It’s every new mother’s nightmare: A wailing, hungry baby in a supermarket checkout line, your breasts overflowing with milk and no relief in sight. If you haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to explain the level of anxiety and hysteria that ensues.
I ended up in this predicament one morning when I opened my kitchen cupboards to find they were bare — and the refrigerator looked brand new. I had to go shopping or else I’d sabotage my plan to get back in shape by ordering in (again!).
My son fell asleep on the way to the grocery store and I lucked out with a sale on diapers (score!). I had time to browse through the cosmetics section, where I picked up a new lipstick and nail polish (luxury!). Finally, I made my way to the shortest checkout and waited my turn.
About a quarter of the way through, my baby woke up, hungry. Panic tugged at my chest, but I had prepared for this. I grabbed a bottle of pre-pumped breast milk and offered it to my screeching baby. He wouldn’t have any of it. I felt as if everyone in the store could hear him and was silently judging me.
Somehow I managed to pay the cashier, collect my things and walk outside to the mall, where even more people started to stare. I was completely focused on feeding the baby before he became hysterical. Not thinking of what I was doing, I plopped down on the nearest bench and started to nurse. Calmness came over me as the milk flowed. I closed my eyes, blocked out the world around us and just took a moment.
That moment, however, was soon interrupting when two security guards asked if I could please get up and leave. The one speaking to me was clearly straining to keep his eyes locked on mine, while his partner was looking everywhere but at me. In that instant, everything came back into focus and I remembered where I was: Doha, in Qatar, a conservative Muslim country.
In Qatar, even the tiniest amount of exposed breast, regardless of the reason, is considered unacceptable. I don’t think I could have turned a deeper shade of crimson as I realized the guards were not the only ones watching the spectacle. Some men around me openly stared, while others simply looked shocked and angry. Some expatriate women glanced sympathetically from afar, while abaya-clad ones emanated disgust from the slit showing their eyes. I don’t remember packing up my baby or groceries or fleeing to the safety of my home.
As a Lebanese Canadian, brought up in a traditional Muslim household, I still find it surprising when I’m faced with the rigid standards in parts of the Middle East. And while my loving husband (from an arranged marriage) was upset about my treatment, he was mostly relieved I hadn’t faced more severe consequences.
I recounted my humiliating experience to a Qatari girlfriend and was met with the same reaction I got from most of my friends there: Why would I put myself through all that trouble when I could simply feed my baby with formula? And why would I bother breastfeeding in Qatar, of all places? To my fellow mothers, I was the black sheep, putting myself in the most awkward and inconvenient situations for something they viewed as both uncomfortable and unnecessary.
In Qatar the Ministry of Health explains the benefits of breastfeeding, then offers new mothers formula in the hospitals. Some nurses will even feed it to babies without a mother’s consent. And no one breastfeeds past the first month.
Despite the disapproval, I kept breastfeeding for a year and a half (discreetly, of course). It was often difficult — I ended up everywhere from bathroom stalls to store change rooms — but overall, I feel the benefits outweighed the stir we created.
*Name has been changed