Ruby Hamad – HALAL: Perspectives on intersecting oppressions from a Muslim Vegan Feminist

Full video with closed captioning available here

The title of my talk is Halal. It is, as you may know, an Islamic term or Arab term for what is permissible or allowed.

permissible

With that in mind, I just want to say that what this talk is not about religion or about Islamic standards of slaughter, etc. It is more of a cultural sort of analysis of what Halal means. With that, I will get started.

Later in this year April, I will be hosting an event at the Newcastle Writers Festival in Australia and it is titled “Why aren’t we there yet?” In this panel discussion I am, along with some of Australia’s most prominent feminists, will be talking about why gender equality seems to have reached a plateau. There is no denying that Western women have come a long way, however, figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we have some missing figures but I will read them out, reveal one in five Australian women will experience sexual violence at some stage in their lives and also, women in full-time employment receive, on average 17.5% less than males in full-time employment in Australia.

cabinet

Gender inequality in Australia is also evident in the makeup — gender and equality have been in the makeup of Australia’s government. So this is the our cabinet, which is the term for the ministry. Out of 19 cabinet members or senior politicians, in our government, only one is a woman. These are Australian figures but research will show similar figures in other Western countries. From this and other issues, clearly, as the newly crowned queen of feminism, Beyonce said, gender equality is a mess.

So, what is going wrong? Why aren’t we there yet? And why do we seem to — instead of going further, we’re going backwards, continually dealing with backlash after backlash. I think the uncomfortable truth is that feminism is undergoing something of an identity crisis and we seem to have stalled and hit a wall, we’re turning inwards more and more. We are — on social media and our blogs, about whether popstars like Beyonce and Miley Cyrus are real feminists or victims or even agents of patriarchy. You have things like feminists of colour such as myself continually dismayed at the willingness of white, mainstream white feminism to ignore our voices. Which of course is evident in the solidarity is for white women hashtag on Twitter last year.

My argument that I’ll explore today is Australian feminism has stalled and cannot go any further because it has not come to terms with intersectionality, all the ways in which various forms of oppression crossover. The problem is intersectionality, one of the problems, is discussed in feminist media and in social justice media as intersection of race, color, sexual orientation sexual orientation, class , but one vital equation that is almost always left out is the role of animal exploitation. As long ago as 1992, Bikini Kill singer and punk rock icon Kathleen Hanna sang “eat meat, hate blacks, beat your fucking wife, it’s all the same thing”. So while she’s recently said that if she wrote those lyrics today, she would change the last line to “they are all connected”, which she says is a smarter way to talk about intersectionality, but the sentiment remains the same.

Because all of these, and other forms of oppression, are connected, fighting against just one or some of them is never going to make the underlying problem go away. When it comes to animals, apart from the small but growing community of vegan feminists combining animal activism along with other forms of social justice activism, ignores the links of exploitation and women and other human oppression. sowWhat are these links? Well there’s the obvious, that vegan feminists often point to and that’s the exploitation of the reproductive capacities evidenced in animal agriculture.

We have the battery hens, the gestation crates or sow stalls, but especially in the dairy industry where cows are artificially inseminated in contraptions that the workers themselves call the ‘rape racks’.

rrBut when we confront nonvegan feminists with these examples, they’ll usually respond with “but those are just animals”, thereby implying that it’s not actually oppression itself that’s a problem, but merely who is being oppressed.

But of course the key to ending oppression lies not in the worthiness of the victim, but in changing the mindset of the oppressor. Animal abuse and women’s oppression or discrimination or objectification, whatever we call it, happens because our mindset permits us to accept abuse and exploitation in certain circumstances, simply by denying to others rights that we take for granted. So men, for example, will take for granted their right to walk down the street or have a few drinks at a party without getting sexually assaulted. But when a woman engages in those very same activities, they’re actually used to justify her assault, because she’s a woman. When it comes to animals, the rights humans take for granted, which is not to be enslaved or killed for the financial purposes of others, are denied to animals for the simple fact that they are animals. Now I know that this happens to humans too, but it’s generally considered not a good thing.

And so what we end up with is a world that claims to hate assault, abuse, exploitation and oppression even as it accepts it in certain circumstances depending in who the victim is. The problem with this is when you accept oppression in one context you leave the door open for it to be accepted in others. And as long as mainstream feminism ignores animals, it will never tackle this root of oppression, which is the existence of this oppressive mindset based on exclusion, which places some lives above others.

