but an attempt to make it all right for women to enter the public sphere in much greater numbers (also women wearing headscarfs are a little bit less likely to be pinched and harassed by men in public). But such an argument would not work in Saudi Arabia, where the authorities are zealous about Wahhabi tradition.

Gender segregation is not only a practice of conservative Muslims. It is also in more rigid strains of Orthodox Judaism in the US and Israel; in the US, Orthodox schoolboys objected to having a woman bus driver, and in Israel Orthodox women are expected to sit at the back of the bus (one refused and was beaten).

Actually, gender segregation is quite common in Asia and I can remember it being difficult for a woman in India who had been elected to the board of a village NGO to meet with her male colleagues.

So the Saudi clerics are tinkering with the tradition, since in the past it concerned a wetnurse and children under 5, not adult women and adult men. And when that change is made, it becomes weird. But it isn’t a sign of conservatism (it departs from the traditional custom into new territory). It is a sign of modernism. It is an attempt to create a wider circle of men with whom women can legitimately interact in public.

15 Responses

  1. Actually, I am just as offended now as I was initially. Not only do I consider myself fully capable of being modern *and* covered, I fully believe that the injunction for Muslim women to cover their heads does indeed lie in the Wur’an itself. The word used in 24:31 is khumurihinna. The word khimar has always referred to a head covering. Its meaning did not change after the revelation of 24:31 to mean simply “scarf” or “chest covering,” as would have been the case if the Qur’an had advised women that they could drop the scarf off their heads and replace it on their chests. In addition, the “-hinna” ending specifies that the khumur in question belonged to the women of the time. That is to say, we are just as obligated to cover are heads as was the custom of the women of the time; and every women who reacted to the revelation of 24:31 did so by unrolling the tails of their headcoverings and laying them over their chests while continuing to cover their heads. Furthermore, I take the meaning of the verb used in that verse to imply that the main body of an item remains in place while parts of it are extended out. The body of hadith literature also backs up the legitimacy of the Islamic obligation for women to cover their heads – not only with the saying of Prophet Muhammad to Asma to cover except the face and hands, but also with other references to tin and antimony, and by other ahadith present in Shia Muslim literature in which women were specifically advised to cover their heads and arms.

    And again, I repeat: I am fully modern, and I cover my head in front of men. Your insinuation that I am not modern because I cover up insults me.

    • Setting textual issues aside, as an atheist, what surprises me is that no one seems to question why an an omnipotent God would care if you covered your head or not (and this, of course, applies to all religions with this requirement, not just Islam). It seems superficial and random, more like attire used for the purposes of tribal self-segregation (yarmulke) or (with regard to Islam) enforcing gender-roles. But I guess the whole point of faith is not to ask questions, certainly not “tell me again, why are we supposed to do this? God want us to wear hats? Really? Well, okay…”

      Also, Juan, your headline conjures up an entirely different image than what is contained in the article.

  2. Although I am familiar with the meaning of breast feeding kinship, even Christians in the middle-east use the term “siblings in breast breast feeging”, whether by a nanny or even a neighbor. And christians usually associated with closness after the kids grow up, I still can’t get your point when you said “in the past it concearned wetnude and children under 5, not adult women and adult men”. Does that mean that a woman can freeze her breast milk and when her daughter grows up, she can give the men she wants to socialize with as friends that breast milk? That would be even more modern than our modern Christian comunity where you can only socialize whith a well known male friends from school, if you are not in catholic school, or what is customarry for Christian to get to know each other during the engagement period. Breaking the engagement is not such a huge deal if they don’t get along. So if you can explain what you meant it’s not children under 5 but adults that would be nice because adults can’t nurse.

  3. I find this idea intrusive and disturbing. If the only way a woman can show her face around a man is to let him suck on her breast first (yes, that’s what breastfeeding is), I don’t care if it is conservative or liberal. I would rather wear a burka.
    Furthermore, New TV in Lebanon has been bring this fatwa up as a sign of the insanity of the Saudi Clerics for some time. I don’t understand how you can be complacent about this idea. Maybe, as a man, you can’t relate to what a drastic intrusion this would be.

  4. I can see where you’re coming from Juan, but, as a Muslim, I find this just another creepy “fatwa” by a couple of clerics, who are then railed against by the majority of Muslims becuse what they say makes no sense whatsoever and one that will lead to endless questions about how to practise what they say and lots of incidents as the one described in that article.

