Intersecting oppressions: perspectives from a Muslim vegan feminist
- Published: 11 April 2013
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11 April 2013
I was what could accurately be described as a ‘feminist’ long before I even knew what one was, certainly before I had even heard of the term. Growing up in the tail end of a family of seven children in 1980s Australia, I had, as a small child, what seemed like unlimited freedom. My Arab Muslim parents made very little, if any, differentiation between my younger brother and me.
I was a tomboy. While my older sisters were called in to scrub floors, wash dishes, and gut fish with my mother, I was sure to be found outdoors with my only younger sibling. If we weren’t climbing trees, we would be playing hide and seek on the rooftop of our primary school, engrossed in a game of backyard cricket, or doing back flips at the local swimming pool.
Gender did not come between us. Not in our early years. We were equals. The Sydney summers seemed endless. Life was good…until puberty hit. That’s when the illusion of equality was shattered.
I first noticed it at about the age of eleven. Whereas before, my brother and I would loiter around the playground hanging off the monkey bars until it started to get dark, my mother began demanding I come directly home after school. The pleas for permission to play a game of touch football with the neighbourhood kids (mostly boys) were treated with open-mouthed expressions of horror.
You want to play with the boys?
By the time I was twelve, I too was being saddled with chores. The chore I hated most, the one that had me seething with unspoken rage, was the task of making the bed of my younger brother.
No longer my equal.
That’s when I knew.
I knew that the gap between how my brothers were treated and how my sisters and I were treated was only going to grow, and that the reason was our girl bodies. I knew that my days of freedom were numbered. And I knew I wasn’t going to tolerate it.
I wasn’t the rebellious type, at least, not overtly. My rebellion took place entirely within my own mind: at the age of thirteen I determined that I wasn’t going to put up with this forever. I made up my mind that I would accept my parents control over my body only until I was old enough to legally take matters into my own hands. As soon as I turn eighteen, I vowed to myself, I’m outta here.
In many ways, I was a dutiful daughter. Because I never exhibited any outward signs of discontent, it would be an understatement to say that my parents were caught by surprise when, nineteen years old and unmarried, I left the house one morning and never came back. It certainly never occurred to them—it did not occur to me until decades later—that the signs of my rebelliousness were there. They had simply missed them. Had they been paying closer attention they would have seen me question patriarchal authority from as far back as the age of five.
For it was at this age that I began showing signs of a deep discomfort with the practice of eating meat.
A chicken with no name
It all started with a chicken. I am often saddened at the inability of many adults to recall just how much children view animals as equals. At the age of five, I was thrilled to wander in to the backyard one day and find a chicken scratching away in the garden. She seemed to come out of nowhere and I didn’t think to ask what she was doing there because there she was and that was good enough for me.. I quickly informed her she was my new best friend and immediately set about chasing her all over the yard. So it struck my five year old self as nothing short of tragic to see myself go, a few short days later, from trying to settle on a name for her to witnessing my father hold her fragile body in his big hands and, invoking the name of God, slice her little head clean off her neck. Yes, it’s true. Headless chickens really do run around like…headless chickens.
I was too shocked to scream. Instead, I fled to the garage, which had been her short-lived home, and lay there trembling for hours, curled amongst the straw and her stray feathers. My parents thought my devastation was sweet but entirely unnecessary. It never crossed their minds that I was grieving the loss of my best friend.
That was my first brush with what Carol Adams calls the patriarchal model of meat consumption. I didn’t know it then, but eating meat is, in its very nature, an expression of male power and control over the bodies of others. There is no denying this now. We are all, vegetarian and meat-eater alike, aware of how closely aligned eating meat is with the stereotypical notion of ‘masculinity’. I remember the Australian advertising campaigns of the 1980s urging housewives to ‘Feed the man meat!’