Sadly, the same thing goes for animal activism. Depsite having more women amongst its ranks, the vegan and animal rights movement is sexist. So, groups such as People for the ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA), and I’ve chosen one of their most mild campaigns here but it’s still extremely objectifying, with a naked woman and a fully dressed man who you can’t even really see.peta

So it’s all about centering the woman’s naked body. Groups such as PeTA and more recently, 269Life, which is the Israeli-based animal rights organization that has sort of come out of nowhere in the last 2 years and really become very prominent. They use violent and sexualized imagery of woman to sell their animal rights message. So that’s 269Life as well. 269

Not only that, but there is also a glass ceiling in the animal rights movement with most leadership management positions held by men even though they are a minority. Animal activists are buying into this dominant culture that still regards men as leaders and women as ornaments so in the animal rights movement we have the sad state that women make up 80% of the movement, but are largely relegated to stripping off their clothes to get attention. To recap, feminists who ignore animals and animal activists who ignore sexism are self-defeating. They’re never going to get further than, pretty much where they are, because they overlook the fact that the mindset that causes both sexism and animal exploitation is one and the same.

How do we compel feminists and vegans, or animal activists, to make the connection? This is where I’ll get personal to to illustrate my journey and how I came to see the connections. Last year I was proud to contribute to this anthology put out by Lantern Books, Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and the Sexual Politics of Meat.dd
So as this suggests, its a collection of personal essays by women writers who had made this connection, helped along my Carol Adams’ book the Sexual Politics of Meat. In my essay, also called “Halal”, which refers to the Islamic concept of what is permissible and is usually used in reference to food, I discuss what I thought were two separate threads of my life as I was growing up and that is my budding feminism and my slow onset vegetarianism. I call it slow onset because, although my discomfort with eating meat began at the age of five, I did not actually eliminate meat from my diet until the age of 19.

To make a long story short, basically the reason for this was whenever I brought the issue of animals and why I eat them up with my parents, they’d just respond with, god made animals for us to eat so to eat animals, some animals, of course not all, was Halal or permissible. Even as a small child I had my doubts about this. Although as many of you may appreciate, we do live in a culture that has sanctioned meat as normal, natural, necessary and not only encourages us to consume animal products but actually makes us feel like there is something wrong with us if we don’t. To backtrack again, when I was five, I freaked out basically when I witnessed my father slaughtering, what I had thought was my pet chicken out in the backyard. I was horrified and my parents finally came into the garage where I was hiding and thought my distress was very sweet but was also a little bit funny and amusing, and they quickly told me my tears were unnecessary. That the chicken had been created by God in order to provide us with food and nourishment and therefore its slaughter was permitted, or Halal.

A similar story occurred ten years later when I was horrified to see a video of the ritual sheep slaughter in Syria and my parents thought I was grossly overreacting when I announced my decision based on that video to go vegetarian. My parents are not a unnaturally cruel people but so firm is their attachment to concept of Halal that it completely prevented them from feeling empathy with the sheep. Because its flesh was ordained as permissible, there was just no need to consider the situation from the sheep’s point of view, which was what I was doing and it was considered to be quite strange.

I tried and failed at vegetarianism many times and over the next few years, mostly because my parents were dead set against it and made it quite tough for me. I finally succeeded at eliminating meat from my diet shortly after I left home when I was 19. Left to my own devices, meat just disappeared from my menu and was no longer an option for me. That is how my vegetarianism came about and the other thread running through my early life was my feminism.

I do recognize with the benefit of hindsight that I have feminist leanings from a very young age so growing up as a Alawite Muslim – Alawite is a small offshoot of Shi’a Islam – so growing up as an Alawite Muslim in Australia was a struggle between wanting to please my parents and also desiring my own freedom. My parents, who’d recently arrived from Lebanon, as we got older became harder on my sisters and me than they were on my brothers, who had a much, much longer leash to explore their adolescence. It was really devastating for me when I was 11, which was when my up to that point happy and carefree childhood came to be reined in. Even as my younger brother maintained his freedom I was forced to start staying home unless I was at school, my parents started to become stricter with my clothing and would no longer let me talk to people I had grown up with. Very strange, and I realized that my status as a girl growing into a woman was making it permissible for my parents to restrict my freedom. By the age of 13, I vowed silently I would not tolerate it forever and would leave home as soon as I turned 18. If you asked me back then was I a feminist, I would have answered “what is that?” and added well, “I just wanted to be free”.

