Religion versus culture: Pakistani Women's experiences of infant feeding

Anwar, Kubra and Wallace, Louise M. (2013). Religion versus culture: Pakistani Women's experiences of infant feeding. In: Simpson, Gloria and Payne, Spencer eds. Religion and Ethics. New York: Nova Science Publishers, pp. 137–147.


Breastfeeding has a strong religious basis in Islam. The Holy Quran recommends that the mother breastfeed her offspring for 2 years if possible, and states that every newborn infant has the right to be breastfed. However, women from the Pakistani community (where 98 classify themselves as Muslim) are least likely to breastfeed. For example, in 2010 breastfeeding initiation rates were reported to be 73.7 with the area of West Midlands having rates as low as 66.6 (Department of Health, 2011) .The early results of the infant feeding survey do not report on breastfeeding initiation rates by ethnicity but there has been an indication in the past that the lowest initiation rates are concentrated amongst Pakistani women (Bollings et al, 2005). For example, the 2005 Infant feeding survey highlighted that Pakistani women exhibited lower levels of breastfeeding when compared to women from the Indian, Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean and Black African communities (Bolling et al, 2005). The chapter aims to explore in detail the role of Islam and whether the pro religious teachings about breastfeeding in Islam act to promote breastfeeding in this sub sample of Pakistani women residing in Birmingham. 17 Pakistani women completed semi-structured interviews exploring infant feeding experiences. Data was thematically analysed. Results show that all the women were aware of the strong religious basis of breastfeeding their child and the importance of engaging in such behaviour. However, their respect for these teachings was not the main determinant of feeding choice.. All women experienced conflict between whether to breast feed or to bottle feed, experiencing 'mixed messages' about breastfeeding. Women experienced conflicting advice from within their community about breastfeeding as a method for feeding their child. This was a pertinent issue for the women who experienced this in terms of their religion (Islam) teaching them 'breast is best' but many (Asian) cultural factors affected their abilities to follow such religious teachings. These included Asian cultural messages about privacy and modesty countered the pro breastfeeding teachings that Islam taught them. Some of the women were influenced by the Western culture and felt that formula feeding was the norm in the UK and did not want to deviate from it. Religious and cultural teachings are said to be valuable sources of information that help to promote breastfeeding in this group of women. However, it is important to explore the significance that such teachings hold for individuals. All women in the sample classified themselves as Muslims, following the word of the Holy Quran . However, religious teachings were not enough to strongly promote breastfeeding in this sample of women. The conflict between the religious and cultural teachings that they experienced about infant feeding had an overall detrimental effect on women's decisions to breastfeed. This chapter concludes with ways to tailor information for South Asian women with respect to religious and cultural issues.

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