Saudi Cleric: Adult Breastfeeding Allows for Mixing of Unrelated Sexes

Photo by retlaw snellacSaudi fatwa:  women must give breast milk to adult men

Saudi fatwa: women should give breast milk to adult men

We advocate breastfeeding here at Eco Child’s Play in any shape or form, but a fatwa (religious edict) issued by a Saudi cleric last month takes the practice of nourishing a child naturally and uses it to justify unrelated male and female relationships.  Specifically, the edict calls on women to “give their breast milk to male colleagues and acquaintances in order to safeguard the Islamic law that forbids mixing between the sexes,” according to the Times Online.

The adult breastfeeding fatwa is a means of “circumventing” Saudi Islamic law.  New York Daily explains:

As part of Islamic law, men and women are forbidden to be alone together, unless they are blood relatives or have established maternal relations, in order to prevent sexual contact.

As a way to avoid breaking this rule — which can result in lashings or prison time — Sheikh Al Obeikan, adviser to the royal court and consultant to the Ministry of Justice, told Gulf News that women should give their breast milk to male colleagues, acquaintances or anyone with whom they come into regular contact.

Does breastfeeding establish maternal relations with adults?  Sheikh Al Obeikan, concerned about women that come in regular contact with unrelated males, advises:

The man should take the milk, but not directly from the breast of the woman. He should drink it and then becomes a relative of the family, a fact that allows him to come in contact with the women without breaking Islam’s rules about mixing.

Sheik Abi Ishaq Al Huwaini disagrees and believes the milk needs to be “suckled” from the breast in order to establish maternal relations.

It is important to note that the adult breastfeeding fatwa has caused controversy in Saudi Arabia sparking a “battle” over who can issue edicts.  It is not widely accepted, although it is reported a bus driver asked a regular female passenger for breast milk.  She refused.

Is it taboo for adults to drink breastmilk or is the real controversy of this story the Saudi law banning the mixing of the sexes?  From my western background, it is hard to imagine only having friendships and working relationships with men during my lactating years and at the cost of providing enough nourishment for my child.  As with anything involving a woman’s body, I believe it should be her choice.

I am certainly not an expert in Islamic law or religion, nor do I write this in order to contribute to the stereotypes propagated in the West or claim cultural superiority.  There are cultural differences I don’t understand, thus I try to reserve my judgement.  I share this story to hear your opinions, and as of interest to those that advocate for breastfeeding.

Comments

  1. It’s… interesting. It doesn’t sound like it’s being perceived as violating any taboo about adults drinking human milk, which is interesting. It’s interesting that there are clerics trying to find ‘loopholes’ like this in order to allow more societal contact between the genders, which is a sort of implicit acknowledgment that the rule of strict segregation is unreasonable, but that they’re not yet ready to universally give it up.

    It’s interesting that there’s disagreement about what defines a “maternal relationship”, as though having some milk is all there is to it — I’m curious if wetnursing is at all common in this culture. I’m also curious what the normal age of weaning would be, and what their perceptions of older children (ie, 4-6yo) nursing would be. If they happen to frown on a 6yo nursing, then the argument in favour of allowing a grown man to nurse (either directly or from a cup) becomes… interesting. If they wholeheartedly approve of natural weaning, then it’s still… interesting… to draw that further conclusion.

    The further consequences of this edict, if it were more fully adopted (which it sounds like it probably won’t be), are also… interesting. Once this “maternal relationship” is established, will the man have certain rights to the woman as a mother? Does it give him family rights by extension, to the father as well? Such as financial rights, or accommodation. Would this relationship make it impossible for this man to at any point in the future take this woman as a wife, should she become ‘available’ (I’m not certain on the rules about widows re-marrying in this culture)?

    It’s all just very… interesting.

  2. @Heather, yes, interesting, and you raise even more interesting thoughts on the subject. I debated about writing this post, as I don’t to be sensationalizing things, but I did find it very interesting.

    http://hadith.al-islam.com/bayan/tree.asp?Lang=eng&ID=481

    Found this from Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on wet nursing.

  3. Heather, wetnursing is common, yes. The woman and man would then be “milk mother” and “milk son” and would technically be related, therefore not only could they not marry, but their immediate family members couldn’t marry either.

    Susie at Susie’s Big Adventure — an American living in Saudi Arabia with her Saudi husband — wrote an interesting post about this about a month ago:

    http://susiesbigadventure.blogspot.com/2010/05/here-drink-this.html

  4. Panya, thanks for the link. It is an interesting read.

  5. Thanks Panya… and yes, that raises another sociological issue… if their immediate family members can’t marry each other, then if this practice were to become widespread (which, again, it doesn’t seem that it will, but for argument’s sake – ) it wouldn’t be too long before the interconnectedness of all ‘milk mothers’ and ‘milk sons’ would mean that it would become very difficult to find anyone to marry at all.

  6. I think you should also that into consideration that this is just one minority idea … so we can’t really think about “Saudi” or “Islamic Law” based upon one persons idea (which, by the way, has been rejected by almost all). Just a thought.

  7. Umm Abdullah says:

    Just to answer some questions…..

    Islamically, a child is ENTITLED to nurse for two years. If a mother wants to wean she should have a legitimate reason for doing so and the husband must agree. The husband is the one who is responsible to provide for the child and wife financially, and so if a mother cannot breastfeed or does not have enough milk then the father is responsible to pay a wetnurse.

    Wetnurses ARE part of Islamic heritage, but the wetnurse needs to inform the people whom she has given milk to as they become “milk brothers and sisters” and are not allowed to marry.

    Extended nursing (beyond two years) is not something that is encouraged. Slightly, longer than two years is okay, but beyond that it is not advised.

    Breastfeeding is very much part of the Islamic way of life but it is sad to note that many Muslim countries, post-colonization, have slipped into a pro-formula type notion. Very sad indeed, and a discerning correlation.

    Also, the above mentioned fatwa is NOT a traditional idea, and most Muslim scholars would reject it outright. If a woman took this approach (for whatever strange reason) then according to the majority opinion he would have to drink 5 times (not from the breast!!) and they would not be allowed to ever marry.

    I think it is interesting that this non-mainstream fatwa is receiving media attention. In Saudi Arabia most people are very much used to a gender segregated society and have no need for such fatwas.

    Hope this info is useful to those of you who really want to know about the Islamic stance on breastfeeding. =)

  8. @Umm Abdullah

    Your comment is very informative. I am pleased the culture supports breastfeeding for two years.

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