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Breastfeeding, motherhood and employment: the experience of breastfeeding mothers returning to work in Qatar

Masoud, S. R. (2023) Breastfeeding, motherhood and employment: the experience of breastfeeding mothers returning to work in Qatar. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00111655


Participation of women in employment in Qatar has increased significantly over the past 10 years, from 12.4% in 2011 to 37% in 2020, with 64.1% of working women also being married (Planning and Statistics Authority, Qatar). Their professional commitments notwithstanding, most of these women are also mothers, with many breastfeeding. The Quran demands that mothers breastfeed their children for the first two years of their lives. This thesis explores this tension between a rapid increase in mothers entering the labour market, and the specific historic, cultural and religious expectations upon mothers in Qatar, which create challenges for mothers, employers and policy makers that are different from those of working mothers in the Global North and need further consideration. This thesis employed a qualitative research methodology in which a total of 50 breastfeeding, professional, working mothers in the public and private sectors of Qatar were interviewed. The thesis adopts a multifaceted theoretical framing. First, matricentric feminism (O’Reilly, 2016) and Hay’s concept of intensive mothering are considered in terms of their applicability, and expanded upon in seeking to make sense of the tensions and challenges the women experienced as they returned to work following birth and a relatively short maternity leave of only 50 and 60 days, in the private and public sectors respectively, within this particular context in the Global South. Second, the theory of the gendered institution, as proposed by Acker in 1990, posits that breastfeeding mothers cannot embody the ‘ideal worker’ construct due to considerations such as the roles they can handle, interpersonal interactions, self-efficacy, and culture. Third, under maternal bodies at work theory by Gatrell, Cooper and Kossek's (2017), breastfeeding mothers are perceived as social pollutants. According to this theory, women's experiences are influenced by the perspective that maternal bodies belong in the private sphere and that their presence in the workplace is repugnant to other workers. Finally, the experiences of breastfeeding women are analysed from the perspective of their embeddedness in multiple layers of contexts, in line with the theorisation of Lewis and Den Dulk (2008). There are four layers of contexts taken into account the global, national/regional and institutional layers. Under this theoretical position, the thesis appreciates the reality that different factors interact to produce magnified or suppressed effects. Through the lens of this multifaceted theoretical framework, the findings from the interviews are analysed through thematic analysis.This thesis therefore significantly contributes to the literature on working mothers through its location in an Islamic country, and through its orientation and exploration of the significance of the religious context at the intersection of gender and employment in particular, which remains underexplored. The findings show how the mothers’ return to work is complicated by the ways in which employment policies on pregnancy, maternity and breastfeeding are not aligned with Islamic doctrine on what is expected of women seeking to conform to ideas of being a ‘good Muslim mother’ In line with matricentric feminism, the findings show that Qatari women have displayed increased propensity to seek opportunities under professional employment as a way of advancing their interests as women and mothers, while also taking care of their families. The participation of women in the workplace has magnified the effects of intensive mothering, whereby women are expected to pursue professional acheivements in the workplace, while also being a good mother in accordance with the guidelines by Islam. These guidelines impose two years breastfeeding period after the birth of a baby, in addition to other domestic responsibilities. However, the novel work-related responsibilities have made fulfilling this mandate challenging for these women. The limitations arise from circumstances that can be explained through elements of the gendered organisation since most workplaces are not set up to facilitate breastfeeding. Similarly, women are found not to fit the ‘ideal worker’ image, thus limiting the extent to which they can exercise agency. It is also apparent from the resrach findings that the maternal body of the Qatari breastfeeding women in the study is perceived as a pollutant and repugnant in most workplaces and public spaces. While providing breastfeeding facilities in the workplace and accommodating breastfeeding activities could solve some of these challenges, most of the workplaces where the women interviewed work have not taken such measures. Finally, there is evidence that most breastfeeding mothers' experiences can be linked to multiple factors based on layers of contexts, starting with the global, national/regional and finally at the institutional level. The effects of the failure by Qatar to ratify the Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183) has played a role in subsequent actions such as the provision of insufficient leave days. Furthermore, institutions have not been mandated to accommodate the interests of breastfeeding mothers by providing the necessary facilities, such as private rooms for breastfeeding or for the expression of milk. These circumstances function to cause and magnify the challenges that breastfeeding mothers experience in practice upon their return to work. It also highlights the different ways they sought to overcome these challenges. It highlights how women in Qatar find themselves in a situation in which they are compelled to adhere to religious guidelines and organisational policies that are in conflict with each other. The implications of these findings for theory, policy and practice are explored from a feminist perspective in the final discussion and conclusion. The proposal for policy changes focus on adjustments to the limited maternal leave days to provide breastfeeding mothers with more time to take care of the infant. Changes to Human Rresources policies in the workplace such as job-sharing can also provide stop-gap measures to accommodate the interests of breastfeeding mothers. For practice, it is necessary for a multi-stakeholders and multi-sector approach to developing solutions to the challenges that contribute to the negative experiences of Qatari mothers who breastfeed at work.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Kokot, P., Fenton, E. and James, G.
Thesis/Report Department:Henley Business School
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Henley Business School
ID Code:111655
Date on Title Page:June 2022


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