In the case of my doomed childhood pet, well just picture it: A helpless bird finds herself at the mercy of the power of the father—my father—who in turn looks to the heavenly father (although Muslims do not refer to God as ‘Father’, they do follow the familiar woman-man-God hierarchy), for permission and justification in the taking of the chicken’s life. Killing and eating animals is considered part of the natural order. This, of course, is the same order that places men above women. It is the same order that proscribes rigid gender roles to which we are expected to conform. Don’t you know that it’s different for girls?
I didn’t eat that chicken. And though I would like to say I never ate chicken, or any other dead animal, again, the dominant culture that sanctions meat as normal, natural and necessary is a tough force to defy, and, in time I forgot the pain.
My grief, however, reignited, a decade later when, as a fifteen year old, I witnessed a grainy home video of relatives in Syria slaughtering a sheep after a death in the family. The animal sacrifice is a long-standing religious tradition, with the meat to be distributed amongst the poor. I, however, couldn’t reconcile the blood rushing from the animal’s limp body with the concept of ‘charity’. The life draining from the sheep synchronised with the innocence draining from my soul. This is when I announced my intention to go vegetarian for the first time, a declaration that was met with a mixture of amusement and horror by my Muslim parents.
But God made animals for us to eat!
Vegetarianism, whilst not exactly unheard of, is certainly rare in a religion that sanctions meat as halal—permissible—provided it comes from the ‘right’ animal (that is, not pork, but more on that later). My decision to turn against the practice of meat eating came two years after my silent resolve to leave my religion soon as I came of age.
Was this a co-incidence? At that stage, I thought so. I had no way of making the connection. I didn’t think I was being a ‘feminist’ by refusing to accept my place in the natural order of things. I only knew I wanted to be free. And I thought that not wanting to eat meat had nothing to do with my resolve to live an autonomous life. Now I can appreciate that what I was rebelling against, both on my own behalf and that of animals, was that it is acceptable and natural for some to control and dominate others.
The process was made somewhat easier due to my rather major problem with pork. It’s hard to convey how deep the aversion is that Muslims have to pork. The Muslim World League Journal says:
The pig is naturally lazy and indulgent in sex, it is dirty, greedy and gluttonous. It dislikes sunlight and lacks the spirit and will to "fight." It eats almost anything, be it human excreta or anything foul…you may feed the pig on clean, wholesome food, but you can't change its nature. It is still a pig and will always stay so.
Yes, that’s right, the aversion runs so deep, is so visceral, that not only is the flesh regarded as contaminated but even the character of the pig becomes a potential moral contagion to humans.
This aversion was instilled into me as a child. In our childhood games, if we truly wanted to hurt each other, it wasn’t with sticks or stones, or slaps or punches. We would simply call each other the worst slur we could think of: Pig!
Given the taboo instilled from earliest childhood, I knew there was no way I could overcome my aversion to any form of pig meat. At the same time, I knew that eating other animals whilst abstaining from pork, even in the absence of religious belief, didn’t make sense. As much as pork is forbidden and reviled in Islamic culture, it is sanctioned and embraced in the Western culture I so desperately wanted to be a part of.
I didn’t realise at the time that my dilemma cut to the heart of the dominant order that Carol Adams spends much of The Sexual Politics of Meat critiquing. My internal conflict with what Adams terms my ‘personal taboos’, overtly questioned the arbitrary relationship humans have with animals. I couldn’t answer that eternal question: Why is it natural to eat some animals and not others?
Recognising myself as victim and oppressor
And so I had two equally important threads running throughout my life. My feminism and vegetarianism were each important to me in their own way, but I saw them as unrelated aspects of myself. The process towards reconciliation of these two vital parts of me began when I made the transition from vegetarian to vegan more than a year ago. This time the catalyst was witnessing some particularly graphic footage of the slaughtering of cattle that had been exported from Australia to Indonesia.
Australia has a thriving live animal export industry. Every year four million sheep and cattle are sent on long, perilous trips to (mainly Muslim) markets as close as Indonesia and as far as Egypt and Turkey. Many do not survive the journey. In 2011, animal advocacy group Animals Australia conducted an undercover investigation into the Indonesian market. What they found led campaign director Lyn White to declare she believed they had shot enough material within the first five minutes to shut the industry down for good.
