A young Muslim woman stands in line anxiously at the fitting room at a clothing store holding a “NaMastay in Bed” sweatshirt. Behind her, a mother waits with a crying baby. The Muslim woman enters a stall and prays quickly, hoping no one notices her bending and kneeling through the door gap. She hears the fitting room attendant stop the mother from entering a stall.
“Sorry, you can’t nurse in here. It makes people uncomfortable.”
“But there’s nowhere to nurse,” the mother replied.
“You can go to the bathroom.”
“It’s unhygienic,” the mother retorts. By now the baby is wailing with hunger.
“You’ll have to go outside.”
“It’s 100 degrees in my car!”
For most people, a fitting room is a place to try on clothes before buying them, but for many Muslims and nursing mothers, it’s a possible solution to the daily challenge of finding a private space to pray or breastfeed. In Western society, it’s difficult to find a place to practice personal yet significant human practices, because they deter from capitalist goals. Breastfeeding and praying in Western society parallel each other: both are ostracized because they don’t monetarily contribute towards society. Walking around public spaces, you see space for consumerism: stores to buy clothes, restaurants to buy food, but nothing for spiritual or maternal nourishment. Those are meant to be done ‘privately.’ Both are pushed aside to corners of public places and need special permission to do it during work, all the while being criticized. Both are met with suspicion and impatience. “You want to do what right now? Why?” Both are encouraged to be forgotten in this modern, get rich, “me” society. People don’t see the value because there is no short-term, material gain.
I am not a mother myself, but I was a breastfeeding peer counsellor at the WIC. I was shocked at how little people knew of the value of breastfeeding. Our society has flourished for millions of years solely on breast milk, so we do perfectly well on it. Even WIC employees, who spend their day encouraging mothers to breastfeed, harassed a fellow employee about taking time to pump her milk. They were concerned they would have to work extra to cover for her. Likewise, when I asked my supervisor if I could pray in the (empty) classroom, she said she wasn’t sure because it could make people uncomfortable. Because of this, we’ve grown to see these otherwise beneficial acts as burdens, and have found shortcuts. Prayer is pushed to the end of the day, after work, and mothers use a formula for ‘convenience.’ Our priority in life has become our work performance and job position. But at the end of the day, isn’t our status in heaven more important than our status with our boss?
We’ve grown to blame our “busy” schedules as the reason we can’t pray or breastfeed, but really, our days have been filled by others to distract us. If we really look, there is plenty of opportunity for these activities.
Likewise, both prayer and breastfeeding offer immeasurable benefits. Prayer provides spiritual growth, personal satisfaction, and calmness. Breastfeeding calms both the mother and baby, increases their bond, and improves the baby’s immunity. On the other hand, work does provide necessary financial security (and health benefits in the US), but studies have shown without significant breaks, workers are stressed and underperform.
Breastfeeding mothers and praying people should take up public space. As the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “The (whole) earth has been made a mosque (or a place of prayer) and a means of purification for me, so wherever a man of my ummah may be when the time for prayer comes, let him pray.” A clean and comfortable space should be allocated in public spaces, like malls, for breastfeeding and prayer. Workplaces now acknowledge the need for time and space for human needs like physical activity. Likewise, there should be a space for activities vital for physical and spiritual growth like breastfeeding and praying. At the very least, halal restaurants and shops should provide a spot for customers to pray.
This society conforms us to think every moment needs to be spent producing capital. That every moment must be measured in time producing dollars. People feel guilty for taking 30 minutes enjoying their lunch, or resting. This has expanded to mothers saying motherhood is their “job,” as though they need to justify raising their children instead of working for a salary. In reality, motherhood is a natural lifestyle, a role, with immeasurable rewards. It is done out of love and growth, whereas a job is done out of necessity. You don’t need to “earn” time off to be a mother or to prove you’re using your time productively.