Ultimately, isn’t that what all social justice movements are about? Freedom, the right not to be controlled dominated or oppressed by others. How can we as feminists, under the assumption that the whole feminist community are not vegan or vegetarian, how can we as feminists demand freedom for ourselves when we deny it to others and still claim to be on the side of justice? When we, humans, eat animals and wear animal products we don’t think of it as a deprivation of freedom we call it a natural and normal and we point to the so-called food chain that’s a hierarchy that arbitrarily places some species above others. We claim our place at the top of the food chain insisting it gives us permission to eat and exploit other animals. We also assign those towards the top of the chain greater moral value which is what permits our outrage at the hunting of lions, and sharks and whales even as we consume cows, pigs and chickens in the billions. So it’s all an illusion.

We basically built this hierarchy that’s based on nothing but our own prejudices. And feminists, mainstream feminists, are buying into these false hierarchies and that is what makes it permissible to oppress or discriminate against groups or individuals based upon nothing more than their place in the false hierarchy that we ourselves have created. This hierarchy was shown to me as a child, others placed firmly above me and my sisters, and even at a young age I disagreed that there existed this natural order that we’re all supposed to subscribe to that placed men above women and, in turn, all of us above the animal. Now, I know I have been simplistic with this hierarchy. I know when you’re talking about intersecting oppression it is not a clearly delineated a hierarchy, but for the purposes of argument I’m doing a simple animal, women, followed by men.1238805_10152068372728108_2108738801_n

I remained a vegetarian until about three years ago when I finally became a vegan, which is its own story, which I won’t go into, but it was pretty much only then and also in thinking about writing my essay “Halal” that it kind of all started to click and I started to see the connection between the two as I was growing up that these were not really two distinct issues. I was questioning my role as a girl at the same time I was questioning the role of animals in our lives. I was thinking they told me it was natural to eat animals and then they told me it was natural to be subservient to men so I think what was happening was I was turned off by meat because I saw it as a symbol of my own powerlessness that animals were to humans the way way women were to men. From a very young age I was taught the bodies of animals were not their own, just as my female body that I was expected to preserve as purity for my future husband was not really my own.

I became a vegetarian within weeks of leaving home so why was it so easy than it had previously been so hard? It was because when I removed myself from the culture that demanded my subservience, I was able to look more critically at that wider culture that strips animals of their freedom and their lives. This of course is by no means limited to Alawite Muslim cultures, that is just my own story. In the West, women’s behaviour is also restricted simply because they are women and to go back to the start of my presentation it is considered permissible to pay women less than men, to blame them for their and sexual assault, to deny them positions in leadership and government based purely on their status as women. The idea women existed to be consumed not literally but as sexual objects, just the same as animals exist for us to eat, it is still pervasive Western society. The bodies of women are used to sell everything from cars to meat, and ironically, animal rights. As Carol Adams outlines in the Sexual Politics of Meat, women are animalized and animals are sexualized and feminized in order to justify the status of both as consumable commodities.

I’ll go through a few slides now and I am sure you are familiar with a lot of these or ones that are similar, but just to refresh your memory. These slides really do indicate the way that women and animals are conflated into one. That issues are not two distinct things, it is intersecting oppression because the animals and the women are objectified in order to justify or permit their oppression. In this particular case, you have the burger with the legs of a woman and, in this next one, which is a recent Australian one, just melds them into one all together. So it’s just the backside of the woman, the woman’s buns, literally becoming the buns of the burger. There is a big outcry over this ad last year here in Australia and it was cool because it was feminist complaint. Sadly, however, they really miss, feminism missed the opportunities to see this as an intersection. They were mostly angry that women were relegated to the status of a piece of meat without actually thinking about what puts this into play and what makes a permissible for women to be treated this way.

sntWe have this one, “Welcome to Schnitz n’ Tits Friday night in the city.” This also happened last year, with 2 pubs in Melbourne fighting over the right to the name tits. Where you could go in and patrons could enjoy a chicken schnitzel and a side of waitresses wearing as little as the law would allow in a food service establishment. I think what ended up happening was that one called it schnitz n’ tits and the other one called it the tits and schnitz. So there you go.

lunch

Another example, this is a flyer that I found for a men’s gallery or a strip club where a woman is basically lunch and this is the flipside where you can see the steak and the woman’s body just melt into one, and they are one and the same for all intents and purposes. Not surprisingly, this is going to affect how women see themselves as well and so this is a meme I found on Facebook. meme
I don’t know who did it. It’s obviously a woman because when you read it, it says “you wouldn’t order a steak if it was nothing but bone so why would you want a woman that way? I’m curvy, beautiful and proud to be me.” Even this, created by a woman, treats a woman as if, like an animal, we’re here for the benefit of men.