The large animals died a slow, torturous death in chronically ill-staffed and ill-equipped abattoirs. Many of them suffered up to twenty minutes of torture: having their tails broken, their tendons slashed, fingers poked in their eyes, feet kicking them in the head, and water hoses sprayed directly up their nostrils. Still the end wouldn’t come; all this was followed by clumsily repeated jabs to the throat with dull knives.
Every step of the way, these gentle creatures never stopped fighting. They shook in fear as they witnessed others being cut up in front of their eyes. They bellowed in protest. They resisted. They tried to escape. They wanted to live.
The animals suffered mentally as well as physically; there is no doubt about that. One of the doomed steers (posthumously named ‘Tommy’ by Animals Australia) can clearly be seen shaking, his heart beating almost out of his chest as he witnessed another steer killed and dismembered before his eyes. He knew he was next.
However, I do not believe blaming Muslim culture itself addresses the real issue of why these animals suffered so greatly. Such shocking treatment of farmed animals is not something peculiar to Indonesia or Islam but is an example of the impossibility of meeting even the most basic welfare guidelines when animals are treated as things rather than beings. A recent New South Wales government review found breaches in all ten of that state’s abattoirs that process red meat. When 100 percent of abattoirs cannot meet welfare standards, one could argue that animal cruelty is less an aberration in the industry and more of a business model.
The problem is systematic and endemic. When the goal is to kill as many animals in as short a time as possible -which is the goal wherever animals are killed commercially- then there is little room for concern for that animal’s welfare. By blaming Islam itself, Australians were saved the trouble of seeing themselves reflected in that footage. Suddenly, ‘stunning’ became the hallmark of humane treatment of animals. We stun and they don’t. We eat animals the ‘right’ way. We are good. They are bad. They don’t deserve our cows.
I, however, did see myself in that footage. I saw the self that, despite not having eaten meat for well over a decade, still provided meat to my crew on my film school sets. I saw the self that occasionally ate eggs and cheese all the while silencing the voice in my head telling me that animals suffer for these too. And I saw the self that once felt as trapped as those cows and yearned to be free. I saw myself in the slaughtermen and I saw myself in the cows.
I resolved never to be associated with animal abuse and exploitation ever again. I had been toying with the idea of phasing all animal products from my diet since reading about the routine forced separation of cows and their baby calves in the dairy industry, but this video turned me into a practicing vegan literally overnight.
The sexual politics of meat
And yet, I made the transition to veganism based on my empathy with the cattle, not quite realising the link between patriarchy and animal exploitation. I still thought of these as different issues. It was thus with a heavy heart that I picked up The Sexual Politics of Meat a few weeks later. I was feeling as though my feminism were burnt out. More accurately, I felt it had been snuffed out by my sudden, all-consuming passion for animal justice.
As a writer I had focused primarily on overtly feminist issues including gender representation in popular culture, the treatment of women in the Arab world, and the virgin-whore dichotomy. Despite having been a vegetarian for the whole of my adulthood, I managed to convince myself that animal rights is a ‘lesser’ issue, one that we could get to after we had solved all the problems plaguing humanity. Why waste time trying to get people to care about the suffering of other species when so many barely seemed moved by the suffering of our own?
Witnessing the futile struggle of those doomed cows on video, and the look of utter confusion on their faces, I realised how wrong I was. I knew I would never be able to view the world the same way again. I was aghast that, unlike women’s oppression, animal abuse was something in which almost all of us are complicit. I wanted—needed—to spread the word of animal advocacy, but I feared this would have to come at the expense of my feminism. After all, animal rights and women’s rights had to compete for space in the public consciousness. Moreover, given the shock tactics of groups like PETA who aren’t averse to exploiting the female body in order to sell their animal rights message, the two are not only unrelated but even adversarial, right?
