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SAUDI ARABIA: Cleric in hot seat after calling for women to give men breast milk to avoid illicit mixing

June 10, 2010 |  7:37 am

A Saudi cleric finds himself in the hot seat after issuing a decree permitting unrelated women and men mingle so long as the guy drinks the woman's breast milk.

Sheik Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, a scholar and a consultant at Saudi Arabia's royal court, has called for women to give men breast milk to establish maternal relations and get around the ultra-conservative kingdom's ban on mixing between men and women who are unrelated.

"The man should take the milk, but not directly from the breast of the woman," UAE-based Gulf News quoted Obeikan as saying in local media reports. "He should drink it and then becomes a relative of the family, a fact that allows him to come in contact with the women without breaking Islam's rules about mixing."

Some Islamic scholars frown on the mixing of unmarried men and women. Islamic tradition, or hadith, stipulates that breastfeeding establishes a degree of maternal bond, even if a woman breast feeds a child who is not her own.

Egyptian scholar Izzat Attiyah caused a stir and raised many eyebrows when he issued a 2007 Islamic ruling urging women to breastfeed their male colleagues to avoid illicit mixing between men and women at work. The act, the scholar argued, would establish a symbolic maternal bond between the men and women and would inhibit any sexual relations.

As in the case of the Egyptian fatwa, Obeikan's ruling has raised concerns over the need to apply stricter regulations about how and by whom fatwas can be issued. Attiyah's infamous 2007 breastfeeding fatwa did not make it far, attracting heavy criticism -- as well as ridicule -- throughout the Arab world. The scholar himself retracted the fatwa and eventually was disciplined by Egypt's Al-Azhar University, one of Sunni Islam's most prestigious institutions.

Obeikan's decree perhaps tries to be a bit less scandalous. It suggests that the women pump breast milk so that men can drink it out of a glass instead of suckling from the women's breasts. 

But then another prominent cleric, Sheik Abi Ishaq Huwaini, quickly weighed in, insisting that, in fact, men need to suckle in order to make the relationship permissible under Islam.

Elaborating on his ruling, Obeikan said the fatwa applies to men living in or regularly visiting a house where there are women unrelated to them. Drivers, for example, are exempted.

"The fatwa is only for those who live in the house or need to get in often," he said.

Both the Saudi media and the blogs have been abuzz with the news about the sheikh's renewed calls for the Egyptian breastfeeding fatwa. Gulf News said the ruling was even issued on the very day of the three-year anniversary of Attiyah's decree, May 22. Some Saudis are appalled by the fatwa and the reasoning behind it.

"All this back and forth between sheiks, and not one bothers to ask a woman if it is logical, let alone possible, to breastfeed a grown man five fulfilling breast-milk meals ... the thought of a huge hairy face at a woman’s breast does not evoke motherly or even brotherly feelings. It could go from the grotesque to the erotic, but definitely not maternal!" blogger Saudiwoman wrote in a recent post.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: Saudi Sheikh Abdel Mohsen Obeikan has found himself in the hot seat after issuing a bizarre fatwa calling for women to breastfeed men to avoid illicit mixing between the sexes. Credit: Al-Riyadh newspaper.