This correspondence relates to an incident on a British Airways flight from Durban to Port Elizabeth. It relates to Nomalanga Mkhize’s perception that the flight attendant was uncomfortable with her openly breastfeeding on the flight. Comair responded to her complaint and assured her this was not the flight attendant’s intention. But, as you will see in the airline’s response, Comair’s general outlook on breastfeeding openly is ambivalent at best.

“Please note, too, that this is not about Comair’s British Airways service in general – I love its prices and think the crew is awesome,” Mkhize insisted.

She has decided to publish her exchange with Comair’s customer relations agent, in order to further this debate on breastfeeding in public in the hope that it will lead to a stronger pro-public breastfeeding lobby to push for anti-discrimination legislation to be enacted in South Africa.

This is not an issue of formula vs breastfeeding − that is a choice that parents and guardians make according to their circumstances. This is about the broader need to protect women from being publicly shamed and stigmatised by people and establishments that have conservative attitudes towards babies being openly breastfed in public.

“We should not be asked to cover up. It is humiliating and, quite frankly, rude.”

 

 

This is the initial letter Mkhize sent to Comair:

 

“My four-month old baby fell asleep on the breast while nursing in-flight. I let her lie on my exposed breast because we were about to go into descent and I knew keeping her on my breast would ensure she stayed in a deep sleep to prevent any fussing. I also kept the baby that way so that I could see if she woke up, then I could continue nursing to ease any discomfort on the descent.

I was approached by one of the BA 6324 flight attendants who asked if ‘I didn’t want to cover up’. The flight attendant actually had to ask me twice because I didn’t think she was actually asking me what she was asking me. I then said ‘No’. She then said, with a hint of sarcasm, ‘So you’re comfortable?’. I said ‘Yes, it is easier to keep an eye on the baby so I can quickly nurse her if the descent gets uncomfortable’. I was annoyed that as a breastfeeding mother I had to explain myself to the flight attendant. I would have thought that any flight attendant with a modicum of sensitivity towards a parent travelling with a child would actually encourage her to breastfeed in a relaxed manner to prevent the child from screaming and fussing on the flight as this annoys other passengers.

There is obviously no need for me to lecture BA on the naturalness of breastfeeding and the need for mother and baby to be able to do it freely. But it might help BA to know that its flight attendants are obviously ignorant about the diverse ways in which mothers nurse and comfort their babies while travelling. They need to know that whereas some will pacify their baby with dummies or bottles, others prefer to keep their baby close to the breast as this helps to minimise their irritability.  Naturally, I want to look at my child while nursing. I have no desire to cover her up because the flight attendant is uncomfortable.

I was sitting right across from three young men who didn’t so much as bat an eyelid. Perhaps it would also help BA flight attendants to be reminded that we are in Africa, and an exposed breast, especially one of a breastfeeding mother, doesn’t offend most people.

Please clarify your stance on open breastfeeding.”

 

The reply came:

Dear Dr Mkhize

Thank you for sending through your concerns.

With regards to the issue you had on board recently, Comair does not have a policy regarding breastfeeding.

The crew member merely wanted to make you feel comfortable and therefore offered you a blanket to cover yourself. As you are making use of public transport, we also have to respect the rights and views of all the other passengers travelling on our aircraft. The crew member certainly had no ill intentions and is very apologetic if she made you feel uncomfortable.

Thank you for allowing me an opportunity to explain. We greatly value your support and look forward to welcoming you on board one of our flights in the near future.

 

And Mkhize replied:

 

Dear ——,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my letter. I understand that Comair has no policy on breastfeeding, however, perhaps it is time that you put one in place so it can be clear to those of us who make use of your services.

Your response is ambivalent. On the one hand you say there were no ill intentions towards my duty to my child. However, on the other you say that other passengers’ views must be respected because this is public transport. In what respect must other passengers’ views or attitudes towards breastfeeding be respected? You are effectively telling me and every mother who decides to breastfeed that if someone opposes what we are doing, we should accommodate them. Are you serious?

The argument that this is public transport is completely irrelevant. Breastfeeding is as natural as breathing, and in most parts of the world is perfectly acceptable. It is very common in predominantly black areas to see mothers breastfeeding without this polite sanction disguised as concern for us. Furthermore, certain European countries have taken steps to protect mothers from this type of ambivalence you display by legislating anti-discrimination legislation relating to breastfeeding.

Not one passenger on that flight seemed concerned; on the contrary, they smiled at the child.

Perhaps you may not be aware of how the government is now encouraging mothers, including HIV-positive mothers, to adopt a positive attitude towards exclusive breastfeeding. You may or may not be aware of just how socially uncommon exclusive breastfeeding is in South Africa and that is very difficult to reintroduce a baby-first culture back into society after years of propaganda by milk formula-producing corporations.

I don’t think there’s any point in belabouring this. I will be posting our correspondence on an online magazine because I believe this is a public issue and that expecting breastfeeding mothers to accommodate squeamish conservatives is completely backward. I will also be writing to the ministry of health to once and for all deal with this kind of ambivalent attitude to protecting a mother and child’s right to breastfeed openly.


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