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Breastfeeding Fatwa Causes a Ripple

Posted by vmsalama on June 18, 2007


By Vivian Salama


An Islamic scholar in Egypt is under investigation after proposing a religious edict saying that women should breastfeed their adult male colleagues.  The fatwa, issued by Ezzat Atiyaa, a professor at the prestigious Islamic al-Azhar University, suggested that such an action would create a familial bond between male and female colleagues, and therefore make it permissible in Islam for them to work in close proximity. 

 Atiyaa first made his comments several weeks ago during an appearance on a cultural program on Egyptian national television.  Almost instantly, it sparked what is an ongoing firestorm of criticism in the Arab media, with commentators lashing out at the audacity of such a suggestion.  Atiyaa, who few had heard of prior to his controversial remarks, has been suspended indefinitely by al-Azhar University. 

A lot of jokes came out afterwards, like people asking their bosses to designate space for breastfeeding; or a sign on the secretary’s desk that says she is away because it is breastfeeding hour for the boss,” says Amr Darrag, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood.    


Despite the conservative trend that has engulfed the region in recent years, Egyptian society remains one of the more liberal in the Middle East.  Along the banks of the Nile River, for example, men and women – even those wearing the traditional Islamic hijab (head scarf) – can be seen holding hands and conservatively flaunting their affection.  Work places across the country are most certainly mixed, although women last year made up only 24 percent of the workforce, according to the UN.   


This is not the first time someone suggests a fatwa on collegial breastfeeding, nor one that is unusual in nature.  Six years ago, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa issued a fatwa which said it was a blessing to drink the urine of the Prophet Mohammad.  Last year, following the issuance of a fatwa which forbids the display of statues, riot police encircled the Egyptian National Museum which is home to hundreds of thousands of ancient artifacts (in 2001, a similar fatwa led to the destruction of ancient statues of the Buddha by Taliban rulers in Afghanistan). 

The word fatwa literally means “an answer to a question” – Egypt’s Grand Mufti emphasizing that they are merely opinions.  Religious scholars are blaming the media for the hype surrounding recent fatwas, saying they should be taken with a grain of salt.  “It is impossible for someone to say something without it getting exploited,” insists Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, a member of the Cairo-based Scientific Center for Quran and Sunna Research.  “This whole thing was just one big misunderstanding.”        


***For those who understand Arabic, this is an interesting clip hosted by my dear friend Moataz El Demerdash on Mehwar TV on this issue: 


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