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Talking dominance

Lisa Kemmerer.

Lisa Kemmerer.  

Philosopher-activist Prof. Lisa Kemmerer, who was in India recently, talks about the similarities between the oppression of women and animals.

A graduate of Reed, Harvard, and Glasgow, Lisa Kemmerer has written nine books including Eating Earth: Dietary Choice and Planetary Health; Animals and World Religions; and Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice. She has been working against oppression towards animals, the environment, and disempowered people, for nearly 30 years. And has hiked, biked, kayaked, and backpacked in many countries. She is currently teaching philosophy and religions at Montana State University, Billings.

If women want to be free, we have to be part of freeing others from domination.

More than 50 per cent of the human species is women. The women’s movement is still struggling against male dominance, predation and oppression in so many ways. Can you draw links between the oppression of women and the oppression of animals and tell us how the women’s movement and women in general, have a responsibility to not pass on that same oppression to other disempowered life forms?

Firstly, I do wish to acknowledge the large numbers of men who are kind and compassionate and who exercise ethical choices that go beyond themselves. Having said that, I would like to add that by and large, these men are peripheral to mainstream cultures of patriarchal dominance and oppression. In this interview though, I would like to focus on drawing the attention of women in particular and urging them to factor in a life of responsible awareness and inclusiveness.

To answer your question, I think, when you understand the systems of oppression and domination, we see how patriarchy dominates both the natural world (including animals) and women in similar ways reducing them to commodities of production and consumption. So, if you look at structures of violence and control, we see sexism and speciesism as two branches of the same tree. You have to knock down that tree if you want to stop either one of them. In both cases, the victims are considered as property (of male society) and not as persons. As we all know, fighting for equal rights is the main discourse of the women’s movement. How can women ask someone to free them while they continue hurting someone else? It’s simple integrity. I know that you can’t take up every cause in social justice and don’t have the time or energy to add another political movement, but women in general need to stop eating, wearing or using animals, or visit places where animals are held in captivity, in recognition of the fact that both women and animals are oppressed groups, just that one is human and the other, non-human. If half the world, namely women, make ethical and humane choices, then cruelty drops down by fifty percent. Isn’t that fantastic? In order to overthrow patriarchy, we cannot do so by perpetuating its symbols.

Can you elaborate a bit on the similarities of the oppression of women and animals? I see loss of freedom, fear, obsession with the body and exploitation of reproductive systems as some of the similarities.

Hierarchy is very much part of a male dominant structure, where anyone who is not male is the ‘other.’ It stems from an unnecessary creation of dualism, the whole idea that men and women are in separate categories. Add to it, gay or transgender people, the disabled or the elderly. Animals are in the extreme margins. Patriarchy’s gaze is directed towards a definition of women’s value as ‘re-producers,’ exactly like animals in the egg, meat (also seafood) or diary industry. So, when you are fighting for animals in the food industry, you are really fighting for the females who are much more painfully exploited (the males are usually killed off earlier), kept in tighter confinement for longer periods of time to repeatedly reproduce, whose wombs are valuable to perpetuate lineage and future generations of females which then come under the same cycle of exploitation. Women ought to draw clear parallels between themselves and their sisters in the non-human world as being victims of oppressive and dominant structures in a capitalist society.

As women, haven’t we all experienced cold chilling fear when surrounded by brute male force that is likely to end in aggression or sexual assault? Our instincts immediately want us to protect our bodies. Do you see similarities in a woman’s fear and that of an animal’s both of which could become a target of violence?

I was once teaching a class of active and progressive men and women. I asked the women, “Is there any woman here who has never have been physically intimidated by a man?” No one raised their hands. And then I asked, “Is there any woman here who likes to be touched by someone they don’t know?” Again, no hands. As a woman, I know that feeling of fear and intimidation brought about by brute male energy, the same fear that makes a poor stray dog slink away into an alley or drives up a woman’s heartbeat as she tries to reach home alone, late at night. This comes from a culture of hierarchy which will use power, fear and even pain to get what it wants. We see extreme fear in animals that are caged or about to get slaughtered skinned or boiled alive, or even raped. Animals have been known to cry and shed tears of fear, because, let’s face it, who doesn’t want to live? Both women and other animals want to protect their bodies from imprisonment and violence and be accorded a space to just be themselves.

We know that dominance functions best in a culture of disconnection and fragmentation. So women need to make connections that don’t perpetuate the same cycle of violence. Carol Adams spoke about the ‘feminised protein,’ which is the protein that is produced by female animals under terrible conditions of duress and oppression. Is there a connection between women and the consumption of animal products?

Yes, absolutely, there is. Of course, animal cruelty is everywhere, but nowhere more dominant than in the food industry. And I say ‘industry’ because the nature of ‘industry’ is not to care about emotion or pain, but only profit. Since women form more than half the consuming population in the world, and mostly do the cooking, they have a huge responsibility to make choices in order to reduce cruelty, suffering and violence, the same choices they would wish for themselves. The connection is about body exploitation that women bear the burdens of and men bear the pleasures of and if women don’t see this, it’s unfortunate. All animal products, without exception, are derived from their reproductive systems. All eggs, dairy or meat come from a mother that was denied the joy of raising their young and having a normal nurturing experience that is in the order of nature. I ask women, how would you like to be forced to get repeatedly pregnant, raped if you will, and as soon you birthed, stole your baby and your milk, and then killed your baby within six months of its life? So when you are drinking milk, eating yoghurt or ice creams, you are actually eating the mammary secretions of a mother who has suffered so much. Undercover coverage in the dairy industry has exposed this time and again. The good news is that there are choices which free animals from body exploitation which are so emotionally painful for them and women can make those choices. Women need to commit themselves to standing by the pain of all mothers and sisters who provide us humans with meat, eggs or dairy and not buy into it. And since women are in charge of feeding their families, it is time for them to be aware that they can provide much better health for them with plant-based foods.

What about trafficking? Women and animals are both trafficked and put into slavery for perpetuity. The women’s movement is fighting this actively, supported by human rights groups and even governments. But who speaks up for animals in mainstream politics?

Trafficking is absolutely a parallel. Just like young women who are trafficked and enslaved in the sex industry by dominant patriarchy, animals are trafficked for their bodies too, again by the same dominant patriarchy. How can we not see the similarities? Live animal trafficking from certain countries to others, wildlife capture and trafficking trapped through deceit and cunning, transportation in captivity, and a horribly degraded life thereafter, all this happens to both animals and women. The women’s movement would do well to take cognisance of this. Life is life and suffering is universal, whether human or animal.  

Women are trying hard to empower themselves. But we ourselves are perpetuating a culture of disempowerment towards another disempowered group – animals. We women are the consumers and the consumed. Isn’t that ironic?

It is painful, because it comes out of lack of awareness. All groups of humans — men, women, feminists, non-feminists, need to put aside their human-centric arrogance and inform themselves about the lives of disempowered and helpless beings. We have men who are feminists and subscribe to the cause by speaking up for women as they do for animals. But there is an onus on women especially, because levels of oppression are similar, except for the only fact that they don’t get eaten. I repeat, women need to see these connections.  

How can women overthrow patriarchal hegemony even while using its symbols of oppression?

We can’t, we won’t. We have to change our thinking and bring this to our lives, practically. You have to change the system of power, deconstruct the evil that exists and all the suffering that it’s causing, because as long as there is going to be cruelty and domination, women are going to be victims along with cattle or chickens.

Rukmini Sekhar is a writer and activist.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 6:31:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/rukmini-sekhar-in-conversation-with-lisa-kemmerer-on-the-similarities-between-the-oppression-of-women-and-animals/article7382661.ece

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