  5. This certainly could put a ‘milk moustache’ in an entirely different category from what we think of now.

    More seriously, the Egyptian professor lost his job for a couple of years. An elderly woman was whipped 40 times and imprisoned for 6 months for having someone bring her bread when she was unable to go out.

    Meanwhile, Wahhabist clerics argue about milk from a woman’s breast versus milk that is breast pumped and served in a glass? As a woman commenting, I’m guessing they haven’t asked for a feminine perspective.

    I researched this for a similar piece I wrote on Penigma.blogspot.com – you left out what I thought was an interesting ‘wrinkle’ in this theological discussion, one which strikes me as very like an argument about how many angels can sit or stand or dance on the head of a pin. It seems that in the cases of this kind of ‘milk kinship’, drinking milk from the breast of one woman in the house vaccinates you so that you are safe with all of them unveiled. And of course also renders them unavailable for marriage, making any such relationship incestuous. This limitation would presumably restrict such milk kinship to (pardon the pun) relatively few people.

    Apart from the obvious logistical constraints of women only usually lactating during specific periods of their lives, although in many islamic countries this continues for longer than in the west, unless you put breast milk on ice and thaw it out to welcome your designated recipient, you’re probably not going to have it when you want it. And using it fresh will possibly deprive an infant of necessary nourishment. And – the quantity involved is required to be substantial, not symbolic; some traditions refer to multiple full meals of breast milk being provided.

    I am female, and I am not muslim, but this strikes me as not so much an attempt to modernize, as a struggle with the recognition that their customs, religious or otherwise cultural, are not working well for them. It is a ludicrous idea, and if it is given serious consideration, they need divine intervention to get them out of the hole they have dug for themselves.

    • Exactly. Muslim or no Muslim. This is the problem when a body of conservative men sit around a table and decide what women ought to and ought not to do.

  6. Hi, I’ve never commented on your blog before, though I’ve read it for several years and found the learned perspective on Middle East affairs to be quite intelligent and enlightening.

    Do you know if this practice would involve a literal breast-feeding lips to nipple, or would drinking breast milk from a glass be symbolically sufficient?

  7. “also women wearing headscarfs are a little bit less likely to be pinched and harassed by men in public”

    Prof. Cole, could you elaborate. Are you saying that they are “little bit less likely to be” harassed because of the supposed ‘respect’ accorded to women in hijab in conservative societies?
    Or that covering up empirically makes harassment less likely in general?

    • When flicking through a tourist’s guidebook to Morocco (I’m pretty sure it was Morocco) it gave the advice that female travellers would do well to wear a headscarf. Not because it would offend the locals if they didn’t, but because it sends a fairly specific message “I am not interested in going to the hotel with you.”

      Having spoken to a woman in Australia who had chosen to wear the headscarf as a western revert to Islam, she told me that the way she was treated had changed with the addition to her wardrobe. Men, even non-muslim men, were less likely to flirt with her, less likely to use profanity in her presence, in short they were more polite to her.

      In every society what we choose to wear (if we’re allowed the choice) impacts on the way we’re seen and the way we’re treated. Some customs are very localised and won’t cross borders very well, but the headscarf seems to make the leap the between cultures fairly successfully if you can restrain yourself from an instinctive cry of “misogynist”.

  8. The insights into the pre-Islamic world are really fascinating.

  9. The Qur’an just says a woman should cover her charms (zinah), and I suspect women in ancient pagan Arabia, where it is very hot, went about as those in some parts of subsaharan Africa still do, with very little clothing on, and the Qur’an just wanted them to cover up a bit.

    Some women in sub-Saharan Africa don’t wear anything above the waist. Is that what you mean by “very little clothing”?

  10. This is a fascinating post. How about the looking at the Schlomo Sand issue next?

    I emailed to promote the idea that Juan Cole needs to take a look at this issue, but you can read why I think a new conventional wisdom is gearing up to re-establish Zionism genetically:

    link to open.salon.com


  11. BoingBoing had an article about this also link to boingboing.net. What’s interesting is that it is illustrated with a scene from a Malaysian museum showing a Confucian woman breastfeeding her father-in-law as a sign of fidelity. Commenters also mention in the thread the story of Roman Charity, where a woman Roman breastfeeds her father-in-law while he is in prison to stave off starvation, like the ending of ‘Grapes of Wrath’. link to en.wikipedia.org

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