Cairo’s al-Azhar Islamic University on Monday suspended a lecturer who suggested that men and women work colleagues could use symbolic breastfeeding to get around a religious ban on being alone together.
The lecturer, Ezzat Atiya, had drawn on Islamic traditions which forbid sexual relations between a man and a woman who has breastfed him to suggest that symbolic breastfeeding could be a way around strict segregation of males and females.
But after controversy in the Egyptian and Middle East media, university president Ahmed el-Tayeb suspended Atiya pending an urgent investigation into his opinions, the Egyptian state news agency MENA reported.
Atiya’s unusual opinion was widely publicised by Arabic-language satellite television channels and featured in a discussion in the Egyptian parliament.
The Dubai-based channel Al Arabiya quoted him as saying that after five breastfeedings the man and woman could be alone together without violating Islamic law and the woman could remove her headscarf to reveal her hair.
Amidst conversational banter about two weeks ago I heard of a fatwa. Initially what was relayed by friends seemed so unrealistic and I made nothing more of it other than the sick fantasies that snowball into stories and which people start to believe is true because they hear them repeated so often. We spoke about it with a mixture of mockery and regret and moved on to other topics. That was two weeks ago.
Today, however, the news of a fatwa issued by one of the sheikhs in al Azhar has the propensity, if indeed applied, to shake societies up. The fatwa states that in order for a man and women to avoid ‘khulwa’ (situations where they would be alone in enclosed spaces) in the work place, the woman needs to breastfeed her male colleagues at work a total of five times. That way, they may be allowed to share company when unaccompanied, and moreover, marriage between them is not prohibited. However, the woman, after suckling her workmate, may then be allowed to remove her veil in his presence.
We all remember the Egyptian rumor a few years ago about the Egyptian female students chewing gum that had aphrodisiac qualities; it was said to have come from Israel. This controversy stirred up major campaigns and provoked strong reactions until it was ultimately proven that the only basis of truth it had was in the minds of those responsible for proclaiming it. But it left a resounding echo.
However, this latest fatwa on breastfeeding in the workplace has prompted 50 Egyptian MPs to consider the issue, attempt to contain it and prevent its dissemination through the media. The MPs also gave al Azhar and Egyptian media outlets what they called a ‘chance’ to prevent the topic from spreading and to refrain from discussing it.
But the media outlets, both in Egypt and in other Arab states, did not tackle the subject that greatly exceeded the boundaries of political freedoms, which some of these institutions do indeed confront. And here we are faced with a different type of issue that seems impossible for the media to approach.
And yet the issue is not one about the necessity of media outlets dealing with this aforementioned fatwa; its dissemination can be traced directly through word of mouth circulation, or more importantly, on the Internet. It was on numerous Arabic websites that the news traveled, was commented on and forwarded. The news of the bombings in Iraq and the Palestinian infighting only drew a handful of readers, but in contrast the news of the Egyptian fatwa attracted an astronomical number of readers whose reactions and responses ranged between disdain, shock and distress
It’s true that the fatwa equally implies a huge insult to both men and women alike, in fact, it disturbs and offends the minds of humanity—but it certainly does not deserve the attention or interest it has received. This type of fatwa is one of the many in which interest should quickly fade, as we most definitely have other issues that are much worthier of attention and consideration.
Still, the bloated news of the fatwa indicates that our society suffers a problem and dilemma internally. If we are incapable of overlooking and ignoring this type of excess and insistently include it in the core of our culture to make it into an issue—whether it’s out of condemnation or fascination—it can only be proof of a profound weakness and emptiness that must be thoroughly examined.