One thing that Gilu Joseph, a poet, actress and former air hostess, recurrently emphasises on, is, “I have only done things that I have believed is right for me. I must have failed, but I have no regrets.” Grihalakshmi, a Malayalam fortnightly magazine’s latest cover of the issue that will hit the stands this week, showing Joseph breast-feeding a baby with no veil covering her chest, is creating ripples in the state and outside. On her part, Joseph doesn’t call it a veil of cloth, but a cover of “fear and shame”. “Women should breastfeed freely, without any sense of fear or inhibition and that is my message in the article too, but people began criticising even without reading what I had to say,” she told indianexpress.com, addressing the controversies around the cover.
Some of the questions that were raised, especially on social media, were, ‘Why has the magazine given an unrealistic representation using a model with a child who is not even her own?’ ‘Why is Joseph wearing a vermilion paste on her forehead — a mark of subservience as seen by many — when she is breaking taboos surrounding breastfeeding by propagating body positivity?’ ‘Would mothers not breastfeed their children fearing being stared at?’ These, among other remarks, refer to Joseph representing a savarna (upper caste) mother, et al. Interestingly, Joseph is herself unmarried.
“When I had come across the ‘Breastfeed freely’ campaign, the makers were looking for anybody who would be willing to feature on the cover page,” she said, implying how mothers in real life were not prepared to come forward and become the face of the campaign. “I grabbed the opportunity because I have never been taught that breastfeeding is a sin and something to be covered up,” said the 27-year-old. Women everywhere should celebrate their body and not cover it up in shame, because the society that we form portrays the act as “vulgar”. “However, I am not promoting vulgarity or saying that you cannot hide it,” she added.
Addressing the controversy around her wearing sindoor on her forehead, Joseph said that she was just doing her work. “More than my personal interests, the cover is a result of Grihalakshmi’s campaign, which was aimed at mothers and wives who are proudly feeding their babies right now, without worrying about anything else,” said Joseph, who hails from Kerala’s Idukki district. They could have shown a conventional picture of a mother holding the hand of a child; at least they have taken a different step, she said. “Why are we fearing it so much? …Moreover, I like wearing a bindi and sindoor. Tomorrow, if I were to get married, despite belonging to a Christian religious household, I will probably wear sindoor again, because I would choose to do so,” she added.
Joseph said that we are ourselves responsible for attaching a lot of taboos to our body; “because we get so easily ashamed of our bodies, rape victims are continued to be shamed more than the perpetrators themselves… People would probably have no problems seeing graphic images of people getting killed in newspapers and television, but cannot bear to see a woman bond with her child by feeding it.”
Some of the comments Joseph has been reading on the Internet claim that this is a publicity stunt. “I have not earned a single penny out of it and I have been mostly receiving abuses from people. Till yesterday, they were referring to me as a poet and now they are calling me a slut, prostitute. How is this publicity at all?”
At a time when women are finally taking a stand across platforms and issues, this cover comes as yet another step in the right direction for women and mothers in India to de-stigmatise what best represents a mother’s love.