Just basic acceptance of women and their children would do for starters. Photo: Getty
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Should mothers have to be thankful that businesses “welcome” breastfeeding?

A healthy, humane culture should have space not just for the idea of us, but for our bodies, our children, what we are and what we do.

At primary school I had a friend called Pamela. I knew she was my friend because she told me this on a regular basis, albeit rarely without the qualification “even though everyone else says you’re really fat and ugly”. Plucky, brave Pamela. Without her, I may never have known companionship, given all that was offensive about my appearance. Without her, I may never have realised just how repulsive a body like mine must have been. Without her, I might have carried on assuming, if only for a little while longer, that I was alright, really. Thanks, Pam. I am grateful for your “friendship” – but that’s what you wanted, right?

Thirty years on, a poster in my local chip shop brings back memories of Pamela. I’m waiting for my cod bites when a bright pink slogan declaring that that this business “welcomes breastfeeding” catches my eye. Obviously I approve of this. Cod bites can take a while to cook and you don’t want to be stuck with engorged, leaking breasts and a screaming, hungry baby while you wait. If I was still breastfeeding, I wouldn’t have hesitated to do it there and then. Yet up until that point, it had not crossed my mind that my chip shop even felt in a position to grant permission. It all feels a bit “I’ll still be your friend, you fatso”; “I’ll still take your £4.25 even though you’ve been brazen enough to bear your veiny areolas in my humble establishment”. Should breastfeeding mothers be thankful for this? Is our freedom of movement – and to buy chips – so dependent on the largesse of others?

It’s not that I don’t understand the motivations behind the Gloucestershire Welcomes Breastfeeding scheme. As a new mum, I felt incredibly self-conscious about breastfeeding in public, hence my first child endured plenty of miserable feeds in cramped toilet cubicles and baby changing rooms that stank of dirty nappies. In a society that both sexualises women’s breasts and offers them slut-shaming advice on how to avoid sexual violence, it feels counter-intuitive to just sit down on a bench and whip your tits out for all to see (and no, I don’t buy the “it can always be done discreetly” line. Babies wriggle; it can be hard to get into position for latching on; sometimes, oddly, one’s own arms and knees seem to get in the way; a whole new wardrobe of breastfeeding tops is prohibitively expensive; achieving let-down occasionally requires a bit of a squeeze; and no, a “modesty apron”, hiding both breast and baby from view, is not the ideal solution to any of this). It was only when I had two children under two that I was stressed and distracted enough to think “sod it” and breastfeed anywhere and everywhere: on park benches, by roadsides, in shops, at people’s houses, in workplaces. I was lucky, I suppose, that no one ever challenged me (it may be that my accompanying weaponry – a double buggy the size of a military tank – was enough to ensure potential critics kept their distance).

Since 2005 it has been an offence under Scottish law “deliberately to prevent or stop a person in charge of a child from feeding milk to that child in a public place or on licenced premises”. In England and Wales the 2010 Equality Act states that it is against the law for women to receive less favourable treatment if they are breastfeeding when receiving services (there is, however, no right to breastfeed at work).  So, ladies, unless you are trying to sneak in a quick feed under the till or by the photocopier, it looks like you can relax: you cannot legally be discriminated against for trying to feed your own baby. Hooray! But this does prompt the question: what kind of culture is this, in which we need laws in place to ensure that something so fundamental – the very stuff of life – is not openly rejected and condemned?

Much of the rejection of breastfeeding in public strikes me as out and out misogyny; breasts are for the enjoyment of heterosexual men and we mothers are “spoiling” them by exposing them in all their leaking, squirting, nurturing glory. I think, however, this rejection also fits in with a more general view of motherhood as “other”. Raising children is essential to the continuation of the human race and yet it is sidelined in a male-dominated, wealth-obsessed culture. Mothers of young children are granted access to public spaces and workplaces on sufferance. We are told off for taking up too much space with our buggies, criticised for the noises our children make, shamed for “harming” businesses with our maternity leave and our flexible working hours. Women who have done nothing wrong and simply want to participate in society are put in a position of feeling grateful for every tiny concession granted to them. We tell ourselves this is because we chose to have children (even though not all mothers are mothers by choice). That we should not have to pay such a high price is rarely considered.

On the whole I am happy that my chip shop welcomes breastfeeding. It is better, I suppose, than not doing so. Nonetheless I find myself thinking of all the Gloucestershire businesses who could have taken part in this scheme and chose not to. Why was that? Did they just not have any space for the poster? Did they not read the email? Did they find it patronising (as I do)? Or did they make a decision against actively welcoming breastfeeding mothers on their premises? That one should be asking these questions at all says something depressing about our attitude towards mothers, motherhood and the value of our work. A healthy, humane culture should have space not just for the idea of us, but for our bodies, our children, what we are and what we do. Extra chips – to cope with the increased calorie requirements of breastfeeding – would be a bonus, but for now just basic acceptance would do.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.