With that in mind, let’s revisit some of the campaigns from PeTA and 269Life. peta 2
In this one, the model is shackled, beaten, and abused, supposedly as a reference to elephants. In a world where women still are shackled and beaten and abused on a regular basis, I think the intent of this falls flat because it is not so far-fetched for us to think of women in this way because it’s also happening. To me, I think that just reinforces the inferior status of women rather than does anything to fight the status of animals. And 269Life, which is an organization I’ll go on record saying I disliking intensely, I think I think goes a step further and goes into, from sexism to full-blown misogyny. 269 2In this one, it says “one fur hat, two spoiled bitches.” From 269life’s advertisments and Facebook pictures, you would think that women themselves were solely responsible for the exploitation of animals. If you look at this picture from their Facebook page as well, we have the just position of a very male, masculine figure with a headline “passion before fashion” who’s rescuing, saving the animals from the woman who, the shallow woman, wants to wear them.

Just to recap: If animal exploitation and women’s oppression are two sides of the same coin, which I believe they are, then it stands to reason that so too are feminism and veganism. Together they can tackle the root of oppression which is the so-called natural order that regards perceived, not actual but perceived, inferiority as permission to deny basic rights. As long as the animal rights community sexualizes and is misogynistic towards women as this very picture indicates, just in order to appeal to a wider society, that remember has no respect for women or animals pretty much, it actually propagates this oppressive mindset that regards women’s, animal as well as women’s, bodies as commodities for consumption. Likewise, feminism cannot afford to ignore the link between animal and human oppression.

To this end, I will continue to reach out to nonvegan feminists, because I honestly believe feminism is not only will it not go further but is going to start going even more backwards until we can get more and more nonvegan feminists on board with why animal rights is so important. Not just for animals, but for women and for the world as a whole. Because feminists who eat meat may be fighting for their own liberation but as long as they participate in animal exploitation they are actually propping up the very system they are fighting against.

That is it for me for now.
Thank you.

“I’m wondering how you balance the fine line between speaking about Halal practices as a Muslim woman with a critical speciesism critique … speaking and not providing fodder for the Islamaphobic culture that is prevalent?”
That is a fine line which is why I started this talk saying this is not a discussion about Islamic practice or not even really a discussion about religion itself as more of a cultural sort of analysis or anything. Now, I did not have time to discuss it today but, but in my actual essay, in the book “Defiant Daughters”, I do go into a little bit of discussion, a little bit of detail into what Halal actually is versus how it is practiced today. When you look at it, the conditions of Halal slaughter is actually very, very strict in Islam and they were actually designed to minimize animal distress. So there is a growing movement in Islam itself of more vegetarian and vegan even Muslims, and some Muslims who eat meat but still see the problems with how animals are treated in the name of Islam and it does not correspond with what the Koran says. This is an issue I have written about again just recently that Islam actually does have a tradition of respect towards animals and animal welfare which is largely forgotten today and what I would say is the reason it’s largely forgotten is the same reason that animals are mistreated in every other country and that is that commercial interests come first. To answer that question I do like to make that distinction between what people who call themselves or identify as Muslims and how they interpret their religion versus to what the text says. I am not criticizing by any means the religion itself nor do I mean to say there is anything intrinsically worse in how Muslims treat animals because I don’t think it is. So I was just coming from a personal background.

Full video with closed captioning available here

Ruby Hamad is an Australian writer focusing on feminism, intersectionality, race, and politics. She is a frequent contributor to popular Australian online news sites Daily Life and ABC Unleashed. With a particular passion for the intersection of feminism and animal rights, she was also an associate editor for The Scavenger, an online portal of news, commentary, and feature stories with a social justice bent. Ruby is also a contributor to the anthology Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat.

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