THE BLOG

I Believe Her

26/11/2015 17:04 GMT | Updated 26/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Every so often there are angry spats in the media about breastfeeding in public.

What strikes me most about these stories are the comments, especially about the women referenced every time: those who everyone knows breastfeed for reasons other than to, you know, provide their child with milk.

Here are two comments from the BBC News coverage of one such story:

If a woman wants to breastfeed fair enough. But why would she deliberately place herself in a prominent position in a restaurant to do it? Is she trying to prove a point or simply just showing off? It's only a certain type who breastfeed in public and it usually has more to do with making a statement than feeding the baby's hunger.

There is no need to be 'in your face' in the most public of places, or sitting next to someone having a meal in a restaurant, just to prove a point.

Why, despite experience and common sense and despite what women themselves say, is there this absolute continued blind faith among so many people that a significant number of women revel in the excuse of breastfeeding to expose themselves in public? If I had the kind of magical powers which possibly only normally occur to teenage boys to wish for, and could, at random, reveal a woman's breast while she was in a public place, I wonder what her reaction would be. Delight that her secret desire to go half-naked while eating her lunch or rifling through the sales rack has finally been fulfilled? Of course not. She - I - would be mortified. We know this.

Yet comments like those above appear whenever there is a discussion about breastfeeding in public. I would hazard a large bet that if those writing them were asked if they themselves, or those women they know, hanker after flashing their boobs in broad daylight, they would (rightly) dismiss the idea as nonsense. Why, then, do we culturally, think so little of women that we regularly assume - or allow it to be assumed - that the opposite is true? That whatever they say are their reasons, they in fact have another, self-serving, motive?

It's not just breastfeeding, of course.

I would say it was the wearisome refusal to give women the benefit of the doubt, but actually, it's the insistence that there is a doubt in the first place. Too often, women are routinely disbelieved in what they say or do. There is a nasty little presumption of bad faith, of some selfish hidden agenda, which means that wherever there is a discussion of issues which impact on women's lives and welfare, it's depressingly standard for a large part of the debate to be focussed on whether, deep down, it's all about something else instead.

Think about "women's" issues and the stubborn subtexts ascribed to them whever they are discussed, regardless of what those women involved actually say:-

Having babies is an easy way to avoid work; a fail-safe way to milk the benefits system. Maternity leave and parental absences are a skive; an imposition on bosses and colleagues alike. Taking a job at all while in possession of a functional uterus is tantamount to duping the employer.

Much more serious is the idea that domestic abuse and violence against women and girls are somehow grey areas, a nuanced minefield of "yes, but..."s. How often do we hear allegations of discrimination, abuse or rape discredited by the insinuation that they woman making the allegation is motivated by greed, revenge or publicity?

I've always had some reservations about the #ibelieveher hashtag on Twitter. Not because, in any particular case, I disbelieve the woman in question. Not, sadly, because I believe that our legal system is infallible in its delivery of justice. Perhaps because I am instinctively wary of trial by public, and of a potential backlash against those making accusations in the future if there is, no matter how understandable and well-intentioned, an emphasis on one person's word against evidence which may never be made public.

Of course, though, "I believe her" goes far beyond guilt and innocence in criminal trials.

It's an attempt to restructure our responses when women speak and act; to repress that poisonous reflexive hint of doubt. It's to fight against the: "Why should I believe her?", the "I know better than to believe her", the "I don't believe her" which damage all women. It's to allow a woman's words to carry equal value. It's to allow a woman the dignity of meaning what she says and does.

That mum who says she's just feeding her baby?

I believe her.