It was in an effort to answer this question that I turned to The Sexual Politics of Meat.
Eating animals acts as mirror and representation of patriarchal values. …If meat is a symbol of male dominance then the presence of meat proclaims the disempowering of women.
And there it was. The link between my feminism and my vegetarianism. The reason meat made me uncomfortable as a child was because it was a reminder of my own powerlessness. Much like women, animals suffer because they are treated as commodities. Relegated to the status of objects, their own desires are irrelevant. They simply exist to be used and abused. This is not specific to one culture or religion, it is a global, structural problem that stems from the belief that the powerful have the right to dominate the weak.
Feminists who eat meat may be fighting for their own liberation, but as long as they participate in animal exploitation—Feed the man meat!—they are propping up the very system they are fighting against.
My early rejection of patriarchal authority and my repeated attempts at living a meat-free life were indeed related. I was rejecting control over both my body and the bodies of animals who I have always identified with. I am a feminist and a vegan because I am opposed to all oppression, to all violence, to all discrimination. I am opposed to the so-called ‘natural order’ that regards perceived inferiority as permission to deny basic rights.
It was not so long ago that women and blacks were deemed soulless and said to lack sufficient intellect to deserve autonomy. Baby animals continue to be taken away from their mothers with the same reassurances given when black women in America and indigenous women in Australia suffered the same abuse. They don’t love them like us. They won’t remember them like us. They are not us.
But, indeed, they are like us. I knew that as a five year old when I shed tears over a hen who died before I could even give her a name. This revelation has permeated my work in which I urge my fellow feminists not to ignore the links between feminism and veganism.
We must examine our own human privilege the way we examine male privilege and race privilege and class privilege. As women, we should see ourselves reflected in the suffering of animals, because as Adams reminds us, we are the ones who ‘have been swallowed and we are the swallowers. We are the consumers and the consumed.’
It’s not just my professional life that has been altered. My personal life appears to have come almost full circle. Leaving my family gave me the freedom to adopt my vegetarian lifestyle. Reconciling with my mother well over a decade later, I finally came to understand why I became a vegetarian in the first place, why I have always identified with animals.
As vegan feminists, our best weapons in our fight for a fairer world are ourselves. I once thought the differences between myself and my family were insurmountable, that we would never be part of each other’s lives again. But time and grief can make even the most significant differences seem negligible. When my brother died without warning, I found myself nursing my mother through an unbearable loss. The proverbial Prodigal Daughter, I became part of the family again, but this time on my own terms, and to her credit, not once has my mother tried to change me.
My family still bonds over food. I have been fortunate enough to attend many of these recent gatherings. The intrinsic distress I feel when witnessing people eating meat aside, I enjoy them in a way I never did as a child, the way you enjoy doing something because you want to, not because you have to. Nowadays, amongst all the meat there is sure to be at least one vegan dish served in my honour, a respect for my choice that I didn’t get as a teenager.
A few weeks ago, we were at the home of my oldest, very traditional brother. The whole family was there; my mother, my siblings, their partners and their children. I cast my eyes over the dinner table; there were at least three types of salad and two types of Kibbeh.
And then it struck me. Out of all of these dishes that my meat-eating sister-in-law had painstakingly prepared, only one of them contained meat. The rest were entirely vegan. A small symbol, a tiny step, but one that gives me hope that my life’s work may not be in vain.
This is an edited excerpt from Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat. Edited by Kara Davis and Wendy Lee, with a foreword by Carol J. Adams. Published March 2013 by Lantern Books. Reprinted with permission.
Ruby Hamad is a Sydney-based writer. She has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, ABC Unleashed, Crikey, and New Matilda. Her passion is pursuing social justice, including justice for the most vulnerable amongst us, non-human animals. She has a somewhat neglected blog, which she keeps meaning to attend to, and a twitter feed.
Image: Ruby Hamad at Edgar's Mission farmed animal sanctuary.