A picture of the Kyrgyz president’s youngest daughter feeding her baby dressed in her underwear has sparked a debate about breastfeeding and sexualisation.
Aliya Shagieva posted the photo on social media back in April with the caption: ‘I will feed my child whenever and wherever he needs to be fed.’
She took the post down after being accused of immoral behaviour, but in an exclusive interview with the BBC she said the row was a result of a culture which hyper-sexualised the female form.
“This body I’ve been given is not vulgar. It is functional, its purpose is to fulfil the physiological needs of my baby, not to be sexualised,” she told BBC Kyrgyz.
It wasn’t only some social media users who disapproved. Her parents, President Almazbek Atambayev and his wife Raisa, were also unhappy.
“They really didn’t like it. And it is understandable because the younger generation is less conservative than their parents,” Ms Shagieva said, speaking at her home on the outskirts of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
Ms Shagieva posts actively on social media, including her own artwork and carefully stylized portraits of herself and her husband and baby, often set against the backdrop of wide open landscapes.
Breastfeeding is a recurring theme.
“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,” Ms Shagieva said.
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Who is Aliya Shagieva?
Gulnara Kasmambetova, BBC Kyrgyz
I interviewed Aliya Shagieva in her flat in a prestigious quarter of Bishkek which she shares with her husband and child.
Her drawings and pictures were on the walls and the couple offered fruit and herbal tea. Herbs were growing in pots on the window sills; the couple are vegetarian, a rarity in a traditionally meat-eating country.
In the context of a post-Soviet traditional Muslim society, Aliya Shagieva is very bold and very different. She was quite open, sharing her experience of feeling lonely as a child of very busy parents.
She spoke of the generation gap and her efforts to understand and find compromise with her parents, not least over her social media activities. “My mum received messages from her ‘friends’ about me,” she said. “Now that I am a mother myself, I know what my mum went through raising me.”
Aliya has been active supporting causes such as awareness of children with Downs syndrome and animal rights, but has no obvious political ambitions.
People in Kyrgyzstan have recent memories of the two previous presidents’ children getting involved in politics and business – both leaders were ousted. But the incumbent leader has pledged that his children will never meddle in politics.
Kyrgyzstan is a mainly Muslim ex-Soviet republic. It is socially conservative but breast feeding in public is acceptable.
Women are seen in parks and other public spaces feeding their babies, but they usually try and cover their breasts with a piece of clothing.
When Ms Shagieva’s post first went online some social media users thought there was no need to post a picture of such an intimate moment; others denounced her for not being modest enough.
And her breastfeeding photos attracted attention well beyond Kyrgyzstan – they were republished by newspapers and websites as far away as Europe. Many took to social media to praise her for breaking taboos surrounding women’s bodies.
The question of breastfeeding in public is a matter of debate in many countries, including the UK where only three years ago a woman was asked to cover up in the restaurant of London’s famous Claridges Hotel while feeding her baby, causing an outcry.
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When different BBC language services ran the interview with Aliya Shagieva, the resulting online conversation threw a light on different breastfeeding cultures and practices in Muslim countries.
Women writing from Iran shared their experiences about the stress they feel when breastfeeding in public:
“People zoom in on me, I have to either cover myself and the baby or just leave him hungry,” one Tehran mother wrote.
Others praised the recently installed mother and baby rooms in Tehran’s Metro.
An Afghan woman from Kabul, Zarifa Ghafari, shared a story from her own extended family, saying mothers had to go into a separate room to breastfeed:
“She can’t do this in front of others. If she did she would face strong reactions from the elder members of the family. It is a big issue but slowly, slowly the culture is changing.”
Another Afghan woman, Nageen related a shopping trip with her sister in law.
“We had to buy some gifts just so she could feed her baby in a shop. She sat there and covered herself with a big scarf.”
A Turkish Facebook user said, she herself preferred covering up while feeding her baby. “I don’t rub it in people’s faces. I use a cover. There are many who still sexualize breasts.”
Victoria Tahmasebi, a women and gender studies expert at Toronto university tweeted: “From a capitalist view point women’s breasts can create profit as long as they are sexualised. Breastfeeding in public makes women’s breasts less sexy, therefore it is not acceptable.”
As for Aliya Shagieva’s picture which caused a stir – she finally took it down because her parents were worried that the attention “could be harmful to her young family”. But it hasn’t stopped her speaking out, and it hasn’t stopped the debate.