All over the world, even in places were public breastfeeding is protected under the law, women have to continually fight for the social acceptance to do so. That's true from the United States to the United Kingdom all the way to the conservative former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, where a bold woman named Aliya Shagieva is both unapologetic about breastfeeding her son and critical of what she sees as her country's sexualization of the practice. And in a recent interview with BBC News, Shagieva, the Kyrgyz president's daughter, brilliantly responded after people freaked out about a breastfeeding photo she shared on Instagram.
The photo first hit social media back in April, and it featured Shagieva nursing her son, who was 1 month old at the time. "I will feed my child whenever and wherever he needs to be fed," the caption read.
The blowback from people claiming that the photo showcased some kind of immorality or obscene immodesty was intense. Even her parents, President Almazbek Atambayev and his wife Raisa, believed that it "could be harmful to her young family," BBC News reported — and so Shagieva, 20, removed the post from her Instagram page. But that certainly did not mean that she was done working to break down the taboo that still shrouds public breastfeeding.
In the interview with Faranak Amidi of BBC News, Shagieva pushed back against the idea that her breastfeeding photo had been inappropriate — and suggested that the problem lies with people who can't handle breastfeeding women, not the women themselves:
This body I've been given is not vulgar. It is functional, its purpose is to fulfill the physiological needs of my baby, not to be sexualized. ... When I'm breastfeeding my child I feel like I'm giving him the best I can give. Taking care of my baby and attending to his needs is more important to me than what people say about me.
Although she lives thousands of miles away, Shagieva's is the same frustration and struggle moms in the United States face when they're told to cover up while breastfeeding in public or flat-out discouraged from doing so at all. And situations like these are exactly why we all need to sit up and pay attention to any and all efforts to normalize breastfeeding — from formal ones like one Canadian city's life-size cardboard cutouts of breastfeeding moms placed in public spaces, to the Kyrgyz president's daughter's wise words on the issue.
The BBC reported that Shagieva lives somewhat of a bohemian lifestyle in Kyrgyzstan, where she lives in an affluent area with her Russian husband, Konstantin, and her baby. The couple are both vegetarians in a traditionally meat-eating country; they grow herbs in their apartment. Shagieva is an artist invested in photography, painting, and drawing; she also advocates for kids with Down syndrome and animal rights.
But it's important to acknowledge that breastfeeding is not some quirky lifestyle choice. Nonetheless, even though public breastfeeding is considered acceptable in Kyrgyzstan (with women mostly covering up), the photo of Shagieva doing so caused such an uproar that it was republished in newspapers across Europe.
Surely, the media coverage and the scale of the public outcry had a lot do to with the fact that Shagieva's father is the president of the country, but it also speaks to a larger truth: that even in 2017, women still come under scrutiny and are made to feel ashamed for providing their kids with the most basic of necessities — simply because that necessity comes from